Friday, April 17, 2020

Trump officials reject stricter air quality standards, despite link between air pollution, coronavirus risks

The "link" they refer to is this study ("Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States")

What the study actually found was that number of hospital beds was the chief predictor of Coronavirus deaths: "This suggests that number of hospital beds is a strong confounder".  Getting hospital treatment helps you to survive.  That finding should surprise nobody.

So when the effect of hospital beds is allowed for, the correlation between Coronavirus deaths per million and level of PM2.5 in the air shrinks to negligibility, in line with other studies of PM2.5 effects.

The existing research on particulate air pollution (PM2.5.)shows effects that range between no effect and effects that are so weak that no confidence can be placed in them. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here

Wheeler was right to ignore the study

The Trump administration opted Tuesday not to set stricter national air quality standards, despite a growing body of scientific evidence linking air pollution to lethal outcomes from respiratory diseases such as covid-19.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced Tuesday that the agency would maintain the current standards for fine particulate matter, otherwise known as soot, the country’s most widespread deadly pollutant.

The EPA’s staff scientists recommended lowering the annual particulate matter standard to between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter in a draft report last year, citing estimates that reducing the limit to 9 could save roughly 12,200 lives a year. The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) was split on the question, with some members calling for tighter standards and others saying the current one is sufficient.

“The United States has some of the cleanest air in the world, and we’re going to keep it that way,” Wheeler told reporters in a phone call. “We believe the current standard is protective of public health.”

Soot comes from smokestacks, vehicles, industrial operations, incinerators and burning wood. The current standards limit annual concentrations to 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air and daily concentrations to 35 per cubic meter. These fine particles enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation that can lead to asthma, heart attacks and other illnesses.

Poor and minority communities in the United States tend to be exposed to greater air pollution, including soot, because they often live closer to highways or industrial facilities. A 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that on average, communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents.

This long-term exposure has increased the risks Americans of color face when it comes to heart and respiratory illness, including covid-19, which is disproportionately killing African Americans.

The decision regarding particulate matter is the administration’s latest effort to ease industrial regulation. In recent weeks, the White House has rolled back automobile emissions standards, despite projections that it would increase premature deaths. Citing the national emergency sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, the EPA has stopped policing pollution from factories and power plants for an indefinite period. And the agency has weakened emissions limits for coal-burning plants.

But several big business groups in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute, cheered the administration for retaining the existing standards, with both noting that annual concentrations of fine particulate matter are down by 39 percent since 2000. Most areas of the country have now met the annual standards, with the exception of spots including Southern and Central California and parts of Pennsylvania and Idaho.

“We think this strikes the right balance,” said API’s Frank Macchiarola.

Wheeler cited “uncertainties” in existing studies about the impact of lower particulate matter on human health, and the fact that the EPA’s advisory panel was split, as reasons to retain the current pollution limits.

But some scientists say even a slight shift in pollution levels, either up or down, can impact the health of those most vulnerable to respiratory problems.

One study published this month from researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that even a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution causes a large increase in the risk of dying of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The study, which examined 3,080 U.S. counties, found that an increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate pollution of just one microgram per cubic meter is associated with a 15 percent greater likelihood of dying of covid-19. This stark difference may be explained by the lung damage such pollution causes over time.

“The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis,” the study’s authors wrote.

“If you’re breathing polluted air and your lungs are inflamed by the disease, you’re going to get very, very sick,” a senior author of the study, Harvard biostatistician Francesca Dominici, told The Washington Post last week.

Wheeler said that while the findings were “interesting,” it was “premature” to draw conclusions. “We look forward to reviewing the Harvard study once it’s completed and peer reviewed,” he said.


Methane levels at all-time high after near-record increase in gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide

The old methane scare again.  It is true that in the laboratory methane reflects 28 times more radiation than CO2 but the actual atmosphere is not a laboratory.  In the actual atmosphere water vapour reflects the same frequencies as methane, and water vapor is much more frequent than methane.  So methane adds very little in the presence of water vapour.  So its levels in the atmosphere are of no concern

Global methane levels have hit an all-time high after what appears to be a near-record yearly atmospheric increase in the potent greenhouse gas.

The concentration of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere reached nearly 1,875 parts per billion in 2019, up from the previous year’s 1,866 parts per billion, according to preliminary data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

If confirmed later this year, it would be the second highest increase in methane levels in more than two decades. The NOAA began collecting global methane data in 1983.

Though methane remains in the atmosphere for only a few years, it is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping the sun’s heat, and it poses an increasingly grave threat to efforts to tackle escalating global heating.

“Here we are. It’s 2020, and it’s not only not dropping. It’s not level. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growth rates we’ve seen in the last 20 years,” Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University, told Scientific American.

Scientists last year warned higher methane levels will make it even harder to reach targets set by the Paris climate change agreement.

Though uncertain about the source of the year-on-year increases, NOAA researchers have previously said much of it was coming from the tropics.

They believe it is likely due to microbial changes in methane-belching tropical wetlands, potentially caused by warmer temperatures in what amounts to a dangerous feedback loop.

The hypothesis is that as the climate warms the efficiency of the microbial communities that convert organic matter into methane increases.

But Rob Jackson, professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, said some of last year’s surge was likely also due to increases from agriculture and natural gas use.

In its annual sustainability report released last week, the fossil fuel company Shell revealed its annual methane emissions stood at 91,000 tonnes, down from 92,000 a year earlier.


Energy poverty in the pandemic age

In a recent article, International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol asserted that the “huge disruption caused by the coronavirus has highlighted how much modern societies rely on electricity.” Also adding that in many countries, electricity is critical for operating the ventilators and other medical equipment in the hospitals treating the soaring numbers of sick people.

Birol noted that electricity also ensures the timely communication of important information between governments and citizens and between doctors and patients. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa hundreds of millions of people live without any access to electricity. This, Birol states, makes these Africans far more vulnerable to disease and other dangers. It also keeps them poor.

In this country, too, energy poverty can be linked to poor health and to COVID 19. According to a 2018 U.S. Energy Information Administration report, 31 percent of Americans have struggled to pay their energy bills – half of the respondents were African-Americans. Couple that with the statement from the Centers for Disease Control that, during March, 33 percent of individuals requiring hospitalization for coronavirus were black.

This confirms results of a 2016 study that found that, on average, low-income households pay more than twice as much of their income for utilities as the median household. That study also found that “housing for the low income also tended to be less energy efficient, researchers found. Families in that group were at higher risk for respiratory diseases and stress.”

Thus it is troubling to read that the first 12 COVID 19 deaths in St. Louis, Missouri, were all African-Americans. Dr. Fredrick Echols, Director of the City of St. Louis Department of Health, squashed the rumor that African Americans are more resistant to contracting the virus, noting instead that pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and heart conditions “disproportionately affect the black community.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s spokesman on the pandemic, agreed that, “Diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma are disproportionately afflicting the minority populations, particularly the African Americans.”

Electricity, to be effective as a tool against disease, has to be affordable to be truly “accessible.” In the United States, hydrofracturing (fracking) has brought the price of natural gas so low that the cleaner burning fuel has replaced coal as the nation’s largest supplier of electricity.

The economics of natural gas, however, are in jeopardy thanks to an unrelenting war on fracking that forced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking in his state. Cuomo and other progressive Democrats are even working to ban new natural gas pipeline construction and even the sale and use of natural gas powered appliances.

Even presidential candidate Joe Biden in March took the Bernie Sanders position to pledge to shut down hydrofracturing. Though Biden later “clarified” his statement to imply his proposed ban would apply only on public lands, the message was clear. Hey Hey Ho Ho, Fossil Fuels Have Got To Go.

Biden has benefited from African-American political support. Rep. James Clyburn’s (D, SC) endorsement sparked Biden’s massive primary victory in the South Carolina primary and prompted other candidates to drop out of the race, ensuring Biden a huge “Super Thursday.”

However, former Cincinnati Mayor and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell argues that adopting extreme green energy policies – like banning fracking – hurts black American voters. Leaders of normally progressive liberal civil rights organizations, recognizing this, are urging Democrats to reconsider their opposition to affordable natural gas.

A recent article in Axios stated that, “in recent interviews, Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and National Urban League President (and former New Orleans mayor) Marc Morial said that energy costs are hitting people of color unfairly hard.” These civil rights activists are opposing any abrupt move away from natural gas, putting them at odds with environmentalists and progressive Democrats (who now seem to include Joe Biden).

Morial has been especially vocal, arguing that “Natural gas is a bit of a bridge fuel. It’s a fuel that we need to have access to because the transition to alternatives is a long-range transition.” Politicians, he said, should not debate these issues “without consultation with the leaders of the African-American communities and neighborhoods affected by these issues.” Sanders’ radical approach to energy is a major reason black Democrats stuck with Biden, who now seems to have betrayed that trust.

Jackson had told Axios in February that he supports “the call [to ban fracking] with a proper transition. In the meantime, those who are down and out have to have it.” Sharpton agreed that “natural gas is a temporary solution, but in the interim people in communities of color should not pay the brunt of suffering through cold winters.”

Meanwhile, the corona virus has begun to spread into sub-Saharan Africa, with 33 of Africa’s 54 countries reporting cases as early as March 18. An earlier report noted that northern Nigeria, which is home to 90 percent of that nation’s poor, is ripe for a pandemic outbreak. Only 24 percent of households there have access to electricity, water, and sanitation.

Indeed, the West’s refusal to assist Africans to switch from dung and wood to fossil fuel energy (instead forcing investment in renewable energy that provides carbon credits for Europeans) may trigger a massive outbreak with few tools available to fight back – despite theories that this virus cannot possibly infect people in hot climates.

Just a decade ago, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa acknowledged that,“fossil fuels are important energy sources that play vital roles in the economies of African nations,” adding that over 80 percent of the electricity generated across the continent was from fossil fuels. Several African nations relied upon fossil fuel exports for much of their revenues. But, said the UN, the continued use of fossil fuels in Africa should take place “in the context of a low carbon development trajectory.”

The slow rate of progress toward full electrification in sub-Saharan Africa indicates that the suggestion by a French physician to conduct COVID-19 vaccine trials “in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care,” while roundly condemned as racist, somewhat accurately describes the common viewpoint that Africa is just fine without electricity, hospitals, and effective means to fight pandemic diseases.

Energy poverty – rampant in black neighborhoods in the U.S. and across most of Africa – creates opportunities for pandemics to spread without the means to fight back. Natural gas has proven to be a major weapon against energy poverty – and by inference, against deadly disease. Ventilators, for example, become quite ineffective when power is available only intermittently.


Could the end of ethanol be in sight?

Ethanol alcohol (EtOH) is the same alcohol that is in beer, wine, and distilled spirits, namely CH3CH2OH.

In dry milling the entire kernel of corn or other starchy grain such as wheat, barley or sorghum is processed without separating out the various component parts of the grain. Water is added to form a mash to which enzymes are added to convert the starch to dextrose, a simple sugar. The mash is cooked at high temperatures to reduce bacteria, and is then cooled and fermented with yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol.  The yeast die off when the alcohol content rises to about 15%. Distillation converts the mixture to about 180-proof (90%). Dehydration with benzene produces 200-proof (100%) alcohol. Then a small amount of a denaturant, such as unleaded gasoline, is added to ensure that it cannot be consumed as a beverage before being shipped off to be used as a fuel.

The Environmental Protection Agency ruled in the Clinton years that gasoline manufacturers were required to use ethanol as an oxygenate to produce a cleaner burn previously provided by MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) which proved to be a ground water contaminant.  While Chemical & Engineering News  explained that cars produced after 1995 no longer needed an additive to produce a cleaner burn, the requirement continues to this date, as a result of extremely effective lobbying by agricultural trade groups.

Their success is indicated by the fact that ethanol received a 51-cent per gallon subsidy through 2008 and 45 cents a gallon ever since.   In addition, cheaper EtOH made in Brazil from sugar cane suffers a 54-cent tariff. But wait!  There is more!  An escalating government mandate that runs through 2022 requires the production of 37 billion gallons of biofuel (primarily ethanol) in the United States.

All of this support for an unnecessary fuel even before the U.S. became the energy capital of the world, was exposed in 1998 by the late Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University. While chairing the U.S. Department of Energy Panel to investigate the economics of ethanol production, the panel found that 131,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) were required to produce a single gallon of ethanol, which only produced 77,000 BTUs when burned. That is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTUs per gallon.  But it gets worse.

While some cost is captured by selling the residual dry distillers grain for animal feed, the panel determined that water use and soil erosion required by growing corn had their costs as well.

Pimentel ended his report by all but gloating when he stated that if all the automobiles in the U.S. were fueled by ethanol, 97% of our land area would have to be devoted to growing corn.

In reality one can recognize that growing corn to produce ethanol is a way to harvest solar energy, all of which initially comes from the sun’s radiation. How much strikes the earth at any one time depends on the season and latitude of the location. A reasonable year-long average across the earth is that solar energy averages 200 watts per square meter of the earth surface (think in terms of the heat and light provided by the familiar 100 watt light bulb).

To get some perspective on corn-ethanol, let us consider two other ways to harness solar energy: direct conversion to electricity via photoelectric (PV) cells, and conversion of wind energy into electricity.

These days, commercially available PV cells can convert about 15%-20% of the sunlight falling on them into electricity.  In a place averaging 200 watts of sunlight per square meter, they produce 30-40 watts per square meter of land area, averaged around the year.

Wind turbines in excellent sites are spread out over huge tracts of land.  On average, they produce about 12.5 kW/hectare, or 1.25 watts per square meter of the enclosed land.

Photosynthesis is the mechanism by which solar energy becomes stored in plants, and it is nowhere near as efficient as people believe.  To make a long story short, energy crops of various kinds can be produced at the rate of about 10 tons (9 metric tons) of drymatter per acre (4047 square meters) of land per year.  In energy units, it amounts to a year-round average conversion rate of sunlight to biomass of 1.2 watts per square meter, or about the same as wind power.

There is a big difference, however, between wind and biomass.  Wind machines produce electricity directly.  If drymatter is simply burned to produce steam to turn a turbine to produce electricity, it will do so at about 35% efficiency, resulting in 0.42 watts per square meter.  But that’s also an overestimate, because we are neglecting the energy involved in harvesting, drying, and delivering the biomass to the electricity plant.

For corn, the conversion of solar energy into plant energy is no better than for generic drymatter.  It takes a lot of energy to convert that energy into EtOH, as noted above.  The Renewable Energy Association has argued that the production of EtOH is energy net-positive, but their figures amount to about 0.6 watts (thermal) per square meter of land.  (Converted to electricity at 35% efficiency, that would be 0.21 watts per square meter.)  In any case, the use of fertile land to produce a fuel means that less agricultural land can be used to produce food.

At last the forces of economics brought on by the unfortunate pandemic may be shining a light on the illogical continuous federal support for a fuel that makes no sense. With less fuel being used, less ethanol is being bended into gasoline. Profit on the production of ethanol, even with its subsidies, has disappeared. More than a million gallons a day are being produced, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as stockpiles total over 24 million barrels.

Last year more than 10 ethanol plants cut production rates or closed down. Many more are yet to follow. Time is long overdue to end the ethanol industry as we have known it for more than three decades.  Let them turn to producing a more useful product, namely pure grain alcohol for the liquor industry.



For more postings from me, see  DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC and AUSTRALIAN POLITICS. Home Pages are   here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here.  

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