April 2008 Archives

Gas Pipeline: Open Season Coming to Alaska

ConocoPhillips and BP have submitted a plan to build a gas pipeline through Alaska. Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive told the Financial Times Wednesday: "This project is vital for North American energy consumers and for the future of the Alaska oil and gas industry". Robin West, chairman of PFC Energy, told FT: "This is a critical project linking vast gas reserves with markets that are going to need that gas". But will the gas ever make it to the lower 48 states?

The Financial Times reported that most of the 4bn cubic feet of natural gas piped out every day will go to the Alberta tar sands, where it will be used to fuel the extraction of bitumen from which synthetic oil will be produced. Natural gas is needed for the energy intensive process of getting oil from the gummy viscous asphalt substance contained in the sands.

Extraction from the vast Alberta sands is energy intensive and expensive, but since oil is scarce and the price per barrel has gone up, more companies find the investment worthwhile. Saudi Arabia's oil reserves are considered the largest in the world, the Alberta tar sands are the second largest. They cover a large area 50,000 square miles, about the size of Florida -- or Nepal, North Korea, Malawi, Greece or Tibet. 40 companies involved with 143 projects currently work to extract the bitumen. The main sites are at Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River. Scientists expect the sands to yield over a trillion barrels of oil.

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about the Alberta tar sands endeavor last November in a New Yorker article, "Unconventional Crude: Canada's synthetic -fuels boom", and described the difficult process of extracting the viscous bitumen. Bitumen close to the surface can be mined then extracted from the sand. First the surface vegetation and soil is removed to access the sands. Then tons of sand are removed via open pit mining and transported to an extraction plant. The the sand is the soaked and agitated with hot water so the bitumen can be siphoned off. Since bitumen is only about 10% of the sand by volume, the multi-step process is necessary.

This extraction is simple compared to those used to extract oil from greater depths. Most of the bitumen containing sands are deep beneath the surface 100-250 feet down, in which case the extraction becomes even more complicated. Two main in-situ processes employed are Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS), and Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). These both heat the sand mixture which makes the bitumen less viscous, more like molasses, which will flow. Kolbert describes SAGD:

"Typically, two horizontal wells are drilled into the sands, one above the other. High-pressure steam is injected into the top well; eventually, the tar sands grow hot enough-- nearly four hundred degrees-- that bitumen begins to flow into the bottom well."

All of the current methods of bitumen extraction are energy intensive. SAGD uses the equivalent of 1 barrel out of 3 extracted from the sand pits. The process is laborious and energy intensive, and currently fueled by natural gas. Kolbert notes that by 2012 the tar sand extractions will require "2 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, or enough to heat all the homes in Canada". Therefore the pipeline, as the Financial Times reports .

The extraction process uses significantly more energy than what is consumed in drilling for oil, in fact carbon emissions produced are 50% higher per barrel of oil consumed. People question how such an energy intensive project can go forward when the overall goal is to lower global emissions. As well, other problems, such as environmental destruction from the mining, ground water pollution and air pollution also dog the project. Despite the environmental concern and pockets of resistance however, oil prices are so high that politicians support the investment and its outcomes, both positive (more oil) and controversial.

Since the mid-1800's engineers have been trying to find efficient methods for extracting the oil. At one point engineers hatched a plan with government to detonate atom bombs beneath the surface to release the oil. The scheme was part of Project Plowshare, which sought to utilize atomic bombs for peaceful purposes. Scientists proposed "earthmoving" for all kinds of activities, including oil and gas extraction, canal building, etc.. One test came in the form of Project Gasbuggy, which used nuclear energy in the form of an atomic bomb to release natural gas in New Mexico. A 1967 Time magazine article interviewed people who attended the of the government and gas company "kick-off":

"..the earth jolted underfoot and a dull, distant boom was heard, followed by a second, more gentle, rolling shock. Someone shouted: "We did it! We did it!" Hand shakes were exchanged all around. The U.S. had successfully set off the first nuclear explosion sponsored jointly by the Government and industry."

A marker designates the Gasbuggy Project site, where no digging is currently allowed -- Atomictourist.com has more details. Project Plowshare eventually got dropped when enthusiasm for nuclear "earthmoving" waned. The USSR also did work in the peacetime use of atomic bombs for oil and gas excavation and apparently worked to extract bitumen from sands like Alberta's.

For the current project, BP teamed up with Conoco, reports the paper, because BP's reputation is fairly damaged in Alaska after several large spills. Previous to this new bid, Conoco had submitted a bid in response to the state's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act (AGIA), however the state approved only one company's bid: TransCanada's. As a next step, BP/Conoco will fund an "open season", seeking companies to commit to transporting the gas, before asking Congress for regulatory approval for the project.

For Glory of State, Primacy of Science

Charlie Rose concluded a thirteen part series on science earlier this week, with another interesting episode, "The Imperative of Science". Sharing his table were Paul Nurse, who shared the Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine in 2001 and is currently President of Rockefeller University, Bruce Alberts, a biochemist, author of texts like the definitive Molecular Biology of the Cell, former two time president of the National Academy of Sciences and Editor-in-chief of the journal Science; Lisa Randall, Harvard particle physicist and author; physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, who is the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Harold Varmus, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, headed the NIH through a heady science period and is now the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The focus was the importance of science and it naturally was an interesting, convivial, and lively, if general, discussion.

The group said that the US has become complacent about its long time position as a world leader in science. Increased global competition in science demands decisive action if the country is to maintain its status. The participants emphasized the need for better science education. Alberts brought up primary and secondary education, and they all discussed the importance of improving college curricula. They stressed that learning about the scientific process and experimentation should be made a central part of liberal arts education, and that all students, not just those who show great promise to be scientists, should learn and experiment at science.

Thinking scientifically is not only important to understanding science, these leaders pointed out, but to processing any complex problem. The goal is to resist "the dogma of talk radio" and to be an active participant in democracy. (They ran with the 'science is democracy' idea)

They all agreed when one scientist compared science to a frog sitting in the pot of water as the heat gets turned up. According to the allegory a frog that sits in cold water will stay and perish when the temperature is raised (by some demented frog torturer). When I heard this I applied the critical thinking and research skills that only scientific training can hone, and learned that the frog tale is an urban myth. The good news is that apparently frogs save themselves rather than fatally habituating to hot water -- though to be honest, mine is second hand information. Apart from urban myths, the urgency for science in America is real, as is the human tendency to disastrously ignore problems like global that creep up on us. It's not all about science.

The group discussed various ways to reinvigorate American science as was done with focus and enterprise after Sputnik. Perhaps a problem like global warming could rouse national science spirit, they said. (Coincidentally, Al Gore applied the same frog allegory to global warming in he movie "An Inconvenient Truth")

The scientists expressed nervous concern that our leaders be able to "connect the dots". A president needs to lead the nation to an understanding of science's central place in society and needs to focus attention on fundamentals like education and funding in order to assure both the nation's preeminence in science and increased public understanding of science. Politicians need to support science in a broad cross-disciplinary way, they said. The goal should not be to tackle a series of individual problems but to recognize the commonalities across disciplines and build a foundation upon which science progress thrives with long-term bipartisan support.

Rose asked whether there was enough interest in science among voters to warrant a presidential science debate, adding ""voters are there if you can get on the right side of it". The scientists expressed incredulity that there weren't already strong public science platforms, and supported a debate to reassure Democrat and Republican voters of candidates' commitments to national competitiveness via science.

Here's the link to watch/listen to the video its entirety.


We've opined on the science debate and write frequently about these science issues, as well as education. Here are some education posts:
A Fine Balance,
Up in Smoke: High School Science Labs
Research, Politics and Working Less
Prioritizing Science Education, the Latest Report
Big Labels & Little Science
Science Research in France - Changing the System

Green CDs and Plastic Trees: Polycarbonate Fever

Plastic is Forever

Those plastics people are forever clever. In headlines touting "DVDs and CD-ROMs that Thwart Global Warming", chemists describe "innovative ways of making polycarbonate plastics from CO2", which would yield "less expensive, safer and greener products". No mention of bisphenol A by these green inventors -- polycarbonate is a polyester of bisphenol A and carbonic acid.

Thomas E. Muller's research at CAT Catalytic Center, a collaboration of RWTH Aachen University, Bayer Material Science, and Bayer Technology led to the breakthrough. The Center was set up to leverage the expertise at the university, with that at Bayer, a prominent bisphenol-A manufacturer, in order to develop the new chemical processes and products. Muller presented his research at the American Chemical Society meeting this week and called the new process an "economic driving force". Dr Sakakura of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan, also presented research on carbon dioxide fixation to synthesize polycarbonates, and said his process is cheaper then a previous one invented in Japan,and has the added benefit of circumventing the use of phosgene, a toxic gas, in the synthesis.

The two investigators did not divulge their processes because of pending patents. However several different methods for producing polycarbonate from CO2 have been described by others and can be found on freepatentsonline.com and patentstorm.com -- if you're curious about other processes. At MoleculeoftheDay.com, the author describes how to make polycarbonate using phosgene and a commenter offers that triphosgene can be substituted for phosgene.1

C02 Reduction: Little Building Blocks

One report notes that rock stars will be pleased to be contributing to carbon emissions reductions. Muller said that consumers may be "drinking from a carbon dioxide product and watching movies on waste-CO2 DVDs sooner than they think." "Millions of tons of polycarbonates already are sold each year with the volume rising", Mueller said, and "using CO2 to create polycarbonates might not solve the total carbon dioxide problem, but it could be a significant contribution."

While polycarbonate makes a nice drinking bottle, so do other materials. DVD's are pretty cheap with today's technology -- 100 blank DVDs for $30 is not too exorbitant. But who needs streaming video and audio if you can continue to purchase (and discard) cheap (bisphenol-A containing) plastic. However the DVD entire production process produces carbon emissions, much of which is not from the actual manufacture of the DVDs. For instance, News Corp published a carbon emissions analysis for the DVD release of the children's product, "Futurama, Bender's Big Score", which totals 447.5 tons of carbon for the DVD release. The site advertises their plan to make this a carbon neutral DVD, but you can get an idea of the carbon emissions breakdown.

Most of the carbon emissions used in producing such products don't come from manufacturing the DVD, and apparently manufacturing DVD's with this new method only sequesters nominal amounts of CO2. CBC News reported that despite Muller's enthusiasm, the scientist also acknowledged "that the sequestration would be "'in the per cent range'"(no number given), and only "a little building block"'.

Cement CO2 Sequestration

In other CO2 sequestration news, Nature reported that a UK researcher stumbled upon a process that occurs when cement breaks down at old building sites then becomes overgrown with weeds and plants. ("Waste concrete could help to lock up carbon":doi:10.1038/news.2008.732). Carbon dioxide is used by plants during photosynthesis then the plants release carbon containing root exudates. These exudates mix with calcium minerals from the cement to form calcium carbonate, thereby permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The process could theoretically "lock up 4 million tonnes of carbon a year in the UK", reports Nature. The UK produces 150 tonnes of annual emissions. Another interesting little building block.

One commenter to that article noted that sequestration isn't as good as not emitting CO2 in the first place.


1 Polycarbonate synthesis is not our field.

New Directions for AIDS Research Funding

Merck's AIDS Vaccine Failure: The Fallout

When Merck's AIDS vaccine candidate failed in clinical trials, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called a summit. The drug candidate did not reduce HIV infections, in fact the adenovirus based vaccine seemed to increase the risk of infections.

The meeting of scientists on March 25th in Washington focused on the future of HIV/AIDS research in light of the fallout of Merck vaccine trials. Scientists like Anthony Fauci, who heads the NIAID, agree that funding needs to be redirected towards a broader research agenda and ideas beyond drug development and vaccines. Science last week noted that the decision about whether to proceed with the large NIH clinical trial planned for its HIV vaccine is still pending. ("Review of Vaccine Failure Prompts a Return to Basics" DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5872.30)

Nature reported on the summit last week, pointing out that these clinical AIDS trials went forward not necessarily based on the strength of the science -- one of the vaccine candidates had a unimpressive track record -- but because programs needed to "show the public that progress is being made, thereby justifying the millions of dollars from philanthropists and taxpayers". ("Broken Promises" doi:10.1038/452503a).

The editorial recounted how ambitious commitments made during the flush funding environment earlier his decade in effect short-changed basic research. The journal notes that the choices to heavily fund certain drug development is being reconsidered in light of the trial failures and the budget shortfalls of recent years. Nature warns that other fields, for instance stem-cell research, autism, and Parkinson's disease, are repeating the same mistakes.

The Mythical Man Month, But On Steroids

The business approach to research and clinical trials comes with a high stakes mentality. This can be fanned by ample, vigorous marketing which ratchets up expectations both within organizations, within the field and within the public arena. The business-oriented nature of many philanthropic organizations influences the focus on development and can distort public expectations. They'll deny it, but investors can and do influence the direction of an entire field.

When a field becomes dominated by a few foundations it can gather tremendous productive momentum, but it can also stampede so hard down a particular path that other avenues of research are ignored. We've commented on this not only with recent AIDS and vaccination funding but with autism research and others. If that direction proves to be less fruitful than hoped research cannot turn around on a dime.

Each high-funded disease has its own idiosyncratic pitfalls, but unlike many entrepreneurial ventures, behind the many good works and fine intentions of charities, science research rarely responds to force.

When scientists request research funding, the results don't always yield answers as quickly as businesses might hope. To put it in terms software engineers understand, research is the mythical man month on steroids. Some people investing in biotech and international public health come from businesses very unlike public health with its vagaries of not only politics and human behavior, but biology.

Science as Society's Silver Bullet

In today's fast paced communications and computing climate, intense focus on "results" is inherent to our culture. Expectations carry over from the successful and extraordinarily speedy progress of the genome sequencing. Scientists and politicians built hopes during that era that drug development and an accelerated understanding of human disease would follow. It has, but did we expect more?

How are the public's expectations torqued? TV drug advertising gives the impression that scientists are developing a pill for every insignificant hangnail, when many of these drugs aren't new, just the subjects of new marketing campaigns. Meanwhile tougher diseases and conditions remain elusive.

High profile funding can influence the research environment and lead to a very public dead end. In the larger picture, despite the wisdom that should be accruing from these experiences, politicians, technology leaders, and pundits continue to wax-on about technology's potential to produce solutions not only for specific diseases but for extremely complicated social problems such as global warming and healthcare.

But while science research may yield amazing pharmaceuticals and oil extraction techniques, one cannot look to science or technology to solve the healthcare crisis in the United States. Science and technology contextualize these problems integral in our lives but despite heady declarations, science is not central to the solutions.


Acronym Required has written previously about these subjects, AIDS and research directions, and vaccines. Here are a couple of our vaccine articles:

Vaccinations -- Why Worry?
Polio Vaccinations - The end of a scourge?
Group B Strep Vaccine Development
Vaccine Development For Infectious Diseases

Rare Frog Adapts to be Lung-less

Before scientists went snorkeling in Borneo and plucked a frog, the charming looking Barboroula kalimantanensis, out from under a large rock in a fast moving body of water, the elusive species had been found only twice before. In 1978 Djoko Iskandar described the new species of frog in the journal Copeia (Dec. 28, 564-566), cataloging its webbed toes, rugose skin, flattened head, and the myriad anatomical features that distinguished it as a unique species. The second find was sighting was almost 20 years later, 1995, by the same scientist, Iskandar, who also collaborated on the current research.

As an endangered species, the frog is perhaps lucky that it's so difficult to locate, although it's still subjected to environmental pollutants and habitat encroachment from logging and mining. Not so fortuitous for these primitive frogs, the scientists decided to dissect the specimens for the first time and found that the species has no lungs. David Bickford, an evolutionary biologist at the National University of Singapore, explained that "because these specimens were so rare, they had never been dissected. If you have just one...in your museum, you don't want to rip it open!" (a different approach then some scientists take with their newly found marine species, Acronym Required has found). If unlucky for these frogs, the discovery was lucky for the researchers, as they got their name splashed across headlines around the world. 1

The biologists hypothesize that the frog adapted to the highly oxygenated fast moving water by losing lung capacity. Since the frog lost its lungs, its body became more flattened and less buoyant, which researchers deduce helps it stay under rocks. As well, with its increased surface area respiratory capacity through its increased skin surface area.

Tetrapods without lungs are rare. There are lung-less salamanders and one species of caecilian, an earthworm-like amphibian, that don't have lungs, and some frogs with very diminished lungs, but this is the first species to have only cartilage in the place of lungs.


1 This news was in an advance press release supposedly ahead of a April 8th Current Biology article which we could not locate. Acronym Required usually doesn't publish research without reading the original source, but will update this post if needed. Update 05/06 - The article was published May 06, 2008 in Current Biology: Bickford, D.; Iskandar D.; Barlian, A; "Lungless frog discovered on Borneo": Current Biology, Vol 18, R374-R375, 06 May 2008.

Bacteria Flourish on Antibiotics

A couple of years ago in "The Microbes Win", Acronym Required wrote about research done by Wright et al at McMaster University, who found that many species of microbes isolated from soil samples had significant antibiotic resistance to clinically useful antibiotics. Last week researchers at Harvard published a study in the journal Science (Dantas et al, "Bacteria Subsisting on Antibiotics":Vol. 320. no. 5872, pp. 100 - 103), advancing research in this area a step further.

The scientists managed to culture a significant number of soil isolates using antibiotics as the sole source of carbon. The bacteria that proliferated most proficiently on a diet of antibiotics were from the Pseudomoniale and Burholderiale orders. Bacteria in the genuses Pseudomonas or Burkholderia, like Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Burkoholderia cepacia are responsible for infections involved in meningitis, skin, lung and bone infections, swimmer's ear, and opportunistic infections in immunocompromised patients and those afflicted with cystic fibrosis.

The Harvard group suggest that the large genomes of Pseudomonas and Burkholderia species give them many diverse mechanisms of resisting bacteria and adaptive versatility, and that catabolism of antibiotics is just one tool in their arsenal of antibiotic resistance mechanisms.

These bacteria are very relevant clinically but scientists haven't observed utilization of this antibiotic catabolism, probably because there are many sources of carbon at infection site therefore catabolism of antibiotics isn't the most useful method of resistance. Since soil residing bacteria are exposed to natural sources of antibiotics, the research isn't extremely surprising, but may lead to further understanding of shared and unique antibiotic resistance mechanisms.

Melting Glaciers and Polar Bears: Coveted Props, Real Problems

There's an interesting side note in the credit fallout, with its subprime mortage scandal, Bear Stearns debacle, and complex financial instruments that no one, not even the experts understand. The nervous economists desperately try to whistle past a recession, and people talk and write endlessly about pros and cons of regulation, then in the midst of all these problems, some prominent financiers are suddenly pushing for financial education of the public. Experts like Donald Trump, (an exemplar of financial responsibility), are speaking out and establishing programs to teach finance in high schools, colleges, and communities.

The Economist quotes Niall Ferguson, a historian at Harvard University, who says that no one understands finance and that even MBA students don't know "'the difference between the nominal and real interest rate."'

Blackstone CEO Peter G. Peterson is among the crowd bent on relaying a message of fiscal prudence. Part of his goal for retirement is founding and leading organizations like the Concord Coalition, whose mission is educating the public on financial responsibility, for instance by producing learning modules to sell to high schools and colleges.

Peterson is also organizing "grassroot" movements around financial education, and buying films that teach young people about responsible finance. He's especially intent on warning people about the pending disaster of entitlements, particularly social security.

Peterson's first film is scheduled for release in September and he's optimistic about its box office prospects. He told Charlie Rose the other night he's been "energized by what Al Gore's experience was" with the "Inconvenient Truth". However he added, "...I wish we had polar bears, I wish we had ice caps" to "dramatize" the story.

Ahh...but then he'd have the real problem of global warming to worry about.

The EPA: Mulish Days, Staring out to Pasture

EPA: The Dog Ate Our Homework

Last week 18 states sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after the agency refused to act on last year's Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA. The court had ordered the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gases presented a danger to public health and welfare, and if so ordered the EPA to form a plan for regulating them. The states' action was the latest move in the long tussle between the EPA and the states, the EPA and multiple Congressional committees, the EPA and various non-profits speaking on behalf of citizens, even the EPA and businesses who have a keen interest in slowing climate change.

On March 27th (PDF!), EPA administrator Steven L. Johnson sent a letter to Congressman Henry Waxman's (D-CA) Oversight Committee, outlining his plan to seek public comment on greenhouse gases and potential regulation. It was a short, simple letter but an elaborate Victorian lacework of excuses. The decision, he wrote, involved sifting through "options", "potential effects", "pending petitions","possible regulations", "careful considerations", "comment periods", "relevant data","drafts", "solicit[ations]" and "extensive briefings".

The Supreme Court ordered a ruling on the implications of CO2 from mobile sources, but administrator Johnson chose to expand his review to include as many stakeholders as he could think of -- "experts", "schools", "hospitals," "factories", "power plants", "aircraft and ships", "on-road vehicles", "off-road vehicles", "petroleum refineries", "Portland cement", "authorities", "power plants" and "industrial boilers". Procrastinators and students of a dog-ate-my-paper temperament should study his document for inspiration.

The 300 Page EPA Reports Had Already Found C02 Endangers Public Health

The science on CO2 is conclusive and the EPA knows it. The agency has already followed up on the 2007 Supreme Court ruling with a thorough investigation of their own. For that investigation, the agency recruited 60-70 experts to look at the greenhouse gas effect on public welfare (summary, PDF). The large EPA team found that, yes, global warming did endanger public welfare and detailed their result in a 300 page report. To note, this wasn't new news to them then either, since the EPA had also worked through the issues at stake in Massachusetts v. EPA back in 1999 and other investigations, that all documented the same health hazards.

Following their 300 page report, Johnson signed a proposal that would have reduced carbon dioxide from motor vehicles and brought fleet fuel economy to 35 mpg by 2018, a proposal which bested by two years the time-line in the energy bill recently signed by President Bush. Unfortunately Johnson's proposal for emissions regulation, the endangerment finding, and the 300 page document got lost somewhere between the EPA and the White House and NHTSA, leaving Congressman Waxman and his committee investigating what became of these EPA decisions and plans.

Now in 2008, nearly ten years after the initial request was given to the EPA, Johnson decides that rather than "rushing to judgment", as he put it in his latest memo, the EPA must continue to look at "complex issue[s]", "interconnections" , "lawsuits", "deadlines", possible "changes" and "ramifications", "permits", "thresholds", "requirements", "relevant information", "complexity", and "implications". The world is anxious for action on global warming. Why now, with the pressing urgency of climate change bearing down, is the EPA is overtaken by omphaloskepsis? Or is it mendacity?

Stalling: EPA Extends Public Comment and Oil Companies Weigh In

Congress wrote the Clean Air Act in 1970 to safeguard public health and welfare. Air quality regulation deserves public comment. But Johnson is proposing a comment period in the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), despite having already received 50,000 public comments in 5 months when the EPA previously solicited comment. This new "public comment period", seems like nothing but an unnecessary stalling mechanism, one that will only solicit "public" comment from organizations who have already weighed in loudly.

Before Bush signed the energy bill and the EPA denied the California waiver, the EPA, OMB and the White House met regularly with many stakeholders, including those from the petroleum and auto industries. The Detroit News reported last year that Cheney and/or Bush met with "Detroit's three automakers" multiple times in 2006 and 2007. Public Citizen wrote a 54 page report last August (PDF) documenting how from 2001 to 2003, senior administration officials met with Department of Transportation's (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 45 times in order to produce an attributes model for determining fuel economy. Their considerations were incorporated into the CAFE standards.

As well, according to meeting records, the OMB held five "20-in-10" meetings last year and more in 2006, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the EPA and DOE and the DOT/NHTSA gnashed over the President's proposal to raise fuel economy by 20% in 10 years. Stakeholders who attended these meetings included Shell, the American Petroleum Institute, Frontier Oil, Occidental Petroleum, BP, ExxonMobil, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, and Porsche.

The LA Times wrote in a March 28th article that Johnson's suggestion for more comment followed a memo circulated by the Heritage Foundation, an industry lobby group (or "think tank"), sent to "everyone that we could think of" in the White House and Congress as the lobby group said. The memo urged decision makers to pressure the EPA for the ANPR because this would make legislators look like they were doing something. As the lobby group put it, holding a public comment session:

"would allow all interested parties to send the EPA relevant information and start a record on important topics such as the cost and burden of carbon caps and Clean Air Act expansion without triggering the costly new regulations."

When the EPA found on endangerment (that GHG were a public health hazard) last year, it conducted "extensive analysis....about costs and benefits", according to Waxman's letter, before producing the plan that Johnson signed off on.

Now, the industry and its agent, the EPA, propose to expand the pool of stakeholders in order snag the regulatory process in a morass of bureaucracy. What's fascinating to us here at Acronym Required, is how quickly interested parties drop their typical ideological attachment to "efficiency" and "small government" when advocating an obstructive process that suit their ends.

Industry Meet and Bleat: EPA, NHTSA and the OMB

If we want to know what more "public comment" might look like with respect to "costs and benefits", we could get insight from glancing at a memo presented to the OMB and its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in a meeting November 15, 2007 with Chrysler executives. (The document we will be discussing doesn't have an author noted, but there's various fingerprints from oil companies, lobby groups and car manufacturers. Since the only company attendees at the meeting were Chrysler executives I will call it the document the "Chrysler document", the "meeting document", or the "document")

There are hundreds of other memos to the EPA, of course, but this one, the anonymously authored "Regulation of Motor Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions under the Clean Air Act and the Energy Policy Conservation Act", (Whitehouse.gov/omb..) reads like an industry directive to the EPA role for how they should regulate greenhouse gases emitted from moving vehicles. After reading this, it doesn't take a vivid imagination to see the industry's prints on the EPA's current actions. The "simplest" solution, the authors of this document say, "...is for the EPA to abstain from attempting to set carbon dioxide standards" from vehicles "already subject to the NHTSA regime." [emphasis ours]

To quickly explain: The two government agencies that regulate motor vehicles are the EPA, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that resides in the in the Department of Transportation (DOT). NHTSA sets gas mileage targets through CAFE standards, and the EPA is charged with regulating motor vehicle emissions. The energy bill that Congress passed and Bush signed (H.R. 6) last December pertains to mileage standards. Carbon dioxide emissions are primarily responsible for global warming. Industry argues that the EPA should not regulate emissions because of "regulatory overlap" between the NHTSA and EPA, but this was already defeated by the Supreme Court, who rejected this overlap argument.

The meeting document defines the EPA's "primary mission" under the Clean Air Act as determining the "requisite technology", that will "address the potential problem of climate change" -- as if technology were the only solution (and the entire thrust of the Act). A quick aside: Politicians use the word "technology" because of its magical properties. It's a word that signals you are modern, smart, and forward leaning. "Technology" solves unsolvable problems and no one argues with it, it offends no one. "Technology" inevitably translates to more *business*, and business is always good, therefore "technology" is probably the only noun in the world that remains nonpartisan. Pollution problems have been solved with technology -- ie: scrubbers, catalytic converters, but despite its undeniably wondrous qualities, the word is too often used as an empty promise. The "technology" argument has been quite successful in staving off progress on global warming, as we mentioned in a previous post.

This industry document advises that if the EPA finds endangerment, which they did, then the agency should coordinate with NHTSA "a series of clearly defined steps, each of which involv[es] public participation", and successive "public comment" periods. The document precisely describes the very political maneuvering we're seeing today, so no one today should be surprised at the EPA's announcement.

But long after this document was made public, the press and politicians expressed shock over EPA actions like the agency's denial of the California waiver. Sometimes the press should really just pay more attention to the evidence. There was no room for surprise given the very public history of the climate change tussles.

Cues: "Technological Feasibility, Economic Practicability, Maximum Feasible"

The meeting document repeatedly cites the NHTSA's Energy Policy & Conservation Act of 1975 ("EPCA" or "the 1975 Act"), and its "balanced goals". The reason for the auto industry's adoration of the 33 year old NHTSA standard over the Clean Air Act and the EPA's updates to the Clean Air Act, is because the 1975 Act considered things like "technological feasibility" and "economic practicability", which allow for more input from the industry.

A favorite concept from the "1975 Act" is "maximum feasibility". "The document" insists that the EPA carbon dioxide standards should be "no more stringent" that the "maximum feasible" standards for fuel economy set under the NHTSA. Although the phrase "maximum feasible" seems straightforward, it is anything but. To be clear about what they mean, the authors spell out their own definition. It's not, they write, "the highest level of fuel economy that can be achieved by a single vehicle, or even by a fleet of vehicles, through the application of available technologies". "Maximum feasible" they say, gives the auto industry leeway to consider sector employment, consumer choice, and the overall health of the industry. In other words, "maximum feasible" is entirely subjective and by their interpretation. In this way, the fantastic 1975 Act,"ensured wide consumer choice by leaving maximum flexibility to the manufacturer". To be clear, the industry theorem therefore takes "maximum feasibility", and neatly redefines it as "maximum flexibility to the manufacturer", a whimsical redefinition if there ever was one.

The authors emphasize the part of the Clean Air Act 202(a)(2), that says the EPA should give "appropriate consideration to the cost of compliance". The document predicts that costs like "investment in tooling engineering research, and development" are a "primary constraining factors on the industry's ability to achieve higher average fuel economy levels on a fleet-wide basis", and that "NHTSA's own standard setting process under EPCA would...be the upper limit of what EPA could properly determine to be the most stringent standards". In other words, gut the intention of the Clean Air Act, and instead follow NHTSA's 1975 standard.

The document says the Clean Air Act should allow the EPA to: "set standards that take account of the limits on the investment capabilities and product cycles of the industry, just as NHTSA does...". The document advises the EPA to consider the financial resources of the industry, and weigh the "potential trade-offs between more stringent requirements in the near-term, and investments in longer-term strategies that seek to commercialize vehicles that do not require" carbon fuels. Of course, since 1975, for 30 years, the industry has spent all its effort undermining "longer-term strategies", so this is a bit of a canard.

Citing a petroleum industry case, the document recommends that whatever the EPA does, standards shouldn't require costs and if "additional technology" is needed, than the EPA can "properly decide to not adopt standards under the Clean Air Act". So first the EPA should define "requisite technology", then once it's defined, then the auto industry gets to waive ay action. The Chrysler document outlines all the ways the EPA can not regulate greenhouse gases, including "abstain from attempting..." regulation, a request that the EPA under Stephen Johnson seems quite agreeable to.

Automotive "Modernization" -- Back to the 70's?

Of course if we look back 30 years ago we get an idea of how antiquated and stuck the American auto manufacturing industry really is. In the 1970's the fuel efficient cars looked like the Plymouth Duster or the Chevy Chevette, and the impetus to innovate for customer choice was real because those rattletrap choices were truly dire. Today, "customer choice" is an encrusted artifact of advertising cynically used by auto manufacturers, especially when faced with regulation. Despite seductive rhetoric about "new technology", the auto industry is clinging to the good 'ole days and the loose regulatory framework of the NHTSA's 33 year old standard.

The document presented to the EPA in November, 2008 directs "what the Congress sought to achieve in the [1970's] EPCA and how those objectives should shape EPA's action under the Clean Air Act." The authors on last year's document quote Phil Sharp, former D-IN (now the president of Resources for the Future, an energy policy think-tank) who sponsored the 1975 Act. Apparently, three decades ago, during a congressional debate, Sharpe noted: "Serious unemployment in the auto industry" called for considerations to "preserve this important segment of the economy". Sharp urged the EPA to maintain "the health of the industry."

It's interesting that a 2008 document would pull a quote from a congressional debate three decades ago, but since the authors did, lets respond to Sharp circa 1970/2008.

Back to the 1970's. We know that "mid-century" is all the rage in fashion and home decorating, but while we tolerate (for the sake of argument) scaly old orange plastic chairs and brown shag rugs as retro fashion statements, we're not so keen on mid-century policy for 21st century problems. We need an evolved policy to "preserve the auto industry". Plus, if you think back, the Chevy Chevette got 40mpg highway, 28mpg city, better than many cars today. Surely we can do better with mileage and emissions in 2008, then in 1970 -- given our technology-centric society?

Today in 2008, the auto industry is swamped with losses. In the 1980's, when one auto company president suggested controlling the regulators, Reagan replied "Get control of them? We need to get rid of them."

Per Ronald Reagan and successive White House leadership, for the last 35 years deregulation spared the auto industry manufacturers, who chose to use the government's leniency and improvements in fuel efficiency to innovate gas consuming features rather than mileage standards that surpassed the "1975 Act" mandate. When sales sink up to 18%, as they now have, unemployment follows. Would today's crisis have been averted if a less permissive policy had been pursued?1

The auto industry would love to live forever in the 1970's. But if "the health of the industry" is truly still a goal, maybe the government's kindest move would be to shoot the industry, or drown it in the bathtub, or whatever libertarian types do these days with ponderous, surly sectors.

The Prognostications of New York Times

In a post last week we questioned the New York Times assumption that Congress would never alter the Clean Air Act to include cost benefit analysis.2 But perhaps they don't have to, if the Heritage Foundation is successful at urging members of legislator to bog down EPA action on global warming.

When legislation leaves it to industry to decide whether a particular environmental regulation to mitigate pollution or proven toxicants, the process towards resolution is well-rehearsed and elicits a predictable response -- YES, yes; way, way too costly! This is the problem. Costs and benefits must be considered, even though some people unilaterally criticize cost benefit analysis for public health and welfare. But on the emissions arguments and the Clean Air Act provisions, analysts correctly point out that costs are often overestimated. This is because the industry doesn't approach this exercise fairly, rather they seek to torpedo all regulatory initiative to preserve and enhance today's profits.

The document prepared for the Chrysler/OMB meeting underlines one of the points of our previous post: that costs and benefit analysis done by industry will prioritize industry profits; and forsake clean air, water, health and welfare.3

To run out the clock, the EPA broadened the emissions issue addressed by the Supreme Court to all greenhouse gas emitters. Expanding the Supreme Court's mandate so promiscuously will allow corporations and their lobby groups, maybe even some newly minted ones with deceptive names like 'Citizens For Fresh Air', (I made this up) to make wide, swinging estimates of costs in an attempt to freak the public out about lost jobs, economic gloom and doom and the exorbitant cost of regulation. This is a 30 year old trick though, and where did it lead the auto industry?

Consumer Choice, Sea to Shining Sea

In the US, school children sing national songs about the country's natural resources. Indeed, the country is famous for its natural beauty, the mountains, forests, canyons, fields and azure oceans. Children learn "America The Beautiful" early on. But once they grow to adults, the children naively adapt their thinking. They accept rhetoric from industry that rejects the idea that resources are really the citizens', rather they belong to industry, which uses and pollutes air, water, land, trees. Somehow citizens think that yes, what's good for industry trickles down to them. Then when pollution burdens public health, as with smog in California, industry reacts as if fouling the public's air and water is its right -- how dare citizens overstep their rights by demanding we control our pollution?

Trotting out the "costs" of regulation, industry rebuffs citizens as if they were encroaching, trying to steal its property. Regulation is hurting business, they cry! Once citizens and politicians subscribe to this rhetoric, regulation is easily overturned in the name of freedom. And subscribe they do, paying daily, yearly, for industry to pollute the nation's resources. If that doesn't work for businesses and their lobbies, they drag "jobs" onto the set.

When industry puts "jobs" onto the national bargaining table they present a coercive choice. Regulation or jobs? Clean air or jobs? Water or jobs? Glaciers or jobs? Species or jobs? Your health or jobs? Your kids health or jobs? Would most citizens walk up to a slouch on the street and ask to play 3-card Monte with them? No. But in just as obvious a con, citizens instinctively recoil from the "jobs threat" and snatch desperately at the "jobs" hand -- just as if it were really a "choice"! Addressing global warming is good for the economy, not bad.

Global warming is not a simple problem, but the Supreme Court has many times laid the groundwork for how the EPA needs to act. But the Environmental Protection Agency, in the name of its citizens but in the service of "free-markets", flouts the court, congress, states and constituents.


1Deregulation that impacted environmental resources didn't start in the 1980's, but Reagan amassed huge gains in this direction, including cost benefit considerations. Many politicians are attentive to these analyses and some ascribe to more radical sentiments. Senator Tom Delay and Senator James Inhofe would dismantle agencies like NOAA, NEH, DOE, OSHA and the EPA, which they liken to the "Gestapo". (See for instance Delay, T., "No Retreat, No Surrender: One American's Fight" (p13)). Inhofe puts out regular press releases as ranking minority member of the Committee for the Environment and Public Works (EPW) which is led by Barbara Boxer stating that any global warming measure will cost jobs and wreak economic havoc.

2We previously wrote about Johnson's request to Congress that the Clean Air Act be "refurbished" to include "benefits, costs, risk tradeoffs, and feasibility in making decisions about how to clean the air".

3A 2007 draft report for Congress on costs and benefits of government legislation used Heritage Foundation information and the example of failed communist states to illustrate how regulation can wreak havoc on an economy. Of course the Soviet Union was famous for disasters like Chernobyl and for leaving a devastating, costly pollution legacy, so the example is ludicrously wrong that that state was keen on environmental regulation but flawed on other levels too. Not to mention how ludicrous it is to write a 2007 report to Congress that stoops to waste even one sentence linking clean air and water security with some interpretation of mid-century communism.

Spring Break for the EPA

A couple of weeks ago, the journal Nature wrote that Stephen Johnson should step down from his post at the EPA (Nature 452, 2; 6 March 2008). Commenting on the unlikelihood of that, Nature suggested that since the White House "doesn't want the [EPA] to do anything" for the environment, "we can only offer [EPA] employees a fantasy...shut it down until next January. Take some fully paid sabbatical time to relax, and prepare for a return to the old-fashioned protecting of the environment that so many of you joined the agency for."

It seems the EPA thought that a grand idea. Stephen Johnson heads to Australia on a two week trip with about eleven staff. Of course Johnson's travel plans infuriate Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, who wrote a letter to Stephen Johnson, demanding to know where the travel budget was coming from:

"I am deeply concerned that you will be spending a large amount of scarce agency funds and staff resources on such an expensive trip while the President has proposed a series of devastating cuts in EPA's budget for environmental programs....hundreds of millions of dollars from EPA's budget for such important activities as reducing pollution of streams and lakes by sewage treatment plants, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, conducting global warming research and programs, ensuring environmental justice, and carrying out many other crucial programs."

The letter advised: "If your goal is to learn about actions to address global warming, I suggest that you visit California, which has moved ahead aggressively with greenhouse gas controls". She noted that Johnson's trip coincided with a number of hearings the EPW scheduled for him during the month of April. Let's see -- on one hand, Byron Bay and scuba-diving in the Great Barrier Reef; on the other, being interrogated by Senator Barbara Boxer. Why would Johnson choose Australia?

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