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The Environmental Protection Agency has tightened up mercury emissions standards on coal-fired power plants. The epidemiology on mercury is pretty clear – the stuff is nasty. So if there is a reasonably cost-effective way to reduce mercury emissions from power plants, it would seem to be a good thing. Indeed, "E"nvironmentalists have celebrated the tighter limits on coal power plants as unquestionably good for the planet and for human health. 

Which then raises a huge question. If mercury is such an enormous health and environmental risk, then why do "E"nvironmentalists not only worship these things, but have now managed to require us to purchase these things (hey, sounds like a health care law doesn't it … harmless that precedent is, harmless …)

I am not going to get into the stupid economics of this, nor am I going to get into the questionable impacts on the energy sector (you'll have to take my Eco 238 class for that) but I will simply remind you of what the EPA says about these little devils:


Before Cleanup

  • Have people and pets leave the room.
  • Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment. 
  • Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
  • Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb: 
    • stiff paper or cardboard;
    • sticky tape;
    • damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and
    • a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

During Cleanup

  • DO NOT VACUUM.  Vacuuming is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken.  Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.
  • Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
  • Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

After Cleanup

  • Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials, including vacuum cleaner bags, outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of.  Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors. 
  • Next, check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area, because some localities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. If there is no such requirement in your area, you can dispose of the materials with your household trash.
  • If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.

Are you kidding me? The mercury in those bulbs seems pretty bad according to the EPA now doesn't it? And so the EPA manages to pass regulations to tighten up the emissions of mercury from far away places (and which is being mitigated anyway, see below) but then sits idly by while Congress passes a law that forces us to put lots and lots of mercury nearby in our homes where we inevitably throw these bulbs in the garbage, break them from knocking into them by accident, playing ball in the house, when the wind blows and for other accidental reasons. What possible reason could there be to allow this much dangerous stuff so close to us? I thought the EPA was out there to protect environmental health and safety?

Well, advocates would say, these CFC bulbs use up to 75% less energy than conventional light bulbs! 

OK. So let me ask … are you saying that there ARE acceptable tradeoffs when it comes to environmental issues? Are you saying that reducing energy use is more important than increasing our direct exposure to mercury (again, if the entire country moved to CFC bulbs it would have a minimal impact on energy efficiency … you'll see why in my class)? Are you saying that some risks are worse than others? Are you saying that scarcity truly does exist? 

That's what your actions imply. Which brings me to my point.  One of my excellent former students emailed me privately the other day and mentioned that he had a conversation with someone who is working hard for an "anti-fracking" group. That idea is worthy of its own post – rather than working for a safe-fracking or a clean-fracking group, just go out and ban it. Rather than working for a solar company or a nuclear company, work to cut the legs out of an incredible substitute. In any case, the student said he did not get into a conversation about fracking, and that's probably for the best – he probably still wants to have friends a place to have beers over the weekend. I have no such needs. I would have advised him to ask this fractivist a single question.

"Do you think that global warming is the greatest environmental threat that we face right now?"

My bet is that half of the people you asked this question to would answer yes. And if that is the case, then how on earth can someone justify working for an anti-fracking group? We've already covered here the fact that natural gas coming from fracking has led to the United States being the world leader in reductions in CO2 emissions over the past half decade. And if the current trend continues, the US Energy Information Agency believes that by the end of this year carbon emissions from the US electricity production sector will fall … to … 1990 levels.

Let me repeat that. In addition to natural gas dramatically reducing the energy bills of everyone and in particularly the poor, the replacement of coal generation with natural gas generation in our electricity sector (more on that in a future post) has led to seriously large reductions in carbon emissions in that sector. These reductions were once thought to be unimaginable. In fact, in the electricity sector (not the entire energy sector) this means that the US will have met the carbon reduction limits set forth by the Kyoto Protocol. You should repeat that to yourself a few hundred times. 

In the electricity generation sector, without ANY push from government, without signing on to any global treaty and in the face of strident opposition from fractivists, the substitution of natural gas for goal largely due to improvements in fracking technology are resulting in CO2 emissions reductions that meet Kyoto Protocol targets. This happened right under the planners' noses. This happened right under the fractivists' noses. Has a single US windmill or solar panel taken any coal capacity off the grid? Has a single US windmill or solar panel reduced CO2 emissions? At what cost? And how has it compared to natural gas?

But fracking may contaminate water, right? It may. But there is precious little evidence that it does (again for more on this take my Eco 238 class or stay tuned for future posts). But suppose that it does contaminate water and reflect back on this post. Up above, the "E"nvironmentalists seem to be arguing that tradeoffs in the environment are OK if we substitute lower risks for higher ones (as in CFC mercury emissions versus coal power plant mercury emissions). But for some reason when it comes to some part of the energy sector where you can actually get meaningful improvements in environmental conditions all bets are off. Even though global warming is the greatest threat to mankind (so they tell us) it is NOT OK to drill for natural gas because it MIGHT contaminate small amounts of water supplies (and remember your old extra credit assignment folks – what health risks does natural gas pose to humans … to the best of my knowledge very little, though it does disrupt plant growth) we may accept any threat to some water supplies even though the CO2 reductions benefits are enormous, among other benefits. 

So what's the story folks?

3 Responses to “Is It or Is It Not the Greatest Threat We Face as Mankind?”

  1. Brent says:

    …and you were gonna quit posting… I am glad I hit the link out of habit- even though I knew you were going to quit… As one that originally comes from NC, a state that just failed to ban fracking due to a voting accident, I can’t wait to use this new found information to enlighten at least a few of the “anti-frackers.”
    As an educator, you must despise ignorance, yet, you contemplate stopping this site, wouldn’t that put you of the same ilk as the “anti-fracker/global warmers” you just exposed?… Hmmmm…
    I am once again gald to have stopped by…

  2. Greg W says:

    I don't think a representative-agent model of environmentalism works here. The anti-fracking camp likely cares much more about protecting water quality than about reducing carbon emissions, and the pro-CFL camp probably cares much more about energy usage than about an increased risk of intermittent mercury emission.

  3. Harry says:

    All the political class in southeastern Pennsylvania is exercised over how the latest fracking legislation has focused on compensating for the impact of drilling, namely that the money that is taken from the drillers goes toward prevention and remediation where it is happening — impact fees that remediate and prevent problems. The folks are going nuts because they expected a severance tax bonanza to go to them, like money from trees. They cannot stand it when the yahoos in boomtown are getting rich, when they on the Main Line have to worry about their overpaid teachers, firemen, and police, not to mention all the county employees, and these people are Republicans. Next door, the Philadelphia Democrats get swallowed by a tax black hole, and are hoping for someone to wave a legal wand to take money from the folks upstate.

    But in Bucks County, the enviros are up in arms over the possibility that someone will drill in what I just learned was the Paramus formation, which is adjacent to the Marcellus. Local townships are working to ensure that their neighbors do not get rich, or maybe just well-off, by finding carbon riches under their land.

    I wish Exxon-Mobil Production Research would show up at my back door and ask if I mind their making a little noise in my back yard, or my neighbor’s back yard. I am not holding my breath, when natural gas is priced at around $2.50/mcf.

    I have disposed of my extra flourescent light fixtures, and have stocked up on incandescent light bulbs, even though the government chickened out and allowed their sale (Mexican bulbs) until after the election.

    Tomorrow, I will drive by Winchester, VA, where the last U.S. incandescent bulb manufacturing plant, employing over 400 people and a lot of automated equipment, closed, I think three years ago, around the same time that Jeff Immelt got his security clearance and free White House pass.

    Now, if we could break every bulb in America, it would create a million jobs for the bulb remediation industry, the guys who come into your home with the hazmat suits, the red plastic bags, and the duct tape; the clerks to fill out the compliance forms for the EPA; the EPA clerks to process the forms; the scientists to review the results and to study how to turn mercury into gold; the waste disposal industry, and their vendors, the manufacturers of trucks and containers, employing thousands of Teamsters, Auto Workers, nonuinon welders, electricians, and roustabouts. Don’t forget the multiplier, with all this stimulus.

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