To Emit or Not to Emit: Mercury is the Question

Rarely is an example of moral clarity so perfectly presented as is the EPA’s new mercury emissions rule. Following 20 years of study, the EPA finally has established controls over mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. This new rule, the MATS rule for Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (aka the Hazardous Air Pollution Rule), is being discussed only in the periphery of the presidential campaign as part of the “War on Coal.” But the discussion to be found in newspapers, blog posts, and political circles is so void of any recognizable ethical framework that I struggle even to bring an ethical case to the issue.

The MATS rule has been in the planning stages since the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) Amendments, when President G.W.H. Bush gave EPA authority to regulate sources of mercury emissions. The EPA tackled two of the largest sources of emissions – municipal waste disposal and medical waste incineration – and brought total mercury emissions down by 45 percent. But coal-fired power plants, the largest remaining source, responsible for 50 percent of total mercury emissions, escaped regulation while the EPA conducted extensive studies.

But no longer. The EPA’s MATS rule will take effect in 2015, and will require emission controls on power plants that EPA estimates will reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent. The rule is not without costs: the estimates, which are all over the place, generally say that MATS will be the most expensive rule ever written for power plants.

Predictably, given the ethical state in which we find ourselves, costs have become the focus of the debate over MATS. According to EPA’s math, the benefits due to reductions in illness and death far exceed the rule’s costs. Industry is saying that the rule will force the retirement of 20 percent of our power plants, and will drive up electricity costs for consumers while decreasing the availability and reliability of remaining electricity generation. The costs, up to $10 billion a year, are not worth the benefits, detractors say:

“Governor Romney has made clear that he opposes the Utility MACT, which costs more than $1,500 for every one dollar reduction in mercury pollution,” Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul said in a statement.

Such is the state of our moral confusion: The entire debate about mercury – a known toxin (in the form of methylmercury) in the environment – is being fought on the balance sheet. Do the costs outweigh the benefits, and by benefits they mean the price tag they put on human health and lives. We never stop to consider whether our lifestyle, based on cheap electricity, is worth the destruction to our environment and the damage to our health.We never once ask whether we should be pumping mercury into the atmosphere, whether this is the behavior of an ethical society.

I want to go back to Mitt Romney for a moment. The man is not unethical; he has a moral compass. Consider the following response he gave in his first presidential debate:

Good. I’m glad you raised that, and it’s a — it’s a critical issue. I think it’s not just an economic issue, I think it’s a moral issue. I think it’s, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they’re going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives. And the amount of debt we’re adding, at a trillion a year, is simply not moral.

This was Romney’s response to a question about our federal debt, and it is a response I, as the father of two young children, wholeheartedly share. But under what ethical paradigm do we live in which we cringe at our moral failings to control the debt, but blithely skip past our moral obligations to control toxic pollutants? Is the dumping of debt onto our children any different than the dumping of toxins into the atmosphere and our nation’s lakes and streams? Should we not leave to our heirs a nation unfouled by both a crushing debt burden, and an environment laden with pollutants? I think it is far past time that we as a nation add environmental quality to the housing of our moral compass.

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Antarctic Sea Ice Sets Record (and not in the 100 meter dash)

James Taylor, writing at Forbes.com, alerts us to some news that he says the media will never cover:

Antarctic sea ice set another record this past week, with the most amount of ice ever recorded on day 256 of the calendar year (September 12 of this leap year). Please, nobody tell the mainstream media or they might have to retract some stories and admit they are misrepresenting scientific data.

I’ll say this for James, he’s right that no one else at this time is covering this story. Matter of fact, when I did a Google News search for “antarctic sea ice,” I was flooded with bad news stories about the demise of the arctic ice shelf. It’s always been clear to me that the news skews one way, to a ridiculous extent.

I don’t know what to make of this story. I don’t know what to make of global warming stories in general. Frankly, I don’t trust half of what half these people tell me to believe about global warming, and find less than half of them half as believable as I probably should.

All I know is that I love to snow ski, and I’m very excited for the upcoming season. I’m ready to drop $550 on my season pass to the local hill. But you know what? No one can tell me what the snow forecast for this winter is. I have no idea if it’s going to dump, or if I’ll be in short sleeves in January. I don’t know because the weather forecasters don’t know, and one thing that weather forecasters (meteorologists) are is too honest to lie to me and tell me that it’s going to dump buckets of snow December through April because they know that they don’t know what’s going to happen a week out, let alone during the next several months of winter.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do something about whatever might or might not be happening. Just don’t let anyone tell you what is happening, and more importantly why it is happening, because those people are full of it.

Dear Seattle: Please Stop Peeing in the Pacific

National Geographic is reporting  the discovery of caffeine pollution in the Pacific Ocean along the Oregon Coast, although pollution may be the wrong word:

The Pacific Northwest may be the epicenter of U.S. coffee culture, and now a new study shows the region’s elevated caffeine levels don’t stop at the shoreline.

The discovery of caffeine pollution in the Pacific Ocean off Oregon is further evidence that contaminants in human waste are entering natural water systems, with unknown consequences for wildlife and humans alike, experts say.

I’ve spent some time on the Oregon coast, and I’m a man known to enjoy more than one cup of coffee in the morning, so feel free to direct your ire toward me. Don’t direct it toward Seattle, though. (And yes, I know Seattle is in Washington). It appears that the caffeine is originating from the many rural septic systems located up and down the coast, rather than from the population centers where waste water is treated. But before you lobby your congressman to outlaw coffee, or pee, consider the following from one of the insightful commentors to this story:

45 nanograms per liter is equivalent to a 45 parts per quadrillion or 4.5 x 10^-11. That’s 2.2 grams of caffein (sic)  in ten million tons of water. I agree we should keep track of pollution, but will any creatures get a caffeine high at that level? I am amazed at the incredible sensitivity of our analytical techniques even though I helped develop some of them. Perhaps, though, we should worry more about the really serious contamination which poses a clearly demonstrable hazard.

Now I haven’t double checked this guy’s math, because math is hard. But I do know that we have the ability to detect the most minute levels of pollutants in our waters. I once wrote a letter to the editor explaining that the editor was getting really worked up about a level of pollution that amounted to ‘3 drops in an olympic sized swimming pool.’ That doesn’t excuse the pollution, or mean that we should not track it or be concerned about it. I think what is important is understanding the effect of pollutants on natural systems, understanding the source of these pollutants, and understanding the cycle that allows pollutants to enter the system, move through the system, and either get deposited long-term or flushed from the system. The NatGeo article does state that the impact on natural systems from caffeine in the environment is largely unknown (although it may impact mollusks), and is a problem that has been observed elsewhere.

As to the term ‘pollutant’, the Merriam-Webster dictionary unhelpfully defines pollutant as ‘something that pollutes.’ Digging unnecessarily further into Merriam-Webster, we find that ‘to pollute’ may be defined as “to make physically impure or unclean: befoul, dirty” or “to contanimate (an environment) especially with man-made waste.” By these definitions, maybe caffeine does pollute the Pacific Ocean, even if it ends up having no real harmful effects to natural systems.

Was Past Climate Warmer Than Believed?

So this story has been floating around for a couple of days now and I wanted to offer my thoughts. According to reports, German researchers relying on tree ring data have established (for now) that the world was warmer in the past than we had believed, and that the globe has been cooling for the past 2,000 years. Here are the opening paragraphs from the Daily Mail’s version:

A study suggests the Britain of 2,000 years ago experienced a lengthy period of hotter summers than today.

German researchers used data from tree rings – a key indicator of past climate – to claim the world has been on a ‘long-term cooling trend’ for two millennia until the global warming of the twentieth century.

How we get from local conditions in Britain to assumptions about global climate isn’t exactly clear to me, but then again, I don’t care. Now if you happen to be the type who’s all wrapped around the Global Climate Change debate axel, then this story is a big deal to you. But I’m here to argue that it shouldn’t be a big deal, any more so than you would consider any similar study about, say, new findings on the extent of known human settlements, or the recent story that maybe the Clovis people weren’t the first inhabitants of the Americas to be a big deal. Interesting yes; a big deal, no. Here’s why I say this:

 (1) Global Climate Change has become a political game. I’m sure many think it much more serious than a game. Many think it life and death. But if you understand politics, if you have observed and studied politics as I have, you know that this is a game being played by those seeking power, privilege, and personal fortune. If it ever was serious, it is serious not for the consequences Global Climate Change may wreak on our environment and planet, but rather because of what the politics of it may do to our economy and institutions and our relationship with government.

(2) We don’t understand the entirety of the global climate. There are as yet many, many mechanisms, interactions, drivers and relationships involved in the global climate that we do not yet understand. We don’t really even understand with certainty the carbon cycle. Anyone who tells you that they know absolutely and can predict with certainty what may or may not happen with the global climate is dishonest. Look, the role of science is to inform, and the scientific process is one of challenging assumptions and testing hypotheses. Science is not about offering statements of absolute moral authority. That’s why science and faith are understood as two separate spheres of human study.

(3) Having said all that, it really shouldn’t matter. It does matter, because of our current mania with establishing a huge regulatory apparatus to deal with Global Warming that may or may not have significant adverse consequences to the economy, our standard of living, and our lifestyles. But really, Global Climate Change, regardless of where you stand on the issue, should not matter. Here’s why:

Because we ought not to be pumping as many chemicals into the air as we do not, and we similarly ought to be striving to reduce our reliance on the production of energy, agriculture and manufacturing, and transportation that systems that result in pollutant compounds being expelled into the atmosphere.

As we’ve stated here before, our belief is that we ought to approach our relationship with the environment, or with the planet if that suits you better, by asking the right question: What is the right thing to do? We understand that our every endeavor has an impact on the planet. We accept that. But with this understanding should come the wisdom to seek ways to reduce our impacts, not only for ourselves, but for others around us, and for future generations. To me, this means that we should be reducing our reliance on carbon-emitting industrial outputs, such as coal fired energy, because wisdom leads us to this understanding. The debate about Global Climate Change should be nearly inconsequential. This ongoing debate should be informative, we should consider it, but it should not form the basis of our course of action.

If we wait to act until there is a crisis, which is how Global Climate Change is being presented to us, then we have failed. If we need a life- and planet-altering excuse before doing what is right, then we have failed. We have neither wisdom nor understanding. This is my disagreement with the Global Climate Change debate: it is being argued from the wrong baseline, the wrong foundation. It is being argued that we must reduce emissions because of Global Warming. No. We should reduce emissions because we know it’s the right thing to do. Because we can. Because we have wisdom.

Air Pollution and our National Parks

Air pollution is changing the alpine vegetation at Rocky Mountain National Park, a new study concludes.

It would be cumbersome indeed to study all the ways in which we are altering the environment and affecting the planet’s biodiversity. When considering the impacts of industry, agriculture, power production, and transportation, we should assume the worst and hope for better. I think we know enough now to understand that even “subtle” changes to the environment, such as the ones highlighted by this study, ultimately may result in profound, long-term consequences. And air pollution causes many “subtle” impacts across the globe.

While we must accept that every endeavor of mankind reverberates throughout the natural world, we should likewise accept the responsibility to work to reduce those impacts to manageable levels. Again, my philosophy on environmental problems is that we need to approach the issue by simply asking the question: what is the right thing to do? Finding agreeable solutions to our environmental problems will become much easier once we agree on the basic premise that we are causing environmental harm and therefore we should constantly strive to reduce our impacts.

Move to Phoenix, Save the Planet

A really interesting post from the American Interest (hat tip Instapundit) about residential energy consumption in the United States:

As the Washington Post’s Wonkblog reports, while American homes keep getting bigger and we keep stocking them with growing numbers of energy hogging devices like big screen TVs, energy use per homeowner is actually shrinking. 

Is this news counterintuitive? It is at first glance, but think about what we know. Today we are building our houses much smarter, and much more energy aware, than we did in the past. Anyone who owns a 1974 ranch can tell you that their home leaks heat like a sieve, while a new built home twice the size is air tight.

But better home construction is only part of the equation. According to the report, the cause behind the big drop in per household energy consumption is the shift in population from colder to warmer climes. Check out this reportfrom the U.S. Census Bureau: you see right away that all the population growth is in the south and west. The chilly northeast is barely growing.

Now, here’s where I fell off my chair a bit. According to the report, which uses data taken from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a big reason for the drop in energy consumption is because air conditioning in warmer regions uses far less energy than home heating in the colder regions.

Did you know this? Reading it, do you believe it? This is an outcome I never expected. I had always assumed that air conditioning was power intensive. We always hear about the rolling blackouts in the heat of summer, not the dead of winter. I realize that blackouts have more to do with where the energy is coming from than how much energy is being used, yet I believed that air conditioning must be an energy hog. I don’t know why I had assumed this; it may have something to do with growing up in the Midwest and living in an 1886-built home where air conditioning was an unknown luxury.

In any event, I now find that I ought to apologize to a lot of my Phoenix friends, whom I have long accused of being faux environmentalists: How can you run that a/c for eight months of the year and call yourself an environmentalist? I always charged. Well, now I know.

NRDC Says Beware the Water at Nation’s Beaches

Just in time for your summer beach vacation, the Natural Resources Defense Council releases its annual report on water quality at the nation’s beaches. Here are a few bites from the NRDC apple:

“America’s beaches are plagued by a sobering legacy of water pollution, including bacteria-laden human and animal waste,” said NRDC Water Program Director Steve Fleischli.

“So when people dive into the ocean, it can make them sick with a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pink eye, ear nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems.”

The NRDC identifies polluted stormwater discharge as the culprit behind most beach closings.

“When it rains, the water carries trash, chemicals, oil, animal waste — you name it — off the paved streets of our communities into sewers and ultimately to our beach.”

The NRDC, of course, has an agenda. But it’s absolutely true that non-treated stormwater discharge is a huge problem. Although we have made great improvements in protecting the nation’s waters, we obviously have a long way to go.

A few weeks back I blogged about water quality issues in Kansas. Incidentally, I received a reply from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to my questions about the source of pollutants, and possible solutions. In short, the department said that it’s a mix of influences that affect water quality. These influences include agriculture, urban stormwater runoff, discharge from municipal wastewater treatment plants, and nutrients from many sources including all that fertilizer some people dump on their lawns, just to name a few. As for remedies, the simplest fix is to buffer streams with riparian areas, filter strips, stream setbacks, and so on.

Like many environmental issues, protecting our streams and lakes and oceans is a matter of commitment, a commitment of time and money and a commitment to change behavior and practices (such as agricultural practices). Unfortunately, there is little emphasis, or incentive, or momentum right now to change anything. It’s a sour note to end a beach post on, but I firmly believe that to fix a problem, one must first recognize the problem, and the problem, very clearly, is that environmental considerations rank very, very low on our to-do list in this country.