Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at intelligent and rational individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

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23 December 2011

The EPA's Newest Environmental Vendetta Against Coal

The EPA has proposed lower emission limits on power plants for 84 pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, nickel, selenium, cyanide, and acid gas.  The mercury emission limit has been given the most attention and will be tightened to 1.2 pounds per million BTUs produced by a power plant.  The most affected electric power plants will be those that generate half of our electricity using coal.  In 12 states, coal-fired power plants generate from 70 to 98% of the electricity used.  Coal-fired electric generation plants will have to add expensive further scrubbing equipment and the expenses of operating that equipment.  The EPA claims this will cost the electric power companies $10.9 billion a year, though industry estimates run somewhat higher.  Some older coal-fired power plants will not be worth the added investment.  Several plants are scheduled to go off-line in 2014 as a result of this EPA proposal already.  Plants totaling 2,290 to 3,950 megawatts may be lost in Illinois alone.

The EPA claims lost jobs, more expensive electricity, and less reliable electricity will be justified because the stricter regulations will save 11,000 lives and up to $140 billion in health benefits per year.  The claim is that there will be 4,700 fewer heart attacks a year and 130,000 fewer children suffering asthma.  6,300 fewer children will have acute bronchitis.  These EPA claims have been widely called into question.  With 2,423,712 American deaths a year, 11,000 fewer deaths is a change of less than 0.5%.  Studies will have great difficulty in proving the cause or even the existence of such a decrease were it to occur.

Great fanfare has been given to the required reductions in mercury.  Environmentalists like to say that power plants generate half of the mercury to which we are exposed.  Let us examine this claim.  The U.S. and China generate about the same amount of electricity from coal.  The U.S. coal-fired power plants are estimated to produce between 41 and 48 tons of mercury per year.  The middle of this range is 44.5 tons.  The Chinese power plants, which do not scrub their emissions, are thought to emit about 400 tons of mercury a year.  This is about 9 times as much as U.S. power plants emit per kWh of electricity.  While coal is mostly used in the U.S. for electricity generation, in much of the world it is used extensively still for heating and it has industrial applications also.  World consumption of coal is about 7,229 megatons.  The U.S. consumes about 858 megatons.  Assuming conservatively that the total generation of mercury from coal use is about 4 times that in the U.S., the world total output of mercury from coal use would be about 1500 tons a year.  Thus a total elimination of mercury from coal-fired electric power plants in the U.S. would result in a decrease in mercury from coal use of only 3%.

This does not tell the whole story.  Forest fires in the U.S. generate about 44 tons of mercury per year.  Forest fires consume about 5 million acres of forest a year in the U.S.  But forest fires in the world consume about 123 million acres of forest a year.  This implies that about 1080 tons of mercury are generated by forest fires worldwide in a year.  Cremation of human bodies generates another 26 tons of mercury from tooth fillings a year.  This means that the 44.5 tons of mercury from U.S. electric power plants is only 44.5/ (1500 + 1080 + 26) = 0.017 or 1.7% of these sources of mercury.

It gets worse.  Volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other natural sources are thought to emit between 9,000 and 10,000 tons of mercury a year.  Compared to this and the other sources of mercury discussed, the mercury output of U.S. coal-fired power stations is then about 44.5 / (1500 + 1080 + 26 + 9500) = 0.0037 or 0.37%!  So totally eliminating mercury from coal-fired power plants will only reduce the world's mercury output by 0.37%.  It is very difficult to understand how this will change the number of deaths or illness in the U.S. due to the effects of mercury unless our primary exposure to problems from mercury is of a very local basis.

It turns out that the EPA change in mercury limits is not based on health studies of the local effects of mercury from electric power plants in the U.S.  This is because Americans primary exposure to mercury is from eating fish.  There are 200,000,000 tons of mercury in ocean water.  The 44.5 tons of mercury from U.S. coal-fired power plants is only 0.2 millionths of this amount!  Despite this natural exposure to mercury, the blood mercury concentrations for U.S. women and children dropped steadily from 1999 to 2008 according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Levels are now way below the safe level established by the EPA, which safe level was well below any level of known harm.

The EPA mercury limits are based on a study of Faroe Islanders who eat huge quantities of whale meat and blubber and little in the way of fruits and vegetables.  The whale intake is very high in mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls and low in selenium.  Fruits and vegetables provide anti-oxidants thought to decrease the effects of low concentrations of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls and selenium helps to negate the effects of mercury.  Meanwhile, the EPA ignored the Seychelles Children Development Study of 17 years that found no measurable cognitive or behavioral effects in children who ate from 5 to 12 servings of fish a week!  There is no effect even though these fish are swimming about in 200 megatons of mercury.

The EPA claim of 130,000 fewer children suffering asthma also makes no sense.  In 1995, 7.5% of children had asthma and this was up dramatically from 1980 when only 3.6% of children had asthma.  Despite this, air pollution in 1995 was much lower than it was in 1980.  Air pollution has steadily decreased since 1980, yet in 2009 asthma affected 10% of American children.  The Centers for Disease Control are baffled by the cause of this increase in asthma in children.  Despite this lack of understanding, the EPA claims that this 130,000 decrease in child asthma will occur to a reduction of fine particles that will be a side benefit to removing more mercury from power plant emissions.

The lowered mercury output level to be required of electric power plants is not rationally based on health concerns.  It is another javelin the Obama Administration has chosen to throw at the heart of the coal-fired power plants and at fossil fuel use in general.  It is a product of their alarmist viewpoint that fossil fuel use, particularly coal use, is a primary cause of catastrophic man-made global warming.  This is the real reason that Obama and his henchmen are willing to kill power plant jobs, drive up the cost of electricity, and kill coal-mining and transportation jobs.  This is the reason they are prepared to cause rolling blackouts such as undeveloped countries experience, despite the impossibility of continuing many industrial or laboratory operations under such conditions.  They will kill off many industries and companies in this way.  This is the reason they are willing to make many families suffer the cold in homes they cannot afford to heat or the heat in homes they cannot air-condition.  This is the reason they choose to ignore the deaths of people who will die because they are too cold or too hot in their homes.

They are doing this for the same reason that they are determined to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.  This is the same reason they oppose many oil and gas drilling projects across the United States.  This is the same reason they throw taxpayer money at any fraud who claims to have a scheme for renewable energy or energy conservation, especially if he is a campaign contributor.  Jobs and economic well-being take a backseat to their fanatical and misplaced belief in the false hypothesis of catastrophic man-made global warming due to man's CO2 emissions.  This irrational fanaticism is the death of many American jobs.  Fanatic irrationalism has fatal consequences.  I hope one consequence will be that Obama is not rewarded with a second term.


Robot Pirate Ninja said...

I guess when you start with conspiratorial assumptions with no backing the real world ("and economic well-being take a backseat to their fanatical and misplaced belief in the false hypothesis of catastrophic man-made global warming due to man's CO2 emissions. "), then you can end up in sorts of whacky places. As in...somehow claiming Chinese pollution makes ours okay.

Charles R. Anderson, Ph.D. said...

Robot, you have missed the point. The natural contribution of mercury added to that from forest fires makes the US coal-fired power plant pollution very trivial. In addition, the contributions from all other users of coal and firewood around the world make it still less helpful to at great expense eliminate many uses of coal. This kills an industry, causing a great deal of human hardship for those working in that industry or invested in it and raises energy costs for very large numbers of people. The energy that is being touted as a substitute is often wind or solar and neither is reliable or affordable. For a vanishingly small benefit, greatly overestimated by the EPA, its regulation change causes much human misery.

I have discussed what is wrong with the catastrophic man-made global warming physics and economics many times. If you believe I am wrong, point out where I am wrong.