Fueling an Epidemic:

You might think it was a sizable oversight that President Bush released his 163-page energy plan for America without including a single provision that would tackle skyrocketing energy prices in the short term. But Bush was way ahead of us on that. At a news conference just before he released his energy plan, he pronounced, "The best way to make sure that people are able to deal with high energy prices is to cut taxes, is to get people more of their own money so they can meet the bills, so they can meet the high energy prices." Bush hasn't even tried to pretend his tax cut will alleviate the myriad health problems his energy plan could cause, especially in low-income communities.

As gas prices rocket towards $3 a gallon, Bush's tax cut may help defray the costs of gas for those Americans still shopping for the guzzlingest new SUVs. But despite Bush's attempts to pretend otherwise, the low-income people who are feeling the burn of higher energy prices get bupkus from his tax cut. The average family living under the poverty line spends 15 percent of its income on energy costs. Yet the tax cut the Senate Finance Committee just passed would give about $64 to families in the lowest 20 percent of the income scale. That's 0.8 percent of the total tax cut. And that figure is based on the most equitable bill being considered. The House bill and Bush's original tax proposal skew cuts even further towards the super-rich.

Though the New York Times editorial page concludes that the Bush plan provides no evidence that there is a real energy crisis, soaring energy costs can certainly precipitate crises for individual low-income families.

Citing a study that found that children from the poorest families often suffer from malnutrition during the coldest months, the Children's Defense Fund's Deborah Weinstein argues that high energy costs could lead to the "heat or eat" phenomenon. "In the winter, parents were forced [to make] this terrible choice," she says. "They knew if they didn't pay for their heat their child might become ill or die overnight." But if they heated their home, they couldn't afford to feed their children properly. Though the Bush Administration claims to be increasing funding for the Low Income Home Assistance Program that helps the poor pay for heat, the funding it has proposed is actually less than this year's spending. And neither figure is enough.

Already, rising gas prices and a sagging economy have caused some economists to fear stagflation -- in which prices rise, but the economy stagnates. Oil and gas companies don't harbor any fears, however. As prices have marched upward, they've reaped astronomical earnings. This month, for example, Phillips Petroleum Co. reported that its first quarter earnings increased 86 percent, and the Denver-based Key Production Co.'s rose 218 percent. ExxonMobil Corp.'s profits jumped 44 percent from last year, and Royal Dutch/Shell Group's rose 23 percent, according to press reports.

It's a well reported fact that Bush and Vice President Cheney both ran oil companies, that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was on the board of directors of Chevron, and that Secretary of Commerce Don Evans was chairman of a big oil and gas company. But Bush's nominees for sub-cabinet-level positions further include a lobbyist for the mining and oil industries, vice president of a power company, an economist for ExxonMobil, and an oil, gas, and mining lawyer. With the Bush Administration filled with friends of energy companies, you'd think that the president could use that advantage to turn up the heat on companies raking in the profits while Americans suffer blackouts, squeezed bank accounts, and threats of an economic nosedive. Instead, it appears, the Powerpuff Girls and Boys are drubbing the poorest of the poor to benefit their friends.

Bush's refusal to act on high energy prices is far from the worst of it. His report argues that the United States needs to build 1,300 to 1,900 new electric plants over the next 20 years. It has been well documented that decision makers tend to site power plants in low-income communities, where residents are less able to put up a fight. And if the Bush administration plans to buck the trend with the new plants it's pushing, it doesn't say so in the report. The number of plants alone is "staggering" according to one environmental law professor.

Their effects will fuel an already-ballooning epidemic. Existing power plants pump pollution into the air that contributes to high rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. And the effects are strongest among the poor.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of asthma shot up 75 percent between 1980 and 1994 -- and 160 percent among children who are under four years old. Hospital visits due to asthma increased by one fifth. The statistics are worse for poor children and children of color, in part because power plants and oil refineries often operate in their neighborhoods.

Bush may say he prioritizes education, but asthma is the number one cause of school absenteeism according to the Pew Environmental Health Commission. Likewise, air pollution leads to learning disabilities and hyperactivity -- which also contribute strongly to low-income children being left behind.

But the plan doesn't only suggest building new pollution-generating power plants. It also proposes relaxing environmental restrictions so that existing coal-fired power plants and oil refineries can expand without having to buy up-to-date antipollution equipment. As Earth Justice's Nathalie Walker argues, "The majority of these facilities are out of compliance" already, and this directive to fast-track the approval process for expansions will allow filthy oil refineries to continue to poison the low-income communities around them without regard for the law or human health. Residents living near oil refineries already suffer headaches, nosebleeds, and foul odor, says Walker. And the refineries' pollutants put them at higher risk for respiratory ailments and cancer.

Finally, Bush's report asks the Justice Department to review pending Clinton Administration law suits against energy companies for lack of compliance with environmental regulations -- and to drop the cases if they can. The message is clear: Energy companies can pollute at will. This administration won't get in the way of ill-gotten profits.

This plan is undoubtedly bad for us all -- threatening air and water quality of even the administration and its oil industry friends. But it will be fairly easy for Bush and Cheney to avoid seeing the worst of what they've wrought. They can just steer their motorcades clear of low-income neighborhoods.