Cooking the Books

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    Cooking the Books

    What's Going On?

    Last August, the Trump Administration announced plans to roll back Obama era regulations on pollution from coal plants and replace them with the Affordable Clean Energy rule. By its own estimates, the new rule would lead to around 1400 premature deaths from air pollution each year. It's hard to argue with the fact that those numbers are troubling, so the EPA buckled down and dealt with it.

    I Sense Sarcasm.

    Astute observation. After the report was published, the EPA scrapped the Particulate Matter Review Panel, which produced the report and is responsible for determining how much air pollution is safe for people to breathe. EPA head Andrew Wheeler then put together an advisory committee to handle the air quality issue, led by fossil fuel industry pawn Tony Cox. Cox claimed at a hearing in March that he doesn't agree that exposure to particulate matter can lead to an early death (which goes against decades of research).

    I See Where This Is Heading... What Next?

    Cut to last week — the EPA decided to tweak the way they calculate the health risks of air pollution, which causes that pesky "1400 premature deaths" number to plummet. This should make it easier to push the Affordable Clean Energy rule through.

    So How Did They Change The Calculation Exactly?

    Basically, they assume that reductions in air pollution beyond federal minimum standards do not improve health. This contradicts the science, and represents a "monumental departure" from the EPA's historical approach to introducing new regulations.

    Sounds Like We Need An Air Quality Chief Or Something...

    Well now that you mention it, the EPA has an air quality chief. His name is William L. Wehrum, former lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry and chemical manufacturers. Which begs the question — is there anyone in the EPA today who isn't a former fossil fuel lobbyist?

    What's The Takeaway?

    Aside from the whole premature death thing... the Trump administration is trying to save a dying coal industry (which, even if it weren't dying, we should be attempting to kill off). Global investment in coal has dropped by 75% over the past three years, and US coal use has fallen by 40% over the past decade.

    The Ozone Conspiracy

    What's Going On?

    Awhile back we covered the healing hole in the ozone. Quick refresher — the story begins in the mid-70s, when researchers found that chemicals called CFCs were depleting the ozone layer. In 1987, the international community rallied behind the issue and drafted the Montreal Protocol, which began to phase out CFCs and other ozone-depleting gases, and banned them outright in 2010. The protocol was an major success, and recent models have predicted the complete recovery of the ozone by mid-century.

    What's The Twist?

    Last year scientists from the NOAA found that global emissions from CFC-11 have risen since 2013, and used air monitoring systems to narrow down the origin to East Asia (which is not, in fact, narrowing it down a whole lot). Because CFCs are man-made, this meant that someone was likely violating the Montreal Protocol. Eventually researchers traced the source (by analyzing wind and weather patterns) back to the industrial provinces of Hebei and Shandong in Northeastern China, where manufacturers admitted to using the banned gas to produce cheaper and higher quality polyurethane foam (used in building insulation). While some factories used CFC-11 on the sly, others claimed that local governments played dumb. The Chinese government has since launched a campaign to crack down on illegal CFC use.

    Why Does It Matter?

    If illegal emissions continue unchecked, it could offset the gains made in patching the ozone layer thus far. CFC-11 also contributes to global warming — it's a greenhouse gas that hangs around in the atmosphere for over 50 years and is several thousand times more potent than CO2 (twenty years ago CFCs made up 10% of human-caused warming). The debacle also underscores the limits of the current atmospheric monitoring networks — areas like India, Russia, and South America don't contain any measurement stations, so if the culprits were located there the case would have remained a mystery.

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