Michael Ash of PERI discusses the “Toxic 100” index, which ranks the top 100 corporations in the US, including the U.S. government, according to the degree to which they pollute the air, the water, and contribute to greenhouse gases. The index assists in divestment campaigns and in identifying opportunities for green growth

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Since 2004, the Political Economy Research Institute, PERI, has published an annual list of the world’s top polluting companies. Initially, this was just about air pollution. But in 2013, PERI launched an index of the top 100 water polluters, and in 2016, the index of greenhouse polluters. This year, PERI published all three indices individually as well as in a combined index.

The top three air polluters in the 2019 report are the chemical company, LyondellBasell; the arms and airplane manufacturer, Boeing; and the number one position is the oil company, Huntsman. The top three water polluters are the appliance manufacturer, Parker Hannifin; the arms manufacturer, Northrop Grumman; and in the top place, the chemical company, DowDuPont. Then finally, in the top three greenhouse polluter category are the energy companies, Duke Energy; Southern Company; and in top place, Vistra Energy.

Joining me now to discuss this report is Michael Ash. He’s professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and directs the Corporate Toxics Information Project together with James K. Boyce, which publishes the Toxic 100 Index. Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

Thanks for having me on, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So, let’s start with the purpose of the Toxic 100 Index. What do you hope to achieve by publishing it?

The main point of the Toxic 100 Index is it’s a tool. And it’s a tool for socially responsible investors or communities that may be affected by toxics–pretty much every community in America–and for regulators and for the general public to understand what toxics they’re being exposed to, and which companies are releasing the most greenhouse gases. As a tool, it’s going to enable communities, socially responsible investors, socially or environmentally oriented corporate managers to make better decisions so that we can realize the right to clean air and clean water that we have in many of our state constitutions, and I think implicit in our national governance.

We’ve learned a lot about what we’re exposed to. The road from knowing what we’re exposed to to having a cleaner environment is not always a straight and easy path. We’re trying to make that easier for effected communities to use these tools, understand what we’re being exposed to, and then take action to do something about it.

GREG WILPERT: Now, is it safe to assume that the larger a company is, the more likely it will appear on the list, and the higher up it will appear, since larger companies presumably produce more pollution? Or do you take the company’s size into account so that you could find, in theory, a smaller, but highly polluting company towards the top of these lists?

We’re focused, in the case of toxics, really on the risk that human populations are exposed to. And there tends to be a bigger-is-worse phenomenon here. A small company that releases very toxic material or large quantities of highly toxic materials or happens to be in an urban area where it exposes large numbers of people, such a company could end up on this list. But in general, if you look at the top of the list, you’re looking at corporate giants. So, there is a little bit of a bigger-is-worse aspect to the data. Now, that’s not actually irrelevant because when you have those bigger companies, a small number of corporate decisions can really affect the exposure of large numbers of people.

So, if you want to do something about toxicity, you have to go where the pollution is. It’s like bank robbers robbing banks because that’s where the money is. We need to look where a small number of decision makers make decisions that can affect very large numbers of people. And it turns out there’s a lot of disproportionality in these data. Toxic releases and greenhouse gas releases, they’re very highly concentrated among a fairly small number of actors, and those actors are entities that can actually make decisions that affect people’s lives. So, there is a little bit of a focus on bigger, but bigger is also bigger decisions and more clean up is possible if we look in those places.

OK. Yeah, that makes sense. Now, but I noticed one thing about the list is that the usual suspect suspects aren’t always dominating each category. For example, arms manufacturers such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are present on each one of these lists. Why is that? What is it that they do that is so polluted?

MICHAEL ASH: There are very toxic substances used in defense or military industries. So, my guess is that ethylene oxide, which was recently upgraded as a toxic by the USEPA for purposes of rating these companies on their toxicity is the key feature that has generated the high rankings for those corporations. So, again, there are many toxics that go into the defense industry, that go into both producing military material and then also to cleaning up afterwards. So, those are probably the chemicals that are most responsible. One of the nice features of the list is it’s possible for any company to drill down to see exactly the list of facilities and the list of chemicals that’s responsible for the company being high on the list of toxic polluters.

Now, the other thing that jumps out in looking at the index is that the U.S. government is ranked seventh in the greenhouse polluter index. However, the U.S. government actually isn’t a corporation, obviously. Now, this raises the question, how do you differentiate between the manufacturers of polluting products and energy on the one hand, and institutional consumers such as the U.S. government, which presumably pollutes mostly on the consumption side of things? That is, how do you avoid calculating the same pollution perhaps twice; once during production and once during consumption? And did you look at also the pollution that other governments cause?

So, that’s a great question, and let me answer in a couple of parts. The first is that we’re looking really exclusively at the production of pollution, so we are not looking at the life cycle on these products. Many of these products may have very unpleasant toxic life cycles after they’re produced. And again, we’re focused exclusively on point-source production of these toxics, or in the case of greenhouse gasses, these climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. government is ranked number seven on the greenhouse gas list. That’s the U.S. government as producer. Again, I encourage your listeners to visit toxic100.org and drill down, but the U.S. government is a pretty large electricity producer. Projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority is direct energy production by the U.S. government, sometimes for sale on a retail basis, sometimes to power things like defense establishment military bases.

But if you take a look at why the U.S. government is on the greenhouse gas list, I think it’s largely around electricity production, I think very heavily focused on older electric plants in the Middle West, in the Tennessee Valley. So, that’s one question. Second question really gets to the heart of some issues in federalism. The federal government is on this list because the federal government, which passed the laws, which enabled the toxics release reporting and the greenhouse gas reporting, can give itself orders.
So, it’s possible to legislate the inclusion of federal facilities in the toxics list and in the greenhouse gas list.

That’s true also for the private facilities that are regulated this way. State and local governments are effectively off the hook. They’re not reporters into the greenhouse gas and toxics release inventory. And that involves the limited ability of the federal government to regulate, to exercise authority over state and local governments. Many states–and I encourage your viewers to follow up–many states have state-specific reporting where you can learn more about how state facilities and local facilities, like universities for example, contribute to greenhouse gas production. But the federal lists are really limited to private entities and to the federal government, which are authorized for reporting under the Enabling Act.

And is this just limited to the United States or do you also look internationally?

MICHAEL ASH: Oh, that’s a great question. So, unfortunately, the output we’re looking at is limited to the United States. So, we should think about large-point sources, large factories, large electrical generators located here in the U.S. The factories can be owned by entities all over the world. So, there could be an Indian-owned metal processor, for example, that owns facilities in the U.S. There could be a French-owned electrical-generating facilities, again, in the United States. If you don’t mind a quick digression, there’s a savage irony in this. These laws were largely enacted after the Bhopal chemical spill, where a Union Carbide pesticide-making facility in Bhopal, India spilled a spilled a toxic into the environment, killing close to 10,000 people in the period that followed the spill and changing the lives for the worst of tens of thousands more people. That law, which rightly horrified people all over the world, led to the legislation in the U.S. that protects U.S. citizens. So, the savage irony here is that a U.S.-owned plant which had done terrible damage in another country would not be reporting under this legislation.

Now, finally, has publishing the index had an effect on the behavior of investors or on the companies themselves? I mean, do companies that find themselves in the top of this index respond to it in any way?

Yes. I think companies take very seriously showing up on these lists. We have some contact with corporations. In some cases, the leadership of companies themselves are unaware of what their facilities are doing. So, we’ve had some conversations with the chief environmental officer of an organization that was listed in the top ten in one of our earliest indices, and her response after learning more about the list from us was, “In the future, we’re going to have our facilities send their reports to headquarters as well as to the EPA.” So, that was shocking to us that the head did not know what the hands were doing.

There’s also some indication… We see, occasionally, shareholder initiatives that are brought to shareholder meetings and corporations will reference the Toxic 100 as a reason that their companies should engage in improved environmental practice or improved environmental reporting. So, we’ve seen, for example, in the ExxonMobil shareholder resolutions a call that has included the Toxic 100 among the reasons for improved reporting. So, we hope that we’re reaching people, and this is a tool that they can use.

Let me mention in passing, if I may, that in addition to listing the top 100 facilities, we also have a search tool easily linked from the toxic100.org website that allows visitors to the site to look up any corporation with reporting activity to the USEPA. So, we highlight the Toxic 100. People tend to focus on lists and it’s kind of salient for people, but in fact, people can look up any corporation in the U.S. and learn more about its toxic performance or its greenhouse gas performance.

OK. Well, that’s really good to know. We’re going to link to it, of course, once we published this story. I was speaking to Michael Ash, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the Corporate Toxics Information Project. Thanks again, Michael, for having joined us today.

Thanks, Greg, for having me on.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Michael Ash

Professor Michael Ash is chair of the Economics department at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His areas of expertise are labor, health, and environmental economics, examined primarily through quantitative models. Ash's main interests in environmental policy include disclosure and right-to-know laws, greenhouse-gas policy, and environmental justice. At UMass, Ash co-directs the Corporate Toxics Information Project of the Political Economy Research Institute, which publishes the Toxic 100, an index that identifies the top U.S. toxic polluters among the world's largest corporations.