The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: A Harvard study tying coronavirus death rates to pollution is causing an uproar in Washington

with Paulina Firozi

An early study from Harvard University linking dirty air to the worst coronavirus outcomes has quickly become a political football in Washington.

Presidential candidates, agency regulators, oil lobbyists and members of Congress from both parties are using the preliminary research to advance their own political priorities — well before it has a chance to be peer-reviewed.

The stakes are high because the study’s tentative findings could prove enormously consequential for both the pandemic's impact and the global debate over curbing air pollution. The researchers found that pollution emanating from everything from industrial smokestacks to household chimneys is making the worst pandemic in a century even more deadly. 

The research, and the ensuing criticism, highlights how fraught it has become to conduct science during a health crisis. 

Democrats and the Harvard researchers have argued that the findings – which showed coronavirus patients living in counties with higher levels of air pollution were more likely to die from the respiratory disease – should help convince the Trump administration to cut down air pollution and stop rolling back environmental regulations. 

Yet Trump officials and industry allies are emphasizing the data about covid-19 is too raw and the Harvard model is too rickety for the government to make drastic changes to its environmental policy. 

“This is not a model that is ready for prime time,” said Louis Anthony “Tony” Cox, a consultant and member of the Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board, a group that advises the agency on the science underpinning regulation.

Yet Paul Billings, a senior vice president at the American Lung Association, says the heat the study is getting is just “part of a larger running attempt [by polluting industries] to discredit” science. 

In the middle of the tussle is Francesca Dominici, a biostatistics professor, and her team at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Given the rapid spread of the virus, she said, it only made sense to get out her findings as soon as possible “so then places that were highly contaminated and breathing high pollution levels could be prepared.” The debate in Washington around her work “has been really interesting and kind of puzzling,” Dominici said. 

Critics of President Trump's environmental policies have championed the study since it went online. 

Billionaire and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg said the Harvard study was another reason it didn’t make sense for the Trump administration to roll back pollution rules for cars and coal plants with “a highly contagious lung disease raging.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this. And we must not accept it,” Bloomberg, who ran for president and has promised to spend millions to make sure Trump is not reelected, wrote in an op-ed this week with former EPA chief Gina McCarthy. 

And after Trump's EPA last month decided not to set stricter national air quality standards for soot, the pollutant Dominici and her team had studied, a group of 18 Senate Democrats cited the Harvard research in a letter to administrator Andrew Wheeler. They demanded to know: “How will this link between air quality and COVID-19 patient outcomes impact future EPA decision-making?”

And Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has since reshaped his environmental message around the virus’s disproportionate impact on African Americans, a group long known to have more exposure to polluted air.

“Covid is shining a bright light on the structural racism that plagues our laws, our institutions and our culture,” the former vice president told donors at an online fundraiser last month.

Just as quickly, Republicans warned against jumping to conclusions that may result in tighter regulations. 

Wheeler cautioned in an interview with The Post last month that it is “premature to put too much weight on a study that hasn't been finalized or peer reviewed yet.”

Wheeler and his counterparts at the Department of Health and Human Services are under pressure from at least one Republican member of Congress to start a formal federal review of the study.

“My interest is in ensuring that policymakers are not rushed into ill-considered decisions,” said Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, an anesthesiologist and former military doctor who wrote a letter Friday to the two agencies to examine the study and report their conclusions to Congress.

An EPA representative said it is reviewing the request and reiterated Wheeler’s point. “Drawing conclusions from a study without peer review and with insufficient data is irresponsible and paints a distorted scientific picture,” the agency said in a statement.

Critics are already trying to poke holes in the quickly-evolving research. 

They're especially concerned about a revision that the Harvard team made toward the end of April, weeks after the study was first introduced. After adding new coronavirus data and making other tweaks to their model, the team found a weaker association between covid-19 deaths and long-term soot exposure than initially thought.

Instead of linking an increase in exposure of one microgram per cubic meter to a 15 percent greater likelihood of dying of covid-19, the team said instead it is associated with an 8 percent increase in mortality.

“So this, from our perspective, suggests that there is some kind of fragility associated with the overall study results,” said Uni Blake, a public health toxicologist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas lobbying group in Washington, which last week sent a letter to the EPA outlining its concerns with the study.

Cox, the EPA adviser, takes issue with the study's methodology, saying the Harvard team should have used both better data on population density and a more robust mathematical model that better controlled for potential errors to come to its conclusions.

“This is bad science dressed up as policy-relevant science,” said Cox, who has been critical of air quality research used by the EPA under previous administrations to set pollution rules.

Cox was among several advisers with more conservative views added by Scott Pruitt, Trump's first EPA chief, to the Scientific Advisory Board.

The criticism of the Harvard study comes as the agency has convened that board to provide “rapid advice” on the science of covid-19. The group held its first meeting Thursday and will conduct a public teleconference call on May 20. 

The Harvard team has defended its work despite the criticism.

Dominici acknowledged that her study has limitations and that more research using other data, including individuals' health histories, is needed. But she said it is normal to update preliminary results, especially on an evolving threat, and that they are still statistically significant even after the revisions.

“It is my responsibility as a public health profession to communicate the science as the science evolves,” she said.

And she agreed that pollution regulation should be set based on more than a single piece of research. “Our study is one study,” she said. “I don't think that major policy decisions should be made based on our study.” 

But she noted other research teams around the world are coming to similar conclusions about the threat dirty air poses during the pandemic. And when it comes to soot pollution specifically, she added, there is already robust evidence that fine particles can embed in the body and trigger asthma, heart attacks and other illnesses.

“Big policy regulation should be guided by consensus evidence,” Dominici said, and the consensus evidence is out there in terms of how harmful” soot is.

Coronavirus fallout

This California city was ready to pass an ambitious energy policy before a protest threat. 

San Luis Obispo was set to pass an ambitious climate change plan that would urge the development of all electric buildings that don’t use fossil fuels. But as the pandemic emerged, a vocal critic of the plan threatened a massive protest, the Los Angeles Times reports. “If the city council intends to move forward with another reading on a gas ban I can assure you there will be no social distancing in place,” Eric Hofmann, president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 132, wrote in an email.

The union represents thousands of employees of Southern California Gas Co. “The next week, San Luis Obispo officials scrapped plans for an April 7 vote on the energy code. The vote has not been rescheduled,” per the report. “The city’s community development director, Michael Codron, attributed the indefinite delay in part to Hofmann’s threat.” 

America’s beaches continue to reopen. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced state parks and beaches will reopen at 7 a.m. on Thursday for boating, camping, fishing and tennis. “I know how anxious people are to get outside,” he said. 

In California, officials said Newport Beach could partially reopen parts of its coastline for walking, running, hiking, biking, swimming, surfing and fishing. Loitering and sunbathing are still prohibited, and beachgoers are asked to avoid people not in their households, the Los Angeles Times reports.

State and local officials agreed on plans to open other areas of the state’s coast, as “Dana Point, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, San Clemente and Seal Beach submitted plans to Sacramento allowing the public to access the coastline for active recreation only,” the newspaper also reports. “The plans, approved early this week, include a range of measures to avoid overcrowding and allow safe physical distancing, according to the California Natural Resources Agency.” 

General Motors reported a quarterly profit, the only Detroit automaker to do so. 

The automaker reported $292 million in net profit, citing strong sales of its large pickup trucks, which saw a 27 percent increase even though the company's U.S. sales dropped 7 percent overall, the Wall Street Journal reports. “GM’s traditional truck strongholds, including parts of the South and Midwest, were less affected by stay-at-home orders, finance chief Dhivya Suryadevara said,” per the report.

The general decline in auto sales has caught the attention of lawmakers who want to dole out support for the industry. 

“With consumers spending less, and factories nationwide shuttered or severely hamstrung, Democrats and Republicans largely representing the hard-hit, auto heavy-Midwest are leading an early push to persuade their colleagues to help manufacturers and suppliers as part of a future pandemic relief package,” Tony Romm reports. “Absent that assistance, they warn that massive losses could leave workers unemployed and stall any economic recovery.” 

What’s the impact of the pandemic response on the environment?

That’s what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to know. 

It’s launching a research effort to assess the overall impact of marked declines in vehicle traffic, air travel and manufacturing, among other activities, and what the changes mean for the world’s oceans and atmosphere. For example, scientists will investigate the impact of reduced underwater noise levels on marine animals. 

“This unique view into the relative stillness we find ourselves in is only possible because of the existing baseline knowledge that NOAA has built over decades of monitoring, modeling and research,” Craig McLean, assistant NOAA administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, said in a statement. “This research is providing new insight into the drivers of change for our oceans, atmosphere, air quality, and weather. Our past work has prepared us to investigate these unprecedented times.” 

Oil check

The military is paying $10 a gallon for gas, even as oil prices plummet. 

The Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency signed a contract in mid-March with a war-zone logistic company based in Virginia, agreeing to pay the company, DGCI, $10.04 per gallon of jet-propulsion fuel 8. “That’s three to five times more than the worldwide average price, $2 to $3 per gallon, that the DLA had paid for JP-8 earlier in March,” the New Republic reports.

DLA Deputy Director of Public Affairs Patrick Mackin said the markup was because “emergency purchases were required to support the mission in an expedited manner to prevent mission failure.” A review of contracts by the publication show the military has paid the same company inflated prices for fuel for years.

Shruti Shah, the president of anti-corruption nonprofit Coalition for Integrity told the New Republic relying on emergency purchases is not the best move. “The U.S. military shouldn’t consistently overpay for fuel, especially in the middle of a historic oil glut that’s left supplies untapped and devalued. But Iraq and its Kurdish autonomous region are some of the most corrupt locales on earth,” per the report. “ … This corruption has left the American military vulnerable to fuel price-gouging, with profits going into the pockets of local politicians.” 

Saudi Aramco is near a $10 billion deal. 

The world’s largest oil producer is close to finalizing a $10 billion loan with about 10 banks, a plan that comes as the global oil market faces unprecedented turbulence. 

“Aramco is raising the loan to back its acquisition of a 70% stake in Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC) from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a deal worth almost $70 billion,” Reuters reports. “Another source has said that while the loan would most likely back the SABIC acquisition, Aramco could also use the cash for other purposes, including dividend payments.” 

Power plays

Environmental groups continue calls for Joe Biden to cut ties with Larry Summers. 

A coalition of groups, including the youth climate activist group Sunrise Movement, Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund and Oil Change U.S., want the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to remove Summers from any advisory role on his presidential campaign.

The former treasury secretary's record “on climate and environmental justice is abysmal,” the groups wrote in a letter to Biden. “He undermined efforts in the Clinton administration to push for strong global greenhouse emissions limits and environmental protections in the Kyoto protocol. He has never renounced his support for the climate-killing Keystone XL pipeline.” 

In other news

Hurricane season doesn't start for a few weeks, but Mother Nature doesn't own a calendar.

There could be early-season tropical systems in the Gulf of Mexico soon, even though the Atlantic hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June 1. In some parts of Florida, there could be more than half a foot of rain and a premature tropical system that could cause isolated flooding starting over the weekend, Matthew Cappucci reports.

It’s not all negative. “Much of the rain will be beneficial for folks in South Florida, where a drought has dominated for most of the winter and spring,” he adds. “March was the driest on record in the Sunshine State, with only a tenth of an inch falling in Miami and 0.34 inches in Orlando.”

Meanwhile, some frigid and wintry air is moving over the eastern United States and is set to bring snow to parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. There will also be chilly temperatures from the Upper Midwest to New England, Cappucci reports

“Frost could even visit places such as northern Georgia and the western Carolinas late this weekend as the expansive cold air mass settles south and challenges records,” he writes. “Temperatures in many places will feel more like early March than early May.”

“The culprit for these anomalously chilly readings? The polar vortex, which ironically gave much of the contiguous United States a relatively mild winter,” he adds. 

Extra mileage

A llama named Winter could be a key to coronavirus treatment.

Winter’s “blood could hold a weapon to blunt the virus,” Karin Brulliard and Carolyn Y. Johnson report. “She lives at a research farm in Belgium with about 130 other llamas and alpacas. And like all of them, she produces a special class of disease-fighting antibodies — tiny, even by antibody standards — that show early promise in laboratory tests in blocking the novel coronavirus from entering and infecting cells.”