SEPP Comments to New York Times'
Catalytic Converter Story

Comments by the Science and Environmental Policy Project
May 29, 1998

SEPP COMMENTS: The key phrase here is that people trying to solve one problem often as not create another. One only has to recall that the internal combustion engine was once the pollution solution to cities stinking of horse urine and manure.

If confirmed, the EPA report underscores the fact that a cleaner environment isn't necessarily one with fewer greenhouse gases. Making anything cleaner--waste water, high-sulfur coal, auto exhaust-- means using additional energy, and that generally means additional greenhouse gas emissions.

The catalytic converter reduces engine efficiency and creates less fuel efficiency than we could achieve without it, but we accept burning more gasoline to get a cleaner exhaust. In the process we also accept increased emissions of carbon dioxide--which in itself is not a pollutant, notwithstanding recent EPA claims to the contrary--and now, apparently, increased emissions of nitrous oxide.

Under current conditions, demands by Green political activists for the development and use of all-electric cars amounts to arguing both ends against the middle. An all-electric car--if one was available that was cheap, comfortable, and had a reasonable range--uses energy generated at a power plant.

The only emission-free power plants capable of meeting even current needs are nuclear and hydroelectric, both of which are being blocked by Green activists. Solar and wind turbines cannot produce enough energy to constitute a viable alternative (and certainly could not handle the additional energy burden of millions of electric cars). Moreover, some Green groups complain that wind turbines kill birds and that both wind turbines and solar panels are blights upon the landscape. Relying to a greater extent on natural gas power plants risks releasing more methane into the atmosphere from leaky pipelines--and methane is 60 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Government has to weigh the alternatives. The public expects the best possible air quality at the lowest possible cost. Fossil fuels are currently the least costly, but nuclear and hydroelectric are sound energy sources and emission-free, and the hybrid electric car just introduced by Toyota (and which U.S. automakers could certainly improve upon) is an important interim step until a breakthrough in power storage makes the all-electric car a marketable reality.

Emotional demands from those who always seem unhappy with the choices is not a good basis for policy. Quite apart from the ongoing debate over a putative global warming, nuclear and hydroelectric power and hybrid cars are just a few of the many ideas that make good sense and constitute progress.

NOTE: The New York Times reporter's statement that nitrous oxides now comprise 7.2 percent of the gases that cause global warming appears to be wrong. If N2O is 7.2 percent of the greenhouse gases, and it's 300 times more potent than CO2, that would make it the primary greenhouse gas. The primary greenhouse gas is water vapor. Either the EPA has omitted water vapor altogether in its calculations, which would be very wrong, or the reporter misread the report and what the EPA actually meant was that N2O accounts for 7.2 percent of a putative warming effect. Quite different. The N2O figure should not be cited until verified.

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