A Catalytic Con Job

By Eric Peters
Copyright 1998 Investor's Business Daily
December 16, 1998

Everyone wants clean air, but government shouldn't have to lie to the public or overstate problems in pursuit of it. So why is the Environmental Protection Agency lying about cars and global warming?

Underneath your car, bolted to the exhaust pipe, is a muffler-like device called a catalytic converter. If you were to cut the converter open to look inside, you'd find a ceramic honeycomb lattice coated with platinum and palladium.

These precious metals do a marvelous thing: When hot exhaust gases pass over them, a chemical reaction takes place, converting harmful, smog-forming compounds into harmless water vapor and carbon dioxide.

Catalytic converters became standard equipment on all new cars sold in the U.S. starting in '75. Since then, smog levels have dropped dramatically. Overall air quality gets better every year.

This, of course, is counter to what you've been hearing on the evening news. But smart folks prefer to get their air quality facts from scientists -not Dan Rather or Al Gore.

''Clearing the Air,'' a comprehensive '95 study commissioned by the American Automobile Association, reported that just 24% of the total output of Volatile Organic Compounds - the major precursors of smog - now come from passenger vehicles. That's down from 71% in '70.

It's worth noting that this decline occurred despite a near doubling of the number of cars on the road and miles driven annually. Experts expect further dramatic declines as the number of older cars on the road dwindle and tailpipe emissions standards for trucks and sport-utility vehicles are tightened.

Carbon monoxide levels have also dropped substantially - by 37% since '85. In fact, the air is cleaner and healthier now than it's been in more than 30 years - thanks to our friend the catalytic converter, and related improvements in engine designs, such as fuel injection.

But now the ''cat'' is under attack by the EPA, which can't abide a success story when it comes to automobiles.

A study released by the agency this summer claimed an increase in nitrous- oxide (N2O) emissions as a result of the catalytic reaction. And N2O, says the EPA, is a powerful ''greenhouse gas'' that causes - surprise! - global warming.

''As the number of catalytic converter-equipped vehicles has risen in the U.S. motor vehicle fleet, so have emissions of N2O,'' the study said.

As usual with EPA, there is a kernel of truth to what's being said.

True, a small amount of nitrous oxide is produced by the catalytic reaction. But the total amount is so insignificant it couldn't possibly affect the global climate - even if we accept that ''global warming'' is happening -a dubious proposition with more hot air than science behind it.

How small? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Climate Change - a United Nations agency, mind you - the total annual output of so-called ''greenhouse gases'' is around 157.1 billion metric tons worldwide.

That's a lot of gas. But guess what? Mankind contributes just 7.1 billion metric tons of the total. The remaining 150 billion metric tons comes from natural sources, such as volcanic eruptions, the evaporation of seawater and the decay of organic matter.

Only 280.7 million metric tons comes from the operation of motor vehicles in the U.S.

EPA says nitrous oxide emissions from all sources equate to 7.2% of America's total output of ''greenhouse gases.'' But 7.2% of 1.442 billion metric tons - the estimated total U.S. output of greenhouse gases from all man-made sources, including cars and trucks - is about 100.8 million metric tons. That's next to nothing in the grand scheme of things, a proverbial drop in the global warming bucket.

Bear in mind this assumes EPA's numbers are accurate, which they almost never are. The dismal record of EPA doomsaying on everything from asbestos to airborne particulate matter speaks for itself.

Americans may not be rocket scientists in terms of their math ability -but even Forrest Gump knows 103.8 million out of 157.1 billion isn't much to get excited about. Unless, of course, you have a budget to protect and a ''mission'' to justify.

EPA should worry more about legitimate problems - such as the small handful of grossly out-of-tune and poorly maintained older cars that represent less than 5% of the vehicles on the roads but which contribute more than 50% of the genuinely harmful pollution.

Eric Peters is a nationally syndicated automotive writer.

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