"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Environmental Overkill

The lines are drawn on environmental issues because environmentalists are often absolute and doctrinaire about their positions, and do not take a broader perspective which analyzes risk and studies cost-benefit. The Navajo–run Navajo Generating Station (NGS) is now the target for environmentalists who want to see it either closed down or pay for $1.8 billion in ‘state-of-the-art’ emissions controls.  Why? Because the plant is ‘near’ 11 parks, some of which, however, are 175 miles away; and because such emission controls would eliminate nitrate aerosols which are responsible for only 4 percent of what is called “light extinction” over the Grand Canyon.  The NGS is not responsible for the 4 percent – this is the total contribution of the aerosols.

George Will in a column in the Washington Post (7.10.12) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-will-epa-regulations-threaten-arizonas-economy-navajos-livelihood/2012/07/06/gJQAzWFfSW_story.html provides information on the value of the NGS to the State of Arizona and to the Navajos and Hopis involved in the NGS:

Tucson is 2,500 feet above sea level. The NGS provides 95 percent of the power for the pumps of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which made Phoenix and most of modern Arizona possible. A study sponsored by the Interior Department estimates that the EPA’s mandate might increase the cost of water by as much as 32 percent, hitting agriculture users especially hard. They might be driven back to using scarce groundwater — which was supposed to be protected by the CAP. That is why many environmentalists supported the CAP, one of the largest reclamation projects in U.S. history.

An Arizona State University study estimates that between now and 2044, the NGS and the mine will contribute $20 billion to the state’s economy and provide 3,000 jobs each year

The issue is not just assuring clear air over the Grand Canyon, but restoring it to its ‘natural state’:

In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act amendments, which high-mindedly mandated restoration of visibility in parks and wilderness areas to natural conditions. “Natural” meaning what? Before humanity?

This argument is not semantic, but goes to the heart of the issue. What is often forgotten is that human beings are part of the environment.  We are not the universal destroyers, the ravaging mad race that is out to deliberately destroy the planet. If there are few oysters in the Chesapeake Bay because of overfishing, we will eat something else.  If the climate increases in temperature, we will adjust to the dislocations and find other accommodations. We may evolve into a more heat-adaptive species or we may slowly and progressively decline.  In the next million years we may cease to exist, our place taken over by some other known or unknown species.  The environment, of which we are an integral part, will never be the same, nor should we expect it to be.  The image of the lone cowboy, seated on his horse overlooking the Grand Canyon at sunset is only that – an image from a romantic past; and one where his life was circumscribed by accident, disease, and early death far more than ours.  Air that is less than crystalline over and in the Canyon is the result of human complexity and the vast network of interactive pieces of 300 million of us Americans and perhaps most importantly our drive for progress. 

As importantly, virtual reality will soon be indistinguishable from ‘real’ reality.  Within 100 years our minds will be linked with the computer – a complete brain-machine interface which, because of its versatility and limitless possibilities of exploring history, the present, and the imagined future, will be the world we prefer and the only world we know.  Our environment will be part reality and part virtual reality.  Our perceptions of and demands for the ‘real’ world will be totally altered.  In other words, we will be able to experience through virtual reality software and brain-computer interface, a pristine Grand Canyon of the 19th Century.  The fact that we were never ‘really’ there will make no difference at all.

Whether or not this futuristic scenario comes to pass or not, is is illustrative of the way the environment changes; and how man’s role in it and perception of it changes over time.  As Will rightly asks, ‘’Natural meaning what? Before humanity?”’.

Or more practically and immediately, how much reduction in the percentage of nitrate aerosols contributed by NGS is worth the significant economic loss to the Hopis and Navajos and to the State of Arizona?  How much can the State afford to lose?

Its site lease expires in 2019. If the EPA mandates the most expensive technologies, each of the NGS owners would have to weigh whether it is sensible to make large capital investments in a plant that might not operate after that. Furthermore, one of the six owners of the NGS is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which may be prohibited by California law — the state may be destitute, but it is determined to fix the climate — from making investments that will extend the life of coal-fired plants.

Without a doubt, if people were asked whether or not they wanted crystalline, impeccably pure air over the Grand Canyon they would overwhelmingly vote yes.  If asked whether they were willing to sacrifice other environmental concerns, such as depleting groundwater supplies, losing Native American jobs, or depriving the State of Arizona is important agricultural base, they would be less sure and more divided.  The problem is that all issues today are complex.  How does a coal-fired plant affect Arizona’s groundwater, people might ask.  Or what does a reduction of 4 percent mean to my panorama?

The point is that there is no absolute position on the environment.  How could there be?  Environmental issues are fought over ‘acceptable limits’ when in many cases these limits are either unknown or debatable.  The immediate reaction is to say, “Well, even if I can’t prove it, if there’s any chance the substance might be harmful, ban it”.  That might be a reasonable assumption if there is no cost involved.

The environmental issue debated in this case, like most, is fought without a proper assessment of risk and cost-benefit:

Testifying to Congress last February, an EPA official uttered the six-word incantation that summarizes Obama administration policies and progressivism generally: “We do not have to choose.” It is, the official said, quoting President Obama, a “false debate” that we have to choose between the “public health benefits from reducing air pollution from power plants” and “growing this economy in a robust way.”

We can’t have it all, and must determine exactly what we do want and at what cost.

The real problem is economic growth.  If we were willing to limit our population size, deliberately slow our economic growth, there would less pressure on the environment.  After all, who needs 100 kinds of razors, shampoos, frozen pizzas, and mattresses?  There is, of course a Zero Growth organization (www.zerogrowth.org) and excerpt from which will give some idea of the craziness of the idea:

To the question "Why zero growth?" perhaps the best answer is itself a question: "Why not?". Do we really need more polluting vehicles, more habitat-destroying tracts of housing, more malnourished children, more weapons of mass destruction? Can we not see that the earth's resources are finite, that there must inevitably be an end to growth sooner or later? Should we not rein in our gluttonous, soul-destroying, consumptive ways before a halt is forced upon us under circumstances beyond our power to control or rectify? Are we so blinded by the smog-filled haze and murky waters that we cannot see continued unrestrained growth threatens the very environment that sustains us?

Since economic growth is the only way to help people out of poverty, to maintain a strong nation in the face of newly implacable enemies, and to secure the borders for what we consider is an exceptional country, then it will always take precedent over environmental concerns – unless the environmental changes are reasonable given economic growth factors.

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