A Bush misstep on CO2

Oct. 16, 2000
Carbon dioxide occurs naturally.

Carbon dioxide occurs naturally. It exists around and within living things. It sustains plants. It regulates animal respiration. It does not harm people.

Nevertheless, some environmentalists want governments to regulate CO2 as an air pollutant. They point to the chemical's possible, though far from certain, contribution to global warming. They seek measures that, if strict enough to make a significant difference in the CO2 content of air, would require radical change in the behavior of people. Yet the effort might have no net effect on temperature at all.

Regulation of CO2 as an air pollutant is a bad idea that belongs on the outer fringes of environmental extremism. So what is a recommendation for it doing in the national energy policy proposed by the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Republican candidate for the US presidency?

Four pollutants

The recommendation is easy to overlook. It appears in a near-bottom section of the energy proposal that would make electric utilities cut emissions and "significantly improve air quality." The section calls for legislation to "establish mandatory reduction targets for emissions of four main pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide."

Might campaign officials have meant carbon monoxide? CO fits more logically than CO2 on a list of major air pollutants and is, like CO2 and NOx, monitored and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under existing clean-air statutes. Miswording offers Bush supporters small consolation, however, in view of their candidate's reputation for tripping over details. The detail here, just an atom of oxygen, means the difference between reasonable and unreasonable policy.

The oil and gas industry shouldn't take comfort in the assumption that the error is administrative. And it can't afford to dismiss the recommendation because it applies to electric utilities and appears in a political document certain to be forgotten after next month's election. In quarters not normally associated with environmental extremism, CO2 has achieved equivalency with established air pollutants.

This is important to the industry because CO2 is a political wedge that extremists hope to drive between humanity and fossil energy. It's considered the main greenhouse gas-growing concentrations of which have been blamed for increases in measured temperatures. Alarm over global warming breeds calls for forced cuts in the combustion of hydrocarbons.

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased since the 18th Century. Fluctuation is natural, however. Proxy measurements indicate that at times in the distant past there has been as much as 20 times more CO2 in the atmosphere than there is at present. The 18th Century levels against which recent gains are measured seem to have been near the bottom of natural cycles. So some of the past century's CO2 increase might have occurred with or without human activity.

The more important question is whether CO2 gains cause warming. Like atmospheric gases, temperatures naturally fluctuate. And the changes have causes unrelated to greenhouse effects. In fact, recent studies indicate that heating has preceded greenhouse-gas build-ups in past cycles. The timing casts doubt on popular assumptions that rising levels of greenhouse-gases-especially CO2-caused the past century's increase in measured temperature. It is indeed possible that heating of unrelated origin-solar activity seems most likely-caused the gas build-up.

Uncertainty of this order has caused at least some scientists to shift away from CO2 as the assumed warming cause and focus for remedy. James E. Hansen, chief of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an early proponent of strong precautions against global warming, recently suggested that observed warming comes mainly from non-CO2 greenhouse gases and soot (OGJ, Sept. 4, 2000, p. 29).

Costly disruption

Based as it would be on such great uncertainty, regulation of CO2 as an air pollutant would be foolish. To significantly reduce CO2 in the air would require costly disruption to patterns of energy use. Regulations effecting the changes would compromise personal freedom. And there is large and growing doubt that the effort would have any meaningful effect on observed temperature.

By letting CO2 appear on its energy policy's list of "major pollutants," the Bush campaign reflected either administrative carelessness or environmental recklessness. Either way, the industry must be ready to practice damage control. It hasn't heard the last of this issue.