The Week That Was
July 26- August 1, 1999

NEW  on the SEPP  web

Did you know that global warming is good for you?  Of course, you may have always suspected it to be so.  But it’s good to have it confirmed by 26 leading economists in a book just published by the Cambridge University Press.  Our book review, published in Regulation, tells the full story


The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has hit the EPA again by staying State Implementation Plans (SIPs) in the Ozone Transport region.  Environmental groups were predictably outraged, issuing a statement headlined “Polluters Win Court Decision, Condemning Kids, Elderly to Unsafe Air.  Other States to Continue Shipping Killer Air to Pennsylvania.”  Pretty strong language that!

The last time we dealt with a transport problem was a decade ago during the acid-rain “crisis.”  Sponsored by Senator Moynihan in the mid 80’s, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) was a focused, multi-agency research program with independent peer review to assess the causes and effects of acid rain.  Some 3000 scientists participated, and the more they looked, the less they found.  Early claims about the disastrous effects of acid rain [remember the “Waldsterben” in Germany’s Black Forest?] were wildly exaggerated.  But once Reagan left the White House, EPA became the 900-pound gorilla in the acid-rain debate, submerging the influence of the other agencies.  The release of the NAPAP report, concluding that acid rain was a minor environmental problem, a “nothing-burger,” was delayed by EPA until after the Clean Air Act had passed in 1990.  When the full report was finally made available, it was judged “not policy-relevant.”  Pat Moynihan had some acid remarks on that acid rain maneuver.

The new EPA automobile-exhaust emissions test is damaging car engines.  Illinois EPA received nearly 300 claims in February and March of damage caused by the new dynamometer test.  Some real horror stories are cited in the newsletter “Ward’s Engine and Vehicle Technology Update.”  Part of the problem is low-skilled workers who are insufficiently trained in safe procedures needed to test vehicles.  The end result may be a moratorium on the use of the IM-240 test in Illinois.  Ohio has already rejected the test.  Independent policy group Resources for the Future has concluded that Arizona’s IM-240 test is much less effective than claimed by EPA.  Their analysis is supported by other researchers: It actually makes little difference what test is employed to spot high-pollution vehicles.  Emission reduction is a function not of testing, but of a repair technician’s talent and a vehicle owner’s willingness to pay the bill.

EPA wants refiners to reduce sulfur in gasoline by 90%, from 300 parts per million down to 30 ppm (Wall Street Journal June 21).  EPA claims that this will boost fuel efficiency.  How is this possible?  Well, lower sulfur values are necessary if one wants to use a “lean-burning” engine AND meet the extremely tight EPA tailpipe emission standards for NOX at the same time.  Therefore, fuel efficiency and pollution standards are in conflict because NOx-adsorber catalysts are sensitive to sulfur.  The only problem is that auto manufacturers say they require sulfur to be between zero and 5 ppm to meet both NOX emission reductions and fuel-efficiency goals.  For its part, EPA has not provided any comment or cost estimates.  But get ready for higher gas prices.


The Wall Street Journal (May 18) carried a little story about how a remote region in western Brazil has developed into a center for soybean production over the past 20 years. Crop yields per acre equal those of Iowa.  Moreover, the climate allows year-around farming.  Production in this region is already measurably reducing world soybean prices and hurting American farmers.  The story credits the Amazon with this production miracle.  They might have also have credited Richard Nixon, who in 1971 declared an export embargo on soybeans for domestic reasons, forcing Japan and other consumers to develop alternative sources of supply. 

Basic food is cheap and becoming ever cheaper.  As Arthur Robinson points out in the June issue of Access to Energy, the farm price cost of feeding an adult for one year, using a basic civil defense diet is now about $22.  The rest is government regulations and taxes, food packaging and distribution, and non-basic foods eaten by preference rather than necessity. 

An Atomic Secret

Another atomic-energy pioneer has passed from the scene.  Clarence Larson was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission for five years under chairman Glenn Seaborg.  Dr. Larson publicized the story of the “Alvarez letter.”  Three atomic physicists from Los Alamos, Luis Alvarez, Robert Serber, and Philip Morrison (now at MIT), wrote an anonymous hand-written letter to Sagane, the leading Japanese physicist, which was dropped by parachute in August 1945, asking him to convince the Japanese General Staff to stop the war.  Professor Sagane contacted the High Command immediately.  The fact is that Japan offered to surrender on the next day.

Butterflies and other disasters

Transgenic Corn vs. Monarch Butterflies.  The June 7 issue of The Scientist reports on the conflict between proponents of genetically modified corn and those who claim that it destroys butterflies.  Transgenic corn containing Bt genes is resistant to the European corn borer and corn earworm.  The Bt toxins kill the insects.  Annual US damage from corn borer alone amounts to nearly a billion dollars.  Bt varieties now account for 30% of 1999 corn-acreage and its use is spreading to cotton and potatoes.  It is a big deal for agriculture, and it also reduces the need for expensive conventional pesticides.  But the Monarch caterpillars dine on milkweed plants growing near cornfields, which can be dusted by pollen from the Bt hybrid corn.  A laboratory experiment simulating field conditions demonstrated a high mortality of caterpillars munching on contaminated leaves.

With Monarch butterflies endangered and general opposition to genetically modified foods, its no wonder that the pollen hit the fan.  The Scientist calls the Monarch flap a “tempest in a corncob” and discusses the shortcomings of the experiment and the way the problem can be fixed.  But emotions in this business run high. 

[J.E. Losey et al., “Transgenic pollen harms Monarch larvae,” Nature, 399: 214, 1999.]

Disasters have cost the United States more than $500 billion in the past 20 years.  The National Science Foundation released a report “Disasters by Design,” involving 132 experts.  The study warns that there is no complete solution since technology cannot make the world safe from all the forces of nature.  But with rising populations and more people living in disaster-prone areas, earthquake zones and coastal areas exposed to hurricanes, losses are bound to rise.  Had hurricane Andrew struck a few miles north, it would have devastated the center of Miami, and we are still waiting for the great earthquake in the Los Angeles area.  It’s refreshing to learn, however, that carbon-dioxide emissions are not the primary hazard.  What a relief!


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