Sulfur, Sulfur, Toil and Trouble

03/03/2014 07:50 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2014

Buried under the Ukraine crisis, sitting forlornly on page 8 of the Monday, March 3, 2014, New York Times is a quiet but terribly important story. The Environmental Protection Agency, we are told, will unveil this week new regulations to remove sulfur from American gasoline blends. Rather than representing some radical move of aggressive government intervention, this action will only just bring the United States up to the existing standards of Europe, Japan and South Korea.

Chinese Soup

If you think this story is irrelevant, or just another example of government overreach, I invite you to visit Beijing before we continue here, even if only on a virtual tour. The air pollution there is now so dense that the sun is blocked to the degree we would find in the aftermath of a nuclear winter. Small toxic airborne particles are 24 times levels considered safe. Tall buildings are obscured by toxic clouds of smog. The atmosphere is so bad that it exceeds the world's scale for air pollution toxicity. Breathing has become risky behavior for children, who are exposed to pollutants at levels 40 times recommended limits. Exposed children are at higher risk for cancer, anxiety, depression, attention-deficit disorders, respiratory problems and permanent lung damage. Adults too suffer a myriad of pollution-caused ailments, including an epidemic of cancers. The countryside is no escape. Chinese farmers are "almost four times more likely to die of liver cancer and twice as likely to die of stomach cancer than the global average..."

Beijing air is what happens when the environment is forsaken on the altar of economic growth. The strategy is shortsighted, unless you manufacture face masks. Beijing air is what happens when we oppose reasonable government regulation -- such as removing sulfur from gasoline.

The Many Faces of Sulfur

Sulfur in gasoline is corrosive, bad for car engines, and destructive to catalytic converters. From vehicle exhaust in the form of sulfur dioxide (and the more caustic sulfuric acid when combined with the oxygen in the air) sulfur contributes to smog, acid rain, and is dangerous to breath. That the U.S. is removing sulfur from gasoline is the sanest course of action, not an example of government overreach.

If you believe the government is overreaching, note that the major automobile manufacturers support the new regulation. Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes General Motors, Ford and Toyota, said the industry worked closely with the Obama administration to develop the new regulations. Said Bergquist, "We understand that this is the trend, to get cars cleaner and cleaner. Our engineers are prepared to work for it." She observes too that the effort will also help with the goal of meeting higher fuel efficiency standards.

Yet like a tape recorder stuck in a loop, we hear from our friends on the right that that the government should get out of the way and let the invisible hand of the market work its wonders. The government cannot pick winners and losers; only the magic of the market can do that. But we know that market mechanisms fail to rein in destructive environmental practices without creating a level playing field. If removing sulfur adds to the cost to production, what company would first take the plunge and give its competitors an advantage? Instead, we first must mandate that sulfur be removed, and then let the companies, and market driven efficiencies, determine the best means of achieving that goal.

But that obvious logic is lost in the cacophony of knee-jerk reactions to any regulations. Bob Greco of the American Petroleum Institute (we will hear from them again later) complained that there is a, "tsunami of federal regulations coming out of the EPA that could put upward pressure on gasoline prices." Greco went on to opine that, "This rule's biggest impact is to increase the cost of delivering energy to Americans, making it a threat to consumers, jobs, and the economy. But it will provide negligible, if any, environmental benefits. In fact, air quality would continue to improve with the existing standard and without additional costs." This statement is eerily similar to what the industry said about lead, which proved to be spectacularly wrong.

According to the NYT article, Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the EPA's estimate of the small increase in the price of gasoline was laughable, claiming instead that the ruling would add up to 9 cents per gallon (he got this figure by citing a study from, yes, the American Petroleum Institute).

Remember, too, that during the last presidential race, the GOP called this proposed regulation a classic example of Obama's regulatory overreach. The position was not terribly well thought through because a few hard-line conservatives had with impeccable timing a change of heart immediately after the election. The conservative governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, now claims that "dirty air is not a partisan issue." I guess he means only in non-election years. The governor says that "we have technology that is available, cleaner burning fuels, cleaner burning autos; we out to embrace that." He conveniently forgets that there is no economic incentive to "embrace that" in the absence of government regulation, which conservative Republicans abhor.

Broadway's Longest Running Play

Let us be clear that we have been precisely here before, when the government mandated that lead be removed from gasoline. The script is old and tired by now, with the storyline of conservative opposition as predictable as the rising sun (unless you're in Beijing and can't see the sun); but the play goes on. The book always unfolds something like this:

First we as a society learn of a potential harm caused by common practice. Industry then breaks into song, denying any problems, countering in the second verse with an argument that the practice is actually beneficial. Then scientists discover and confirm that the practice is indeed harmful. Industry responds with a barrage of ads and sponsored studies with biased results to confuse the public. Nevertheless, the evidence mounts, and industry claims become more absurd and desperate. Then finally, the change that should have occurred decades earlier finally does, with billions of dollars lost and millions of lives impacted or ruined. Miraculously we see none of the catastrophic consequences predicted by opponents: the world does not collapse, the economy does not stop functioning, and mom and pop stores continue to thrive in the newly regulated world.

So how does this tired old script get revised with the most recent sulfur affair? In order to comprehend the insanity of conservative opposition to removing sulfur from gasoline, we need to review in more detail the history of removing lead, which so closely parallels what we want to do with sulfur. From this history we can see more clearly how conservatives and industry worked to prevent what is obviously a correct course of action (in the case of lead), and derive from that lessons for what is now happening with sulfur. Just substitute "sulfur" for "lead" in the following story and you can understand where we are today.

Sulfur Is the New Lead

Dates and sources for quotes below about the history of regulating lead are found here. Also, the full history of the phasedown of lead in gasoline is captured in a report authored by Richard Newell and Kristian Rogers. The economics of the phasedown is expertly described by Joel Schwartz, Hugh Pitcher et al. in a paper published in 1985.

So, let's begin. In 1965, Clair Patterson published the first study to demonstrate that high levels of lead in the environment (water, air, soil) were man-made and constituted a potential health threat. Just as they would do later with climate change denials, the American Petroleum Institute (yes, them once again) countered with the claim that "the mass of evidence proves unquestionably that lead isn't a significant factor in air pollution and represents no public health problem in any way." (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 1965). Sound familiar?

A few months later, in December of that same year, Harriet Hardy of MIT argued that small doses of lead could be a contributing factor to disease, and cites studies that suggest links between lead and mental retardation (New York Times, Dec. 16, p. 22). Advocates for lead claimed in testimony from Robert Kehoe (an industry-sponsored scientist) that, "There is not enough lead in our environment to be a health hazard to anybody. Those who say there is are ignoring the substance of the scientific work that has been done" (Washington Post, Dec. 19, p. A14). This went back and forth, until the pendulum began to swing decidedly against the industry. In 1971, Ethyl Corp. officials claimed to be victims of a "witch hunt," (sound familiar again?) complaining that environmentalists were using "scare tactics" (chorus line) by blaming lead for the fall of the Roman Empire. By 1977, the evidence for lead's ill effects on health was beyond doubt. Testing by public health scientists showed causation between high levels of lead in children's blood and brain damage, hypertension and learning disorders. Later, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that leaded gasoline is the greatest source of atmospheric lead pollution. In June 1980, the courts affirmed in Lead Industries Association v. EPA that EPA regulations for the phase-out of leaded gasoline could be implemented.

So industry leaders first disputed that lead in gasoline was the source of lead in the water and atmosphere (somewhat like those who later would claim that climate change is a hoax); when that proved unviable, they said, sure, but lead in the environment was not a health hazard (sure, climate change is real but not caused by human activity, a natural variation of no concern). When that proved untrue, they argued that opponents were organizing a witch hunt using scare tactics to mask the horrific economic consequences of regulating lead (environmentalists were scaring the public about climate change to advance an extreme left-wing agenda of eco-terrorism). Today you don't hear anyone arguing we should still have lead in our gasoline. Why? "Thousands of tons of lead have been removed from the air, and blood levels of lead in our children are down 70 percent. This means that millions of children will be spared the painful consequences of lead poisoning, such as permanent nerve damage, anemia or mental retardation." By 1983 we also learn that the benefits of the lead phase-out exceeded its costs by $700 million in just a few years.

Let us not forget in the face of this economic and public health success that the predictions of economic ruin and regulatory overreach were quite stark as industry tried to rally opposition to regulating lead -- just as the petroleum industry is crying foul about removing sulfur and denying EPA claims about economic benefit. I have seen no apologies or admissions of error about the conservative position on lead; just silence. That silence is striking given the stridency of the opposition, and how incredibly wrong they were. Here are just a few examples, and keep these in mind every time you hear an industry spokesperson speak out against removing sulfur from gasoline:

• Oil industry representatives testified to EPA that the lead phase-down would cause them to lose profits, prevent them from funding future oil exploration, and make gasoline unaffordable.

• In 1970, the petroleum industry was putting out stories that removing lead from gasoline would cause everyone's car engines to erode or explode. That, in turn, would destroy the economy, all because "a bunch of pointy-headed scientists, doctors and public health officials" were spreading "chicken-little panic" about a "purely hypothetical and overblown danger."

• One lead additive manufacturer ran an ad in major newspapers in December 1973, later picked up in a Washington Post article, claiming the lead phase-down would waste one million barrels of oil a day.

• Phillips Petroleum estimated that producing unleaded gasoline would consume between 300,000 and 600,000 barrels of additional crude oil a day and require from $8 to $15 billion in refinery capital investment.

Of course none of that nonsense proved to be true; the only truth is that removing lead from gasoline caused no economic disruption, but did result in important health, environmental and economic benefits.

Keep in mind too that just as with removing lead from gasoline, the benefits of doing so will well exceed the costs. The EPA estimates that cleaner-burning fuel will benefit the economy in the range of $6.9 billion to $19 billion annually as a consequence of lives saved, fewer days missed at work due to illness, and lower medical costs. Who do you believe -- the EPA about the benefits, or industry about the costs? The EPA was right about the net benefits of removing lead; and industry was dead wrong. They have not gained any credibility in the interim. Their cries of pain are not compelling.

Diligence, Not Rote Opposition

Government regulations can and very often do indeed go too far; laws can overreach. Implementation and enforcement can be expensive, inefficient and intrusive. All of that is true, which means we must always be diligent and fight against government excess. But knee-jerk reactions to all government regulation, even those essential and reasonable, destroy any credibility in fighting regulations that legitimately should be resisted. Fighting against actions that clearly benefit individuals and society alike does nothing but delay what should and needs to be done. Los Angeles does not look like Beijing only because of government regulation, forcing the auto industry into adopting catalytic converters and regulating tailpipe emissions (along with regulations of the energy industry as well). I lived in southern California throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when the air was thick, opaque and tasted like metal. The air is breathable now exclusively and solely due to "excessive" government regulation. No market forces would lead to that outcome. If you are among those who believe government has no business regulating industry, then live in China for six months and see if you retain your beliefs. Traffic deaths are down significantly because the government makes you wear seat belts in a car and helmets on a bike. You can eat food in restaurants and produce from grocery stores with confidence because those industries are regulated by government. Hot dogs contain meat instead of rat hair and feces because of government regulation. Air travel is safe because of government regulation of airline maintenance and duty cycle rules for pilots. Water is safe to drink because of government oversight and regulation. Buildings and freeways withstand earthquakes because of government regulation. The drugs you take are the safest in the world because of government regulation.

The government rightfully imposed stricter regulations on sulfur. Industry should be grateful for the opportunity to do the right thing without giving any unfair advantages to competitors. Conservative opposition is nothing but mindless drivel ignorant of history and dangerous to the future of our society.