A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2011
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The environment continues to be a hot battleground for various groups. While the main theater of war has been climate change, there are also side battles involving other matters, such as the threat posed (or not posed) by mercury. Not surprisingly, many of the folks who argue against climate change and contend that health risks of things like mercury are exaggerated tend to be associated with companies that produce substances alleged to cause climate change and/or be a health threat.

While the EPA has often been accused of being a mere lap-dog to corporate interests, it recently issued 946 pages of new rules governing the emission of mercury and other pollutants by power plants. The main argument for these laws is utilitarian. According to the EPA’s Lisa Jackson, while the rules will cost companies $10.9 billion a year, they will save 17,000 lives and provide as much as $140 billion in health benefits. Even if the lives are left out of the equation, this seems like a rather good idea. After all, getting $140 billion in benefits certainly seems to be worth the $10.9 billion.  Naturally, it is worth noting that the cost will be paid by the companies and the benefits will be reaped by the people who will avoid the harm done by the pollutants. However, this seems morally acceptable and it would seem hard to argue that the companies have a right to save $10.9 billion by costing other people their lives or health.

Obviously enough, this argument has merit only if the numbers involved are accurate. Not surprisingly, there are those who are questioning their accuracy.  There are, of course, always grounds for questioning such numbers. The first is, of course, the inherent problem of induction: whenever engaged in inductive reasoning, the conclusion can always turn out to be false even if the premises are true. Of course, this is a fairly weak method of challenging since it applies to all inductive reasoning. What is, of course, needed is something more substantial.

Willie Soon and Paul Driessen recently wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal raising a substantial criticism, To be specific, they  claim “the EPA systematically ignored evidence and clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use.”

In critical thinking terms, they are accusing the EPA of trying to make the public a victim of the fallacy of incomplete/suppressed evidence and they are also accusing the EPA of bias. If the first charge is correct, then this would be a serious problem. After all, when drawing a conclusion there is a logical (and ethical) requirement to consider all the reasonably available  significant evidence. Also, if the EPA officials are biased, then this impacts their credibility in a negative manner.  Obviously enough, the same standards apply to Soon and Driessen.

One concern about Soon is that while he is at Harvard, he is an astrophysicist. This raises some questions about his expertise in assessing the impact of mercury on the population. While any competent scientist (or critical thinking professor) can engage in legitimate criticism of methodology, assessing the actual causal impact of mercury falls under the domain of other areas of expertise.  There is also some concerns raised by the Soon and Baliunas controversy. A general concern about Driessen and Soon is the same one they leveled against the EPA: the possibility of bias. While the EPA might have an agenda, Soon and Driessen can also be regarded as having an agenda of their own. As such, it is well worth considering their claims in the light of potential bias.

Since I am not an expert on mercury, I will not enter the fray other than to point out the obvious: mercury is well established as a toxin and it seems like a good idea to reduce the amount of the substance being released into the environment. However, I am willing to consider all the available evidence and arguments in terms of what level of pollution would meet an ethically acceptable balance between the costs to reduce the levels and the harms inflicted by this pollutant.

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 26, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    From the Soon and Driessen article in the WSJ:

    How do America’s coal-burning power plants fit into the picture? They emit an estimated 41-48 tons of mercury per year. But U.S. forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year; cremation of human remains discharges 26 tons; Chinese power plants eject 400 tons; and volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other sources spew out 9,000-10,000 additional tons per year.

    All these emissions enter the global atmospheric system and become part of the U.S. air mass. Since our power plants account for less than 0.5% of all the mercury in the air we breathe, eliminating every milligram of it will do nothing about the other 99.5% in our atmosphere.

    In the face of these minuscule risks, the EPA nevertheless demands that utility companies spend billions every year retrofitting coal-fired power plants that produce half of all U.S. electricity.


    Mike, do you dispute these numbers? If the new regulations only affect 0.5% of mercury emissions it seems difficult to believe they will produce $140 billion in benefits.

    For the record, I am a big supporter of clean energy, but do not believe in the “noble lie.”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      The 41-48 tons from plants does match the statistics from other neutral sources, so that is probably accurate. I’ll assume the numbers are accurate and assess his case.

      First, one obvious concern is the origin of the mercury in the forests and human remains. If some of this mercury originates from the power plants (that is, the trees and humans absorb mercury produced by the plants), then this mercury would count against the plants. I do suspect that the mercury is not just from power plants-after all, it is produced by other industries as well (and occurs naturally, of course).

      Second, the fact that the Chinese are producing 400 tons a year in their plants does not entail that we should not limit our production. This is like saying “my neighbor is burning 400 tires down the street, so I should not worry about burning 48 tires in my backyard.” Of course, this does indicate that the Chinese need to do something.

      Third, even if the natural sources of mercury dump out 10,000 tons of mercury, it still does not follow that we should not reduce our mercury output. After all, it is not just the volume of the mercury that matters, but also how it ends up in the environment and how it impacts us. The power plants might produced less volume than the natural sources, but might have far more impact on us. To use an analogy, think of radiation. The total amount of natural radiation we receive over the whole planet vastly exceeds what is produced by nuclear plants. However, this hardly shows that nuclear plants should not be regulated.

      This is, of course, a factual matter. If the mercury produced by plants is an insignificant percentage of the mercury American citizens absorb, then the new regulations would not be reasonable. This, of course, assumes that the regulations do not also address other harms that would justify their application.

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