|The Week That Was
August 7, 1999
How to cheat on science without actually lying or manufacturing fake data? Selective reporting of data, or mathematical models with weird assumptions, are the favorites. Learn how to spot them from this illustrated talk to aspiring lawyers at Georgetown University.
GLOBAL WARMING BET
As our readers know, we have challenged Dr. Jerry Mahlman, director of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab of NOAA at Princeton, NJ, to a wager. (GFDL is the government's largest and oldest climate-modeling program.) In the August issue of Popular Science, Dr. Mahlman offered ten-to-one odds that global warming is "well underway." as the result of fossil-fuel burning. So, on July 20, we offered to put up $100 against his $1,000; but we'll be happy to take side bets that Dr. Mahlman will get cold feet and not take our offer. Stay tuned!
Of course, we don't have an exclusive. Jerry Mahlman's offer is available to anyone who wants to hold his feet to the fire. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
OIL ROYALTY FLAP
Seems that no one wants a civil servant to receive a windfall payment. When Mobil Oil decided to settle the government's lawsuit for underpayment of oil royalties, the non-profit Project on Government Oversight (POGO) carved out $1.8 million for itself from the $45 million settlement. POGO then decided to reward two Department of Interior officials who exposed the alleged underpayment as "unsung heroes." Now everyone is going after these two fellows, who each accepted $350,000 last year. But what about POGO? Not a word. What about the real problem, which is that the government doesn't know how to keep track of royalty payments or how to properly compute them? The remedy, as has been pointed out many times, is to abolish percentage royalties on oil produced altogether and pocket what is bound to be an increased bonus bid paid up front when drilling rights on federal oil properties are auctioned off. Not only would the government get more money sooner, but it would also eliminate a sizeable bureaucracy, together with a contentious accounting system.
[It is not surprising that energy companies would try to minimize royalty payments, just like taxpayers that use the tax code to reduce their income taxes. The problem arises when an integrated oil company sells its crude oil to its own refinery at "posted prices" that may be below market prices. Therefore, the dispute really is about transfer pricing and oil royalties-an arcane subject, but much appreciated by energy lawyers who litigate.]
WHO'S AFRAID OF EMF OR GLOBAL WARMING?
The latest gadget, the Earth Energy Pendant for only $99.95 (plus S&H) is designed to protect you from EMF radiation. It is said that it tunes you to Earth's magnetic forces. An accompanying diagram shows energy rising from the Earth, hitting the remarkable pendant, with incoherent energy then channeled back to the Earth, leaving only a protective shield. "Developed by a physicist (no less!), specializing in the measurement of electromagnetic forces," the pendant works as a form of grounding device for the pervasive fields surrounding computers, TVs and power lines. The blurbs go on and on. We will release the toll-free order number only upon special request to sincere believers in electro-magnetic fields, global warming, or similar spooky science.
A new kid on the environmental block. Climate Action NOW! has taken upon itself the task of "spurring the growth of a grassroots movement to fight climate destabilization from greenhouse gas emissions." And to celebrate their coming out, they are distributing hot news items through the internet. Like: Cracks Have Formed in the Antarctic Ice Shelf. Not really new or surprising, since the climate is warmer today than it was in the beginning of the century.
Meanwhile, Congress is trying to apply the brakes on the still unratified Kyoto Protocol, with Rep. David McIntosh (R-Indiana) introducing legislation that prohibits the use of federal funds to implement the Global Warming Treaty by round-about means. His "The Small Business, Family Farm and Constitution Protection Act" (H.R. 2221) (what about "Motherhood"?) is a preemptive strike against the efforts to create a pro-Kyoto business lobby through the Early Action Credit program.
THE MTBE FLAP (that's methyl tertiary butyl ether)
An EPA-appointed panel has told the agency to reduce substantially the use of MTBE, a possible carcinogen, detected in tap water when gasoline has leaked or spilled. EPA initially mandated the use of MTBE, or of ethanol, in reformulated gasoline with the aim of reducing ozone, a major component of urban smog. But a committee of the National Academy/National Research Council found that oxygen additives do little to reduce ozone. In fact, ethanol blends result in more pollutants evaporating from vehicle gas tanks, increasing the potential to form ozone. EPA administrator Carol Browner came up with a soothing response, promising to reduce the use of MTBE without sacrificing the "gains in achieving cleaner air." She did not spell out how MTBE had contributed to cleaner air, or how she planned to reduce its use.
This foul up signals a wider, more dangerous problem. Quoting from a July 28, 1999 editorial in USA Today: "With little public notice, the EPA time and again has used slipshod science to justify new anti-pollution rules, then defended the rules to the hilt, even if that defense came at the expense of its own scientists." Even more disturbing was the fact that the NAS/NRC panel just collected studies long available to the EPA, which just ignored the research, "The agency either was too busy cheerleading the fuel additive to examine that research seriously or willfully ignored it."
There is also a serious scientific problem. In assessing the risk of MTBE in drinking water, EPA assumed a non-linear mode of action for tumor induction. In contrast, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment of the state of California used a linear model based on the cancer end points. In spite of the different methodology they arrive at similar end points (20-40 ppb for the EPA and 13 ppb for the OEHHA)
[J.P. Brown et al. "Risk Assessment in California and Biological Effects of Low Level Exposures" Belle Newsletter. volume 8, number 1, July 1999.]
Finally, what does this performance spell for other chemicals foisted upon the public for mainly ideological reasons? What about the health effects of the CFC substitutes that are being introduced without first understanding fully their effects on human health?