Carbon dioxide as pollutant

by Walter Olson on January 4, 2011

And a choice quote (New York Times via Taranto) on how the legal system disposes of it all:

“If the administration gets it wrong, we’re looking at years of litigation, legislation and public and business outcry,” said a senior administration official who asked not to be identified so as not to provide an easy target for the incoming Republicans. “If we get it right, we’re facing the same thing.”

{ 18 comments }

1 Le Mur 01.04.11 at 1:15 pm

If CO2 – a naturally occurring chemical necessary for life – can be called a pollutant and subjected to regulation, then so may every other chemical or compound – oxygen, water, sand, whatever. I hope it doesn’t become analogous to the way the term “interstate commerce” has been redefined by judges to mean “everything”.

2 No Name Guy 01.04.11 at 7:54 pm

Le
The EPA IS trying to classify sand…ok, dust (really fine sand) as a pollutant. Farmer Jones had better watch out next time he takes the tractor out into the field.

(During the writing of this comment, I spewed forth countless breaths laden with that awful poison CO2 – come and get me EPA.)

3 Marty 01.04.11 at 11:05 pm

Get ready to pay a breathing tax. It’s like stormwater runoff, except, well…

4 Ed 01.05.11 at 6:41 am

The facility I work at pumps water from a lake. If there is a leak and that same water (prior to touching any other system) drains back to the lake, it is an EPA violation.

5 Richard Nieporent 01.05.11 at 8:59 am

If, as the Obama administration claims, that CO2 is a pollutant, then the EPA must make sure that all traces of it are removed from the atmosphere. That will do wonders for the environment.

6 wfjag 01.05.11 at 9:10 am

“The EPA IS trying to classify sand…ok, dust (really fine sand) as a pollutant. Farmer Jones had better watch out next time he takes the tractor out into the field.”

NNG – EPA already regulates milk as oil for spill prevention plans. So, Farmer Jones already needs to make sure he doesn’t spill any from his carton (or his coffee if he uses real cream rather than creamer) when working his fields.

7 Mannie 01.05.11 at 9:15 am

“The EPA IS trying to classify sand…ok, dust (really fine sand) as a pollutant. Farmer Jones had better watch out next time he takes the tractor out into the field.”

That’s exactly their objective and, yes, Farmer Jones had better watch out.

8 GregS 01.05.11 at 10:34 am

Carbon dioxide is essential for life on Earth – photosynthesis by plants can’t occur without it. So how does it qualify as a “pollutant”? And how is classifying it as one consistent with the Obama administration’s boast that it relies on science and logic when making policy decisions?

It seems to me that Obama’s administration has no more respect for science than did Bush’s. The difference between the two is that Bush elevated religious faith above science, whereas Obama’s crew elevates pseudoscience above science. Not much of a difference, as pseudoscience is just a more secular version of the same anti-scientific thinking habits.

9 Richard Nieporent 01.05.11 at 11:06 am

Environmentalism is just as much a religion for the Left as Christianity is for the Right. The true believers are trying to force everyone to submit to their religious beliefs. See the speech that Michael Crichton gave on this subject in 2003.

http://climaterealists.com/index.php?id=2049

10 Dan Weber 01.05.11 at 3:29 pm

If CO2 – a naturally occurring chemical necessary for life

Formaldehyde fits this description, too. I guess it shouldn’t be considered a pollutant.

As with anything else, the dose makes the poison.

11 Richard Nieporent 01.05.11 at 4:48 pm

If CO2 – a naturally occurring chemical necessary for life

Formaldehyde fits this description, too.

What an asinine comment. No it does not. I will grant you that it is naturally occurring. It is the necessary for life part that you are completely wrong about. I guess biology was not your strong suit.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance in the environment made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Natural processes in the upper atmosphere may contribute up to 90 percent of the total formaldehyde in the environment. Formaldehyde is an intermediate in the oxidation (or combustion) of methane as well as other carbon compounds, e.g. forest fires, in automobile exhaust, and in tobacco smoke. When produced in the atmosphere by the action of sunlight and oxygen on atmospheric methane and other hydrocarbons, it becomes part of smog. Formaldehyde has also been detected in outer space (see below).
Formaldehyde, as well as its oligomers and hydrates are rarely encountered in living organisms. Methanogenesis proceeds via the equivalent of formaldehyde, but this one-carbon species is masked as a methylene group in methanopterin. Formaldehyde is the primary cause of methanol’s toxicity, since methanol is metabolised into toxic formaldehyde by alcohol dehydrogenase. Formaldehyde does not accumulate in the environment, because it is broken down within a few hours by sunlight or by bacteria present in soil or water. Humans metabolize formaldehyde quickly, so it does not accumulate, and is converted to formic acid in the body.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formaldehyde

12 David Schwartz 01.05.11 at 9:38 pm

The toxic level of CO2 is around 50,000 ppm. The CO2 level on the planet Earth is about 390 ppm. The CO2 level would have to increase by a factor of 128 to reach toxic levels. There is no known mechanism by which this could conceivably take place. Analogizing CO2 to toxic substances is junk science.

13 gumby 01.06.11 at 2:50 pm

“Toxic to humans” and “present at a level that will do harm” are different things. You can debate levels and what harm you are trying to mitigate — and with CO2 obviously that is the issue. But if the standard for regulatory intervention is that the substance will cause immediate death to humans, we are all doomed.

And perhaps formaldehyde was a poor example above. How about, say, oil? It is present naturally, but at the quantities disgorged following the BP disaster, it’s an environmental disaster. Dump a bunch of it in a local fishing hole and see is your argument “but it’s natural!” gets much traction.

14 GregS 01.06.11 at 6:20 pm

Dan Weber and gumby are both implicitly defending the position that Le Mur warned about in the first post in this thread. Too much of anything is going to be harmful in some context. If that’s all it takes for something to be a pollutant, then everything is a pollutant. Logically, that would render the concept of pollutant empty and meaningless, since a concept has to distinguish between what is, and what isn’t, included in it.

15 gumby 01.06.11 at 8:42 pm

“Logically, that would render the concept of pollutant empty and meaningless.”

No, it doesn’t. It means you have to do something like include a concept of harm or talk about quanitity (ie introduce unacceptable levels etc) in your regulation.

There are a bajillion naturally occuring substances that are present in the environment in trivial amounts that cause no harm to humans or to ecosystems (dunno — salts, lead and other heavy metals, hydrocarbons, asbestos). Introduce that same substance beyond its natural level, and it is a pollutant. Doesn’t seem at all illogical.

Now who wants another arsenic smoothie!

16 Richard Nieporent 01.06.11 at 9:35 pm

Gumby, with your logic the EPA is going to have to regulate drinking water. After all an excess amount will kill you.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=strange-but-true-drinking-too-much-water-can-kill

Your argument is pure sophistry.

17 Bob Lipton 01.06.11 at 9:37 pm

Better stick to gin, Richard.

Bob

18 gumby 01.07.11 at 12:33 pm

Richard:

1. Is there something about the concept of “degree” that you are struggling with? As a thought exercise, change “environmental regulation” to “immigration” and “CO2″ to “Mexicans”. (Ie a certain number are present “naturally” and society functions just fine, yet the US builds a wall to keep most of them out and many clamour for better enforcement of immigration laws to keep the LEVEL of new migrants manageable for local economies / communities).

2. I have a hard time believing that you really don’t get that concepts of “toxic when ingested” and “pollution” are different. And, as it turns out, yeah, introducing water into the environment at levels where it does not currently exist is, given the circumstances — think of flooding from a hydroelectric dam — subject to environmental restrictionsn regulations and permissions. Again, it depends on the level and the harm. I don’t see what is so difficult about this.

Anyway, what Bob said.

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