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OpenMarket: Energy and Environment

  • Arsenic in Wine: Dangerous or Beneficial?

    March 26, 2015 2:23 PM

    Dan Nosowitz in Modern Farmer offers some insights on the recent class action lawsuit filed against California winemakers. The plaintiffs found that some inexpensive wines contained arsenic at levels exceeding the federal drinking water standard for this substance. Nosowitz rightly points out that the standard is for water, not wine and “people don’t, or shouldn’t, drink as much wine as water.”   

    Well, let’s not go that far… kidding of course! Moderation is surely a good idea when it comes to alcohol consumption. Yet even if you drank as much wine as you do water, there’s still no reason to be alarmed about arsenic. The levels in wine are still too low to have any significant adverse impacts, and ironically, such small amounts might even have health benefits. 

    Arsenic is an element that naturally occurs in the earth’s crust, so traces of arsenic inevitably appear in food and water. Certainly, high levels of arsenic are not healthy and concentrated exposures can be immediately deadly. But the trace levels found in water and food are rarely an issue. Problems have emerged primarily in developing nations like Bangladesh where poor people drink from untreated water sources with arsenic levels that range in the hundreds of parts per billion (ppb), and sometimes more than 1,000 ppb.

    It’s worth noting that the levels allegedly found in wine are reportedly just five times greater (or 500 percent higher as noted in the press) than the federal drinking water standard of 10 ppb. So, some number of samples—we don’t know how many—tested by the plaintiffs in this case had some level of arsenic near the 50 ppb level. But did you know that until 2006, that was the allowable level in drinking water in the United States and it had been for decades?

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the standard to 10 ppb in 2001 with full compliance not required until 2006. The 10 ppb standard for arsenic in drinking water is excessively overcautious. When EPA proposed it, it was very controversial because the cost to small drinking water systems was substantial and the benefits highly questionable. EPA’s Science Advisory Board highlighted lots of problems with EPA’s science and maintained that the change could actually undermine public health. The SAB explained that the costs might cause some small communities to disconnect their water systems, forcing people to use untreated well water, but EPA finalized the rule anyway. 

    If you look at the history, you can see that EPA did not change the standard for safety reasons; they did it for political ones. You may remember, environmental activists attacked the Bush administration for taking time to reconsider changing the standard, which the Clinton administration rushed out during the final hours of the Clinton presidency. Green groups made it sound like the Bush administration was adding arsenic to the water supply. And this bad press made a rational and scientific debate impossible.

  • Yes, and Water Can Run Uphill!

    March 20, 2015 10:05 AM

    A recent Washington Post story by Joby Warrick says much about the credulity of the media. The story extols the great gains in wind power, noting that it “could provide more than a third of the country’s electricity by 2050 while yielding a net savings in energy costs paid by consumers.”

    Warrick, like many in the media, viewed this prediction by the Department of Energy as clear evidence of the gains by non-fossil fuel sources. Indeed, he quoted without comment the Department’s statement that there would a “net savings in energy costs paid by consumers” and later that this shift “would result in a net price increase of about 1 percent for consumers” even though “an overall savings of 2 percent.” The “savings” would include the imputed values of CO2 and other pollutant reductions. Consumers are going to pay more, but “society” will benefit—a story we’ve heard before. 

    But, although the article suggests that dramatic cost reductions in the wind power area have made this source more economically attractive, the report also “warned that consistent government policies were critical to avoiding boom and bust cycles,” and that “Congress must keep the wind-friendly tax policies in place.” So, an efficient technology option has to be subsidized to survive in the marketplace?  Does the media ever read its own stories?

    Of course, wind power can be attractive to some if it is heavily enough subsidized. But an energy alternative that’s been around since the Middle Ages and which the Department of Energy claims to be cost-competitive cannot survive without continued government subsidies? The media seems to like any energy source that requires government support.

  • Data Torturing at the CPSC

    March 19, 2015 1:57 PM

    James Mills of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lamented in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1993: “‘If you torture your data long enough, they will tell you whatever you want to hear’ has become a popular observation in our office. In plain English, this means that study data, if manipulated in enough different ways can prove whatever the investigator wants to prove.”

    Government regulators will resort to such data torture to justify an activist regulatory agendas if they can’t do it with good data and sound science. One approach includes selective use of data—excluding years or datasets that might change the conclusions of a risk assessment. The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recent Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) report on the chemical class known as phthalates offers one new example of excluding inconvenient data.

    In short, the CHAP report is being used to justify a proposed rule that would essentially ban the use of certain chemicals for toys that children might mouth or chew. These chemicals make plastics soft and pliable, suited for such things as a plastic version of a “rubber duckie.” For background on this issue, see my other blog posts here and here

    In addition, in the absence of any compelling body of data that any individual phthalate is the cause of human health effects, the panel relied on the possibility that the cumulative effects of phthalates as a class pose risks. Accordingly, they needed data on human exposure from all sources.

    The panel developed a “cumulative risk assessment” that they maintained justified regulations. But pharmacologist Christopher J. Borgert, Ph.D., observes in a review of the CHAP report that the panel’s cumulative risk assessment: “failed to recognize obvious inconsistencies with human experience and clinical evidence”; “overstates the accuracy of its cumulative risk methods and conclusions”; and “appears to have grossly overestimated chemical potencies.” In other words, the panel failed to properly apply the available data and research.

    To make matters worse, they used old and irrelevant data for their human exposure assessments even though more accurate and recent data was available. Former and current CPSC commissioners have noted that had the panel used the most recent data, their risk assessment would have produced the opposite result. This issue raises the prospect that the panel members were intentionally “selective” in their use of data because they desired to generate a particular conclusion, as appears to be the case with their selection of studies that they also reviewed. 

  • CPSC's Scientific Shenanigans on Phthalates

    March 18, 2015 2:00 PM

    Many “stakeholders” have complained about the process through which the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) developed its proposed rule related to a class of chemicals called phthalates—and rightly so. In particular, the agency’s failure to allow public comment and open peer review of its Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel report (CHAP report) underscore the fact that bureaucrats want to avoid scrutiny that might hold them accountable for rash and unscientific decisions. 

    Designed to make plastics soft and pliable, these chemicals have many valuable uses for making a wide range of products from blood bags, to rain boots and swimming pool liners as well as children’s toys, which are the subject of this regulation. Safely used for decades, activists and regulators are poised to essentially throw away these valuable technologies based largely on junk science. 

    While this rule only affects toys that children might place in their mouths or chew, it sets a terrible precedent. I already detailed how this rule might harm consumers in a blog post last week. Now let’s look at the so-called “science” behind it.

    The justification for the proposed regulations are found within the CHAP report, which is a review and risk assessment that the agency released in July 2014. A key problem stems from the fact that the CHAP report relies on a selective review of limited studies that offer scant evidence that individual phthalates or cumulative exposure pose any significant risk to humans at current exposure levels. 

    Most of the CHAP-report-identified “evidence” that these chemicals pose health risks comes from lab tests that over-dose rodents to trigger health effects. Such tests are not particularly relevant to humans that better metabolize the substance and who are exposed to traces that are multitudes lower.

    The human research highlighted in the CHAP report is not particularly compelling either. Many of these human studies are noted to be “small,” which limits their value for drawing any conclusions. And many of them report associations between potential health effects in babies whose mothers’ phthalate exposure levels were measured in single “spot” urine samples during pregnancy. Given that humans metabolize phthalates relatively quickly, one time spot measurements may be misleading about actual exposures, raising important questions about the utility of such studies.

  • CPSC Proposal on Phthalates Likely to Do More Harm than Good

    March 13, 2015 8:58 AM

    On Monday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission will close the comment period for a proposed rule related to chemicals used to make soft and pliable plastics. While they claim to do this in the name of children’s health, it’s not clear that the rule will do more good than harm.

    The process and the “scientific” review that brings us to this proposed rule has been controversial, to say the least. I detail some of those issues in comments that I will submit on Monday and will post some of that here on Monday as well.

    Unfortunately, not enough attention has focused on the fact that the agency-commissioned study—referred to as the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) report—failed to fully consider the potential implications of substitute products that will replace those they ban. 

    Before initiating a rulemaking that may remove chemical technologies from the marketplace that have been safely used for decades, CPSC should consider whether replacement products pose greater risks. The CHAP allegedly addresses replacement products by reviewing data on the potential environmental health effects of other chemical substitutes. But the CHAP did not address whether or not the substitutes that might actually win a place in the market would affect product performance in ways that help or harm public health and safety.  

    The rule should ensure net safety, considering all factors. It is incumbent that regulators don’t inadvertently increase risks with short-sighted decisions. Based on the CHAP, we lack reasonable assurance that regulatory action will increase net safety and, in fact, such actions might accidentally introduce new hazards and even greater public health and safety risks.

  • There Are No “Neutral Taxes” in Politics

    February 25, 2015 10:24 AM

    Those favoring larger government are finding it harder to finance them by raising taxes. Proponents have sought to reduce opposition by claiming that they’re not really raising taxes at all—their taxes will be “neutral.” Sure, we’ll take $50 billion or so in taxes from the economy, but we’ll then put it back again in the form of tax reductions or rebates. From a macro-economic perspective, they argue, there will be no impact at all! Why bother, you might ask? 

    The prime candidate advanced by those seeking to better plan our economy is the carbon tax. We’ll tax carbon and use the revenues to offset its impact. People will use less energy but retain the same income. We’ll change prices without changing income—a highly targeted incentive package! To tax energy users is feasible, although complicated—simply tax all energy materials. But farmers have traditionally escaped gas and diesel taxes for on-farm use—will this exemption be repealed? 

    In many regions, people use natural gas, oil, and electricity (which in turn uses coal, natural gas, and some hydro and nuclear). The prices of some of these energy types is market driven, while others are regulated. The income impact on specific consumers is not easily ascertained nor is the appropriate rebate. The result is that the micro-impact of energy taxes is never neutral. Individuals in areas dependent on coal or oil will lose; individuals in areas where climate or policy has shifted to solar or other renewable energy will gain relatively. And this critique fails to note another problem: the tendency of politicians to use new tax revenues to gain support for the measure.  Since different groups have different priorities, the result is often to “spend” the new tax revenues many times over. Rebates, being complicated and having no strong political champion, are likely to receive low priority.

  • Gas Tax Mission Creep: From User-Pays to Carbon Tax?

    January 26, 2015 9:39 AM

    The Niskanen Center is a new libertarian think tank that we at CEI look forward to working with on a number of issues. However, one where we are unlikely to agree is on the virtues of a real-world tax on carbon emissions. Sarah E. Hunt had a post last week over at the Niskanen Center's Climate Unplugged blog arguing that Senate EPW chairman Jim Inhofe's recent defense of the federal gas tax as an infrastructure user tax is at odds with his antipathy to a carbon tax.

    Now, I have criticized Sen. Inhofe's blindspot on infrastructure spending in the past, as he has long admitted he is "a big spender in two areas: national defense and infrastructure." But is Sen. Inhofe's position on the federal excise taxes on motor fuels really contradictory? Under closer examination, the answer is no.

    Sen. Inhofe supports fuel taxes in the way they have been used since 1956, when Congress greatly expanded the federal-aid highway programs to construct the Interstate Highway System. Built upon the user-pays/user-benefits and pay-as-you-go principles, Congress directed the proceeds from highway user taxes into the Highway Trust Fund, which was intentionally designed to bypass the general treasury and annual appropriations battles. Multi-year highway (and later transit) program reauthorization legislation then specified outlays to various formula-based disbursement programs that flow to state departments of transportation, with Congress setting total outlays to approximate projected revenues over that period.

    Of the four major fuel tax increases since the modern federal-aid system was established, two were solely infrastructure revenue-raisers, one was half user-tax and half deficit reduction, and one, the last increase in 1993 that brought the current rate up to 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, was intended solely for deficit reduction. That 4.3-cent increase from 1993 aimed at deficit reduction was redirected to the Highway Trust Fund in 1997. This is where the federal gas tax rate sits today.

    Note that promoting environmental benefits appears nowhere above. Regardless of your position on federal fuel taxes, they have never been used for any purpose other than dedicated infrastructure funding and, very occasionally and temporarily, deficit reduction.* In recent years, the traditional federal-aid system has started to break down, with Congress refusing to either reduce outlays to meet projected revenues or increase the fuel tax rates. Instead, Congress has bailed out the Highway Trust Fund with over $50 billion in general funds over the past decade, moving the U.S. in a road socialist direction.

  • Free to Prosper: Top Priorities for the 114th Congress

    January 14, 2015 9:29 AM

    With the start of the 114th Congress comes a fresh opportunity to address the challenges created by a broken government. To kick off this new congressional session, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) recommends numerous reform proposals to strengthen the U.S. economy, increase transparency, and foster fair and open competition instead of favoring special interests.

    CEI’s top policy proposals center on substantive regulatory reforms needed to improve America’s economic health. In 2014 alone, 3,541 new regulations hit the books, and the burden is constantly growing. If federal regulations were a country, their cost would amount to the world’s 10th largest economy.  

    In addition to reining in burdensome regulations, CEI recommends that Congress continue to conduct fundamental oversight to protect Americans from executive overreach. Over the last six years, federal agencies have sought to usurp power from the legislative branch. Congress has a responsibility to demand honesty and accountability from our leaders and defend the rule of law.

  • Activist Science Undermines Research on Honeybees and Pesticides

    December 15, 2014 11:27 AM

    As reported in a blog post by David Zaruk, some of the “science” on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybees appears to have resulted from a pre-orchestrated campaign, rather than an unbiased scientific process. The researchers involved are members of the International Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which is part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

    The task force was ostensibly set up “to bring together through research an integrated assessment of the worldwide impact of systemic pesticides on biodiversity and ecosystems, based on articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.” But Zaruk explains that he discovered a document indicating that the effort was more political than scientific.

    The document summarizes a workshop held at the University of Paris back in 2010 at which task force members outlined a strategy designed to make the case that neonicotinoids do in fact harm bees—drawing that conclusion before completing an unbiased, scientific assessment. To that end, it appears that they planned out where they would place studies condemning the chemicals to gain political impact, rather than exploring how they would critically review the body of research.

    IUCN is in fact an activist group, so their desire to undermine chemicals is not all that surprising.  But this case does show how activism has permeated scientific research, confusing the world about the state of science on many issues. While we all have opinions, there needs to be a clearly defined line between policy goals and scientific research. 

    As Zaruk notes: “[N]o credible scientist starts with a campaign strategy and then conjures up some evidence as an afterthought to fit his or her activist agenda. That is not science!”

    Indeed, legitimate scientific discovery requires that researchers try to keep their biases in check, rather than plan studies and placements to garner a desired political objective. In fact, researchers are supposed to begin with a hypothesis and conduct experiments aimed at disproving that hypothesis. So researchers do not leap to conclusions too quickly, scientists are trained to search extensively for reasons to reject their hypotheses. That means that rather than try to prove their theory, they act as a sort of devil’s advocate, attempting to show no effect. In that case, biases may be kept in check and positive associations should be more robust.

  • New Field Study Confirms Neonicotinoids Have Little Impact on Honeybees

    November 24, 2014 9:58 AM

    As the Ontario provincial government in Canada considers policies that may force farmers to stop using, or drastically reduce use of, a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, a new study shows why such policies are unlikely to do any good. Supposedly, limiting use of these pesticides will improve honeybee hive health, but such regulations will simply make it harder for farmers to produce an affordable food supply.

    The study, which relies on data from actual field conditions, confirms that farmers can protect their crops using these chemicals without harming honeybee hives. Published in PeerJ, it assessed the impact of neonicotinoid-treated canola crops on hives that foraged among these crops in 2012. The researchers found no adverse impacts and very low exposure to the chemicals. The authors report:

    Overall, colonies were vigorous during and after the exposure period, and we found no effects of exposure to clothianidin seed-treated canola on any endpoint measures. Bees foraged heavily on the test fields during peak bloom and residue analysis indicated that honey bees were exposed to low levels (0.5–2 ppb) of clothianidin in pollen. Low levels of clothianidin were detected in a few pollen samples collected toward the end of the bloom from control hives, illustrating the difficulty of conducting a perfectly controlled field study with free-ranging honey bees in agricultural landscapes. Overwintering success did not differ significantly between treatment and control hives, and was similar to overwintering colony loss rates reported for the winter of 2012–2013 for beekeepers in Ontario and Canada. Our results suggest that exposure to canola grown from seed treated with clothianidin poses low risk to honey bees.

    Despite all the media hype about how these chemicals harm honeybees, these findings are not surprising.  Research condemning these chemicals has tended to focus on lab studies that overdose bees to see if pesticides affect hive health. But those studies have little relevance to real-life exposure to these chemicals in the field. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service’s Kim Kaplan explains that such studies have “relied on large, unrealistic doses and gave bees no other choice for pollen, and therefore did not reflect risk to honey bees under real world conditions.”

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