Are We There Yet?
A startling fact from the University of California, Riverside Today:
An 18-wheeler diesel-engine truck would have to drive 143 miles on the freeway to put out the same mass of particles as a single charbroiled hamburger patty.
This factoid struck me as remarkable. A modern 18-wheeler apparently produces impressively low levels of pollution. (Alternatively, we are all producing a shockingly large quantity of pollution every time we cook dinner!) In actual fact, during the last two decades, engine researchers (like my husband) have reduced the pollution emitted by on-road vehicles 100-fold.
The Cost of Clean Exhaust
In order to achieve this remarkably low pollution, the after-treatment system on the 18-wheeler now costs as much as the engine itself, and doubles the cost of the engine. The cost of a $10,000 engine rises to $20,000, with the addition of after-treatment equipment, which eliminates pollutants.
If transcontinental diesel trucks now produce less pollution than cooking a dinner, at what point should the government stop requiring additional expensive emission controls? Should the rising expense of after-treatment systems motivate us to limit the degree to which we seek to eliminate pollution? Our entire economy relies on shipping and associated costs, so it’s important to ask this question. When is the exhaust of a vehicle “clean enough?” and when does it become too expensive to clean exhaust any further? Are we “there” yet?
What Else Will Be Regulated For Pollution?
Will They Regulate Hamburgers?
We all appreciate the 100-fold reduction in on-road vehicle emissions achieved through research in the last few decades. Our air in the United States has really been cleaned up. A series of Clean Air Acts have resulted in very significant reductions of pollutants, including the reduction of particulate emissions by about 80%.
But the UC Riverside Today article, after remarking on the low emissions of 18-wheelers, embarked on discussing the regulation of particulates emitted by commercial char broilers in Los Angeles.
This raises quite a few questions; one wouldn’t think that people making dinner could contribute significantly to pollution, could it?
Is such regulation really necessary?
What will people do if cooking emissions come under government regulation?
Will Burger King’s char broiling machinery go up $10,000 in cost?
How much more will the Whopper cost? Will the cost double?
What else in our daily lives pollutes, and what else may eventually become subject to regulation?
How much regulation is really necessary?
Getting Some Perspective
I did a bit of homework on emissions to put things into perspective, to see how much we might be contributing to particle emissions when we cook hamburgers for dinner, or through other daily life activities.
I collected and summarized United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) particulate emissions data in the table and pie chart below:
Here are the main sources of particles, which pollute the quality of our air in the United States, and the percentage each contributes to the pollution:
|National PM2.5 Emissions||Source||Total Emissions(Short Tons)||% of NationalEmissions|
|Industrial boilers, ICEs||61,702|
|Commercial Marine Vessels||95,639|
|Misc. Non-Industrial NEC||3,057|
|Bulk Gasoline Terminals||15|
|Pulp and Paper||36,882|
|Storage and Transfer||19,598|
|Oil and Gas Production||6,993|
|Crops and Livestock Dut||138,478|
|Agricultural Field Burning||23,063|
Which are the Biggest Polluters?
But it seems like dust would be challenging to control; how would we control dust? By controlling the weather? Or by prohibiting vehicle use on roads?
Dust is also the most inert of particles, and is the least harmful to our health.
This might be the reason people rarely talk about controlling dust particulates.
Next comes non-automotive fuel combustion, including furnaces and boilers, which contribute 25% to the nation’s pollution. Clearly an area where some improvement could be achieved, if improvement is needed. But at what cost to the homeowner? And would after-treament systems be affordable by the average American?
The two items we started out discussing, diesel trucks (on-road mobile) and char broiled hamburgers (commercial cooking), seem at this point in time to be the lowest contributors to pollution, contributing only 3% and 2% respectively.
This picture illustrates that both on-road vehicles and commercial cooking are now minor contributors to pollution in the United States. If, indeed, we need to continue further air cleanup, you would not think from the above pie chart that on-road vehicles or commercial cooking would be the place to look for more reductions.
Some Questions Raised by these Charts
The initial surprising suggestion by UC Riverside Today was that government may start regulating pollution produced by a hamburger.
First of all, we have to determine whether further air cleanup is necessary.
We’ve already cleaned up 99% of the on-road automotive pollution, and reduced particulates by 80%.
Isn’t that enough cleanup? Can we quit?
In Madison, WI, where I live, the answer might be yes.
The air always looks and smells clean.
People not only cook hamburgers, both inside and barbequing outside, but they use fire pits as well; kind of like an urban campfire, just for fun. We would be pretty upset if the government tried to tell us that we could no longer broil a hamburger in our backyards.
But there are places where smog and air quality problems still do exist, like Los Angeles. Clearly, air quality there should continue to be of concern. Based on the pie chart, however, I would wonder whether going after commercial cooking (2% of national pollution) is the right way to go. Shouldn’t they be looking at furnaces and boilers (25%), industrial processes (9%), agriculture (4%), and so on?
To Regulate or Not To Regulate, That Is the Question
There are trade-offs between a clean environment and the potential economic disaster caused by increasing the price of cars, char broilers, home furnaces and other sources of pollution. And national politics should not dictate the healthy balance. This should rather be done locally, through supply and demand, not by government mandates, which are developed for downtown Los Angeles and are then applied indiscriminately to Wisconsin farmlands.
We face the question: At what point do we decide that our air is clean enough, and that parents don’t have to put their children in day-care and get a second job to pay for government-mandated green gadgets on the family car and home furnace?
Requiring an entire nation to buy high-tech solutions regulating every aspect of daily life, including the cooking of hamburgers, which are actually only needed in a few specific locations, is tremendous potential source of waste.
Time to Take It Local?
This is one of the reasons why federal control of our lives is never optimal, and we should seek opportunities to make local choices. Local control of everything, from medical care, to pollution control, and to choice of sex ed curriculum in schools, benefits the nation. Customization eliminates the need for supplying costly materials to those who don’t need them, and imposing expensive or otherwise cumbersome regulations on those who do not need them.
2012, with present unemployment levels and the state of our economy, might be a good time to consider whether we have had enough government regulation. The question should be reexamined before regulatory agencies get carried away and double the price of everything we need to buy. Cars already have a prohibitive price tag. Do we add to that doubling the price of furnaces, stoves, lawn mowers, electricity, and food, clothing and shelter, which depend on the transportation of materials across our nation?
Looking at the pie chart at the beginning of this article makes it clear that living pollutes.
Staying warm pollutes.
Growing crops pollutes.
So, unless we propose forced limitation of population growth (forced contraception and abortion; hello, China!), or unless you propose that we all move into caves (but we’d still be polluting with our campfires), or unless you propose that we forbid travel to reduce road dust, we have to face the fact that humans pollute. How much of our “pollution” is natural and acceptable, and when is enough regulation enough?
Finally, when should regulation be returned to the local level?
More Things to Consider
Pollution or particulates are not the sole consideration governing our use of energy and it’s regulation. Questions of limited supply, foreign dependence, CO2 production and possible global warming, are also considerations.
These will be the subjects of future blog posts; stay tuned.
For now, the answer to the question “Are we there yet?” might just be, that for much of the United States, “Yes, we’re almost there.” At least regarding pollution.
Without too much of a spoiler, a hint: we’re doing a lot better in the other areas than the media would have us think.