Energy Policy

Last week I attended the 2006 Haagen-Smit Symposium, an annual conference on varying issues affecting air quality in California and more broadly, named after the Cal Tech professor who “invented” smog (that is, he figured out what it was and how it was generated, and whipped some up in the laboratory to prove it) and is deservedly a California science hero. The event is laid on by the Air Resources Board, a state agency with the interesting philosophy that public policy outcomes will be constrained by the realities of the physical universe as science reveals them, and that policy and management choices should recognize this.

This year’s meeting was about transportation fuels, and was pervaded necessarily by the political kerfuffle occasioned by $3 gasoline but also by the recent discovery by national politicians of the alternative fuels issue. The presentations were of the usual sort for a meeting of this kind: scientists and engineers presenting research results, staff from NGOs pitching better- and worse-conceived policies and programs, and flacks from oil and car companies with really slick slides telling us in the former case that “we get it, but of course that’s all in the future and now we need to drill and pump and stop subjecting refinery and LNG facilities to all these silly environmental rules” and in the latter, that “we get it, but of course we have to make vehicles people want to buy” and in both cases, “…and please don’t muss up our market with regulations and government meddling.” I should note that the Honda speaker cast a very dark cloud over the GM guy, who of course had a pretty weak hand to play.

It was a very interesting couple of days; I learned a lot and met some very smart folks. The big message for me, and for others as indicated by repeated recitation of the phrase, is that “there’s no silver bullet”: do not expect a one-shot, relatively painless, fix for the intertwined challenges of global warming, international trade balances, and petro-politics. Obviously all the petroleum in the ground, and maybe even all the coal, will be burned; the big task is to burn them much more slowly than we do now, partly so they last longer for what they’re really good for, and partly so the atmosphere can cope with the CO2 releases. No single fuel regime –and we heard about all of them, from hydrogen (made with one or another low-carbon source, like solar or nuclear) to ethanol and biodiesel (essentially biological solar collecting systems), will displace enough petroleum to arrest global warming or disentangle us from the wretched governments endowed with so much of the oil (perhaps the intelligent designer’s laptop had a virus on oil-allocation day?). Every one of these has a really daunting set of problems, whether economic, political, or technical, that will constrain its scope and brake its rollout.

One technology that’s a fur piece down the road but could really change everything is carbon sequestration. If we can catch the CO2 coal burns into and put it somewhere–the bottom of the ocean has some promise here–for a really long time (millenia) at manageable cost we could be in the combustion business (which in turn lets us make almost anything at a manageable price) for generations. But we won’t be in the $75/barrel oil combustion business; convenient energy will cost more than we’re in the habit of paying. Some technical challenges seem to be much more refractory than we expected: a “really good battery”, with two to four times the energy density of current chemistries, continues to be right around the corner as it has been for two or three decades, and one fears, always will be.

I have been looking in on energy issues since I started professing at MIT in the 70s, and a discouraging amount of current debate hasn’t moved far since. I can’t believe it’s still possible for an oil flack to show a slide with “demand” and “supply” represented as two lines diverging into the future, with the space between them labeled ‘shortage’ (and usually colored a scary red) to a roomful of educated adults and not be laughed off the stage. [In case you have been bemused by this intellectually reprehensible trick: demand and supply are not numbers but functions, especially functions of price. It’s meaningless to give “petroleum demand in 2040” as a number without stating the price assumed for it; same for supply.] For some reason, the hundred-odd attendees apparently included almost no economists or policy analysts, and the discussion frequently suffered for it. A lot of the discussion would have made sense if gasoline prices were historically high now, but of course they aren’t, only about where they were in 1980 in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. Which are, of course, the only, um, real kind. Back in the day, we really didn’t know whether there was a price-elasticity of demand for any kind of energy, nor whether the relationship between energy and GNP was absolutely fixed. Now we do, but a surprising amount of the meeting’s policy discussions implicitly assumed (for example) that prices just don’t affect consumption. A big take-away for me was the value of teaching engineers more policy analysis and public sector economics– yes, and teaching my own students more real science. C.P. Snow would still wring his hands at the two-culture gulf.

Two things that oddly never came up were nuclear power, which would seem to be a very important way one might generate hydrogen without putting carbon in the air, and land use and development practice, which is obviously a central driver of vehicle fuel consumption. To live in, heat, and cool a big one-story house on a half-acre of thirsty turf, never encounter anyone you don’t intend to meet, drive alone wherever you’re going, and park free when you get there may or not be a basic human right, and it may or may not be what people [think they] want so badly that higher fuel prices can’t change anything. But they may also be physically inconsistent criteria that cannot be satisfied by building lane-miles or any other government program or private choices. They may also constitute the kind of desire the wise learn not to follow, like another helping of dessert or invading Iraq to prove you’re better than your daddy. In any case we need more public discussion like Joel Kotkin’s (wrong but thoughtful) op-ed linked above before we become really desperately trapped by an installed base of unlivable infrastructure.

Petroleum follies

In my line of work, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about policies that could be a lot better if they were redirected or revised somewhat, even a lot. But the gas price story is unusual in the near unanimity with which public figures and commentators are competing to find a way to make things worse instead of better. I recall few debates in which so nearly everyone isn’t just mistaken, but has the sign wrong, looking for ways to move in precisely the wrong direction.

Aside from the occasional glimmer, like John Tierney’s commendable take in his April 29 column (he proposes a classic Pigovian tax on gasoline returned to “everyone” in a way that doesn’t tangle the scheme up with a zillion other good purposes (for example, per capita checks, or deposit to the Social Security trust fund)), the ideas in play are the most disheartening collection of wrongheaded and ill-informed goofiness I can recall…well, maybe abstinence-only sex education is up there.

I don’t know where to start with this stuff. Hydrogen is not a fuel, and neither is electricity. There’s no mine for either of them; if people start plugging in cars into the wall, power plants of all kinds will just rev up faster and longer, and the marginal electricity is made from natural gas, a fossil fuel that’s only somewhat less greenhousy than oil, though a lot less than coal. These cars have to haul an enormous stack of heavy batteries around, and half the energy that goes into the power plant is lost in the transmission and generation system anyway. “Clean coal” doesn’t mean “coal that doesn’t cause global warming,” it means less pollution of every other kind: coal, clean or not, is the worst greenhouse fuel until we figure out how to capture all the stack gas and put it somewhere (this is called carbon sequestration, and it’s a very long-term, daunting, technological road at this point).

As a piece of social policy, one has to wonder about the wisdom of slapping a big tax on the only people who are providing any of this oil we want so badly. One doesn’t even have to wonder about the whole concept of all the schemes to make oil less expensive; did the demand curve for petroleum suddenly tilt the other way while we weren’t looking? One more time, what’s the logic of subsidizing domestic production and exploration: is there some prize for being the first country to use up its petroleum?

When I did wind tunnel research on how tall buildings affect the street-level winds around them, the architects always asked whether some sort of canopy over the door would help, and we had to explain that the wind is very big, and so is the building, so anything that would change the way the wind blows also has to be very big. The oil system is very big, and poking at it with tiny instruments like deposits to the strategic oil reserve, or rushing to slurp out the two years’ worth of oil imports in ANWR, are not going to make any important difference. Actually, no bullet is silver, even though we desperately want to think wind power, or biofuels, or nuclear, or turning off the lights more carefully, will “solve” the energy crisis. Lots of these will be incrementally helpful, but none of them is as big as the oil flow we’ve become habituated to, and every one has a really sobering social price of one kind or another.

Petroleum is not like solar energy. Fossil fuels are a stock, not a flow, of sunlight that was stored up over millions of years when no-one needed to drive kids to the soccer game. We’ve had a nice century drawing down that bank account, and it’s over. Maybe, as Rick says, not right away, but soon. “Soon” in policy earthquake terms is a few decades. There’s lots of coal, but if we start really playing that game with current technology (that is, burning it into CO2 that goes into the air), a lot if it will be used up (for example) keeping Europeans warm in a subarctic climate when the Gulf Stream stops. Of course the beach will much easier to drive to as it moves inland.

What will make a difference is to use a lot less, and using less oil means real behavioral change on a broad, retail level. It absolutely doesn’t mean making gasoline cheaper! We’re talking about things like living in smaller houses, close enough together to get people out on their feet and bicycles, and into trains and trams. Of course this has all sorts of quality-of-life payoffs in my view, but it’s a hard sell to a society that treats “get in my big car alone, drive where I’m going at 60 mph, and park free when I get there” as some sort of basic moral right. Still, I cannot understand a family that would rather have a house and a big yard that Mom and Dad don’t play with their kids in because they’re on the road commuting three hours a day, than an apartment with a playground nearby that the family can actually occupy and enjoy each other in…

We should be talking about paying a lot of taxes to pay for things like transit and community swimming pools where we can enjoy our neighbors, instead of the thousands of backyard pools that have no-one in them almost all the time, and community soccer fields instead of the ridiculous little patches of green that are useless once the kids are school age. We should be talking about having less stuff, and less house that needs to be filled up with it, and more shopping for it locally, on our feet, with a little wheely shopping cart instead of an SUV. What could possibly make up for having less stuff, though? Well, how about listening to more music and making more of it ourselves? And dinner with friends who come on the bus and don’t have to find a parking place is a pretty low-impact, high-quality life experience…

We’re not talking about those things, though; we’re talking (praying, actually) about making it not so, please. Our politics have a long, toxic tradition of candidates’ and voters’ mutual infantilization. The politicians treat an election, or an office, as the worst thing one can lose, and promise to fix everything with a trick that won’t require any actual work by us; we vote for people who tell us fairy tales that would excuse us from any heavy lifting if they were true, and excuse us from confronting downers and grownup responsibilities if we pretend to believe. This game is being played at a really frenzied level around gas prices, and the mix of ignorance and plain mendacity both parties are wallowing in is–this is really amazing–neck and neck with the immigration performance in the theater next door.

The price of gasoline

High gasoline prices are a good thing on environmental grounds, and would be a good thing on national-security grounds if they resulted from taxation rather than further enriching Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unfortunately, the voters hate them.

Brad DeLong is right: Democrats are for high gasoline prices on environmental grounds, except when gasoline prices are high. Republicans are for an unfettered market, except when gasoline prices are high.

He might have added that both parties are strongly committed to ending America’s dependence on foreign oil, and will do anything to solve that problem except the one thing that would actually work: increasing the price of gasoline at the pump.

High gasoline prices are a disaster for the party in power, and for the party out of power unless it seems to oppose them. That’s unfortunate, since high gasoline prices are good for conservation, good for fighting suburban sprawl, and good for the development of alternative technologies, but it’s the case. The best we can hope for is that the two parties tacitly agree to restrict their opposition to high prices to posturing, rather than trying to do anything about them. (Yes, I’d love to see some California refinery executives go to jail for collusive supply-limitation arrangements, but that’s on grounds of justice and distribution, not economic efficiency.)

On the other hand, when prices are high, oil producers don’t need the vast array of tax breaks they manged to wheedle and bribe for themselves when prices were low. In the face of a huge deficit, getting rid of those breaks is among the politically painless and economically harmless ways of raising revenue.

Of course, that leaves out of the picture the urgent need to stop sending ten of billions of dollars a year to places where some of it is sure to be used to support terrorism and the acquisition of nuclear weapons. If we had a wartime President, he would have used 9-11 to tell the nation that importing oil means trading with the enemy, and slammed on huge excise taxes on petroleum consumption, most of which would have wound up, in the long run, coming out of the pockets of the owners of petroleum in the ground.

But instead we have George W. Bush, and the one moment where drastic action might have been politically possible was lost.

No foolish consistency here: or any other kind

Two headlines from from today’s Washington Post:

P. 1:

Bush Calls For Probe Of Rising Gas Prices

P. 6:

GOP Blocks Measures Boosting Taxes on Oil Companies’ Profits

Note that the actual activity is stuffed inside, while the mostly meaningless speech is a headline on the front page.

The fault lies mostly with the editors; the reporting by VandeHei and Mufson is actually fairly stiff, except for the lead. The minority that reads further down the story will learn that the “measures aimed at holding down the fast-rising costs of driving” aren’t, and won’t, and will hear about the rejection of the tax increase as well.

[Full text at the jump.]

Actually, in one respect Bush is consistent: His fundamental prescription for high gasoline prices consists of more drilling and weakening clean-air rules.

Continue reading “No foolish consistency here: or any other kind”

Bushies and anti-nukes

An analysis of some strong parallels in political and rhetorical style, which no doubt will outrage both sides of the comparison.

The comments to Kevin Drum’s and Matt Yglesias’s nuclear power posts paint a picture with four features that are common in such debates but which I hadn’t really noticed before.

1. There’s a strong similarity between the Bushies and the anti-nuke forces in the way they deal with dissent. If someone who used to be on their side of the argument (about Iraq or nuclear power) comes down on the other side, it’s always from some character flaw or venal motive, never because thinking about it caused him (or her) to have a change of views.

Under these rules of engagement, apostasy makes any credibility the heretic might have built through expertise or devoted service instantly disappear. Moreover, any nasty thing you can think of to say about that person is worth saying, no matter how remote from the merits of the case. Take a look at the hit-piece on Moore at SourceWatch (made up to look like a Wikipedia entry) and linked to by David Rogers of Grist. Why should Burton-Marsteller’s record with the Argentine junta be of interest to someone who wants to know who Moore is? Is the fact that Moore had an op-ed in a newspaper that also publishes Henry Kissinger’s column really an argument against paying attention to his arguments?

2. Again, under these rules, the fact that a position is supported by someone your side has demonized (Michael Moore, say, or George W. Bush) proves not only that the position in question is evil but that anyone who supports it is mad, bad, or just plain stupid. And scatological insults are the most appropriate form of refutation.

Consider this from Matt’s comments (riffing on Matt’s remark that he hasn’t studied the problem carefully but leans toward the pro-nuke side):

I don’t know that much about it… but it all seems so scary and frightening to me that I think I will throw in with the crowd that brought us The California Energy Scam, Enron, Iraq, Katrina, and Iran. I am so scared, I think I just messed my pants. Please help me Mr. Bush!

Or, as one of Kevin’s commenters wittily remarks:

anyone favoring nuclear power is a homicidal, suicidal maniac.

and an erstwhile totalitarian

(Well, you wouldn’t really expect someone utterly ignorant of economics and engineering to know where the shift key is or what “erstwhile” means, would you?)

3. Bushies and anti-nukes are also alike in their faith in proof by assertion and repetition. If you say often enough that things are going well in Iraq, that proves that it’s so, and that the emerging civil war is merely imaginary. If you say often enough that there’s no way to dispose of nuclear waste, that instantly renders infeasible the proposal to: (1) recycle the plutonium into new fuel pellets: (2) store the small amount of truly “hot” stuff in swimming pools for a few decades until it cools down; and (3) vitrify (i.e., make glass bricks out of) the vast bulk of not-very-radioactive waste, including the “hot” material after a few of its half-lives, and build a pyramid somewhere in the desert, creating a glow-in-the-dark manmade wonder that ought to be good for the tourist trade.

4. Anti-nukes come in (at least) two flavors, not unlike the split between the social conservatives and the supply sider/neocon faction among the Bushies. One group of anti-nukes argues that of course we can have (and the third world can come to have) all the consumer goods we want without nuclear power and without cooking the planet. In lieu of explanations, that group then mumbles some mantras: “wind,” “solar,” “tidal,” and (the most potent incantation of all) “conservation.”

The other group of anti-nukes argues that of course we can’t and shouldn’t have worldwide prosperity on the consumer-capitalist model, and that the problems with nuclear power just illustrates that we need to learn (and to teach starving Africans and Asians) that less is more. In particular, central-station power generation is inherently, as an objective matter, pro-fascist, and all power must be generated in backyards as a matter of political principle. Amory Lovins has invented entirely new principles of economics and physics that prove this is perfectly feasible.

What’s fascinating is that the two groups, diametrically opposed on the central question of whether it’s OK to consume lots of energy, never criticise each other; they’re united against the common enemy.


None of the above is to say that Patrick Moore is actually worth listening to. According to the Honolulu Observer (in a story that has a link from the Wikipedia entry on Moore) Moore seems to have told a biotech convention that global warming is good because it will increase the amount of arable land. If that’s what he really said, he has a screw loose somewhere, and if he really believes it then it’s not clear why he should count reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants (as opposed to other noxious emissions from coal plants) as a benefit of going nuclear. That article is a much more potent reason to discount Moore than SourceWatch’s slime-and-defend on behalf of environmental orthodoxy.

Another radioactive environmentalist

A co-founder of Greenpeace challenges the anti-nuclear orthodoxy.

In one of the early Democratic Presidential debates of 1992, when the late Paul Tsongas &#8212 then a Senator from Massachusetts with an impeccable environmental record &#8212 dared to express the opinion that nuclear power was preferable to coal on environmental grounds, Jerry Brown pointed at Tsongas and said to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are now looking at the world’s first radioactive environmentalist.”

Thanks in no small part to Ralph Nader, opposition to nuclear power has been a shibboleth of the environmental movement. I learned about the mendacity and the Inquisitorial fanaticism of the Nader-led anti-nuke forces thirty years ago, when I worked for a leading anti-nuclear Congressman, Les Aspin. First, I noticed the prevalence of unfacts in Critical Mass propaganda, even on the breeder reactor issue where the anti-nuke forces clearly had the better end of the policy argument. Then I discovered that the confident Naderite prediction of one meltdown per 1000 reactor-years was entirely made up out of whole cloth, and started to think through the nuclear/coal comparison. Then, when I persuaded my boss to switch sides on the question of a moratorium on light-water-reactor construction (he’d authored the first bill on the topic, but declined to re-introduce it in 1995) I learned how nasty and unforgiving the Naderites were in the face of heresy.

In the face of the global-warming problem, this particular smelly little orthodoxy is beginning to break down. At least, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, has come around, and he cites other high-profile heretics.

Opposition to nuclear power has always been based on a refusal to face the fact that, in the short-to-medium term, less nuclear power necessarily means more coal-fired power. But the truth is slowly sinking in, and leaking out, in part due to the global-warming problem and in part due to Nader’s self-discrediting antics in 2000 and 2004. (There’s actually a strong analogy between refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to Gore was Bush and refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to nuclear is coal.)

That’s not to say that the American approach to nuclear power generation makes any sense at all. It doesn’t. Having dozens of power companies operate one or a few reactors each is a recipe for inefficiency in construction and operation. The permitting process, which in effect requires a new design for each site, is a guarantee of expense and delay. If we’re going to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, we shouldn’t do so on forty-year-old technology. And we need a solution to the waste problem. (Mine would be to reprocess the spent fuel, recycling the plutonium into new fuel rods, separating the relatively small amount of very “hot,” short-half-life waste to be guarded for a few decades in swimming pools, and vitrifying the low-level waste into glass blocks out of which pyramids could be built somewhere in the desert.)

But even a dumb nuclear power program beats coal, which emits greenhouse gasses, particulates, and more radioactive material per kilowatt-hour produced (in the form of radon) than nuclear plants. Maybe &#8212 just maybe &#8212 the country is ready to learn that simple truth.

Hat tip: Kevin Drum.

Dan Mitchell on gasoline taxes

Drivers should pay for roads. Any questions?

Dan Mitchell, who knows as much about California’s budget woes as anyone in the state, has some thoughts on gasoline taxation in the latest California Business Journal. One thing he doesn’t mention: the incidence of a gasoline tax falls partly on resource-owners, so the Iranian mullahs would have somewhat fewer petrodollars to buy bombs with if drivers paid more to the tax-man at the pump.

Want More Roads? Raise the Gas Tax

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

In 1947, California Governor Earl Warren faced a dilemma. California’s population had risen rapidly during World War II and was continuing to grow as returning GIs resettled in the state. Yet the state had neglected its infrastructure for almost two decades, thanks to the Great Depression and then rationing of construction materials during the War. In particular, roads were inadequate and congested. Only one limited-access road had been built — what is now the Pasadena Freeway — and that road had been expensive. Where would new money come from for all the freeways that were still on the drawing board?

Warren’s solution was to raise the gas tax and other motor vehicle related taxes, earmark the money for transportation, and build the freeway system. But there was opposition from a surprising source. Oil companies apparently could not understand that with more and better roads, they would sell more gasoline. So they heavily lobbied the Legislature to block the Warren plan. Governor Warren’s response was to go to the people, not with 30-second sound bites but with radio addresses, explaining the need for new roads and the money to support their construction. He spoke with newspaper reporters and editorial writers and pushed his contacts in the Legislature on both sides of the aisle. After a fierce legislative battle — during which the bill was almost killed — the gas tax was raised and freeway construction was begun. So successful was the California model that nine years later the federal government adopted the same idea — an earmarked gas tax for transportation — to build the interstate highways.

Oddly, an increase in the state gas tax — currently 18 cents per gallon — is the missing element in Governor Schwarzenegger’s new infrastructure plans. The existing tax on gasoline and diesel will bring in about $3.5 billion in the next fiscal year, according to the Governor’s estimates. He proposes instead $12 billion in bonds spread out over 8 years and some toll roads. But an increase in the gas tax should be part of any transportation plan.

Bond financing absent new revenue sources simply adds to state debt financing loads. An increased gas tax could fund the bonds and/or provide for roads on a pay-as-you-go basis. Toll collection technology is difficult to retrofit on existing roads, particularly in urban areas. In contrast, we already have a system for collecting the gas tax.

The gas tax is a user fee. Drive more, pay more. Drive a heavy gas guzzler which creates more road wear, pay more. Drive in congested hours when gas mileage is low, pay more. So the gas tax encourages efficiency and environmentally-friendly. Reduce your driving, drive a smaller car, use public transit, avoid peak hours, and you pay less. Governor Schwarzenegger is fond of pointing to Governor Pat Brown, a Democrat, who expanded California’s infrastructure in the early 1960s. He should also be looking at the earlier example of Republican Earl Warren, who understood that ultimately you get what you pay for.

Ethanol and the environment

I finally know more than Mark about a psychotropic drug! At least if you don’t drink it. Ethanol, the characteristic solvent for social distance and shellac, is also a motor fuel with attractive characteristics: it’s made of sunshine and exactly the CO2 we like to take out of the atmosphere, it increases gasoline octane as an additive, it’s environmentally quite benign in spills and such, and it’s not imported from places with fractious and prickly governments.

However, it doesn’t just dribble out of corn plants: to get ethanol requires growing plants (fertilizer, tractor fuel…), hauling corn to a distillery, smooshing it up with yeast and keeping it warm (more fuel), distilling the alcohol out of the mush (more fuel), and various other industrial operations all of which use energy. A debate has been burbling for several years about whether we really wind up ahead in various important ways by substituting ethanol for gasoline in cars, and the issue has been confused by the patchwork of subsidies and regulations that distort market prices for fuels of all kinds.

A gang at the Energy and Resources Group and the Goldman School at UC Berkeley, who invited me to play with them over the summer and fall while we did the project, have clarified things greatly. In my view our most important finding is that the “net energy” measure, which looks only at the fossil fuel energy consumed to make a unit of energy in the form of ethanol, asks the wrong question. For example, if ethanol provided a means to take 100 joules of energy from coal and obtain 50 joules worth of ethanol, it would not necessarily be a bad idea. Coal is abundant and cheap; the problem with it is that when burned, it releases the “greenhouse gas” CO2. So one would want to ask about the greenhouse gases released (and other costs, of course), not the net energy, and if the CO2 from burning the coal were captured and sequestered, this notional technology would be a prima facie policy winner, allowing us to run cars cleanly on domestic abundant coal rather than imported, scarce petroleum.

Our article in Science (Farrell et al) is behind a paywall (today’s issue, if you have access to it) but also posted here, with the analysis behind it. This LA Times story is a pretty good report. What we found, adjusting six studies of ethanol input demands so they could be compared is that ethanol from corn (maize) as we make it today is a big petroleum saver, and offers modest gains in global warming, compared to gasoline. The specific technology used to make it matters a lot, but what matters more is the crop you start with: ethanol from grass or wood will be a very attractive fuel on energy, global warming, and petroleum displacement grounds.

We are beginning a research initiative that will give us a better look at other considerations like cropland fertilizer runoff, soil protection, and forest conversion to farms. The larger policy debate will be much occupied with conflict between the farm community already in the corn business and quite enamored of the subsidies and regulations that favor it, and the nascent industry of cellulosic ethanol; watch this space for updates.

Lead and PVC

Lead, which is every bit as bad as Mark says it is in your body, is still the standard stabilizer for PVC (polyvinyl chloride), especially in electric cable insulation, though alternatives with somewhat inferior properties are entering the market. I hope Mark doesn’t throw away all his power cords, or his computer will stop and he won’t be able to blog any more.

The stabilizer in essence mops up hydrochloric acid, released by the plastic as it ages, that would otherwise accelerate the degradation of the insulation. Lead exposure from plastic has to do with the surface area of the plastic exposed, exposure to sunlight and solvent environments that cause the plastic to degrade and leave lead dust on the surface, and ingestion paths. Lead in vinyl window blinds was a concern a few years ago because of the large exposed surface area and sunlight degradation, plus the constant exposure of the blinds to children touching them with moist fingers and licking the fingers or even the blinds, and dust being blown off the surface and into the room air. Plastic toys kids could chew or lick, or a large surface-area item exposed to sun and water like a raincoat, are especially bad sorts of things to use lead stabilizer in.

While acute lead poisoning cases related to plastic have occurred, including an electrician with the habit of constantly chewing on his stripped-off insulation bits and workers in vinyl mixing plants where the stabilizer was carelessly handled, I cannot find a single case of lead poisoning, even at very low levels, traceable to normal use of electric cable. Kids need to keep electric cords out of their mouths for many reasons in any case. (The lead in this insulation does present an environmental disposal problem, which is one reason the industry is looking for alternatives.)

Note that long-term performance in electric insulation is a safety-related quality, and it would be a pity if reducing tiny lead exposures from cable resulted in increased cases of amperage overdose (200 fatal electrocutions in 1998), or of fatal heat or smoke intake in houses ignited by wiring failures (about 70,000 such fires per year).

The most important reduction in lead exposure was accomplished when we got the lead out of gasoline (how it got in is one of the most appalling stories of continuing profit-driven corporate callousness in industrial history). The next was managing exposure to lead in paint (no longer sold or used, but still powdering off the outside and inside of older houses) that will need to be pursued for decades to come. Some isolated situations like the Mexican snacks sold in Latino neighborhoods that are still poisoning children remain.

My problem with the Prop. 65 notice on my DVD drive is that such legislation causes us to strain at gnats and conceals the important differences between them and the real camels in the environmental risk arena. Lead toxicity from plastic electric wires is not an important life or health risk, and plastic cable toxicity is not an important element in lead health damage. Even safer stabilizers will be better, but I’m pretty sure the displacement of rubber/fabric and the other old-fashioned types of cable insulation by pvc has been a big net gain in safety, cost, and convenience.

The language of the initiative is:

No person in the course of doing business shall knowingly and intentionally expose any individual to a chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning to such individual, except as provided in Section 25249.10


This has no recognition of toxicity level, carcinogenicity, concentration, dosage, or path, all of which are what matter in risk, and this kind of legislation and policy is what leads to warnings that are merely silly and dilute the important warnings of real risk that we need to pay attention to. Your automobile battery, for example, is a really big hunk of lead. It’s very dangerous in at least three ways: the lead sits in a pot of acid, the battery is quite heavy and could break your toe if your drop it, and it can explode if you create a spark near it when its charging. The lead, though there’s lots of it there, is a disposal/pollution concern, not a use risk in this case. Like the two-odd pounds of lead in the glass in your CRT computer monitor that kept it from giving you cancer (radiation!) all those hours you looked at it.

WTF? Lead in a power cord?

Is there really a significant amount of lead in the power cord of a DVD drive? There shouldn’t be.

Lead is hideously nasty stuff. The dose that will measurably lower a child’s IQ is measured in micrograms. Now maybe the lead that Toshiba warns about in the customer instructions Mike had such a good time making fun of is in nanograms, and is mentioned only because of California’s silly toxic substances law (another intitiative special).

But if not, then what’s lead doing in an ordinary power cord? “Wash hands after handling?” No, if there’s enough lead to matter in the power cord, throw the DVD drive away and never buy anything from that manufacturer again.

Update Duhhhhhh…A reader points out the obvious answer: solder. “Until very recently,” he reports, most electrical and electronic assemblies had milligrams, even grams, of lead in the form of solder.” But see Mike’s reply above for an alternative and more convincing answer: lead is used to stabliize the polyvinyl chloride — PVC used as insulation. A reader points out that most garden hoses are made of PVC, and a garden hose recently purchased from Sears carried a warning not to drink from it: a warning I would guess few children know about, let alone heed.

Mike is entirely right: the practice of throwing warnings about indiscriminately is bad for the public health. One the other hand, I’d like to know more than I do now about the quantitative relationships here: are we dealing with micrograms or nanograms? If it’s micrograms, then I’m not sure Mike is right that fire-safety considerations trump the toxic risk of lead

Second update Edited to get the units right; the relevant dosage is in the microgram range (single digits of micrograms per deciliter of blood) not the nanogram range. Perhaps if the lead had been taken out of gasoline in the 1930s rather than the 1980s I’d make fewer mistakes.

Third update Another reader points out that garden hoses are now made of PVC [Yup, but not all, and not all lead-stabilized. Good advice here. —mo’h]