The False Trade-off Between Green Power and Toxic Chemicals Regulations
The long and tortuous effort to regulate toxic chemicals in America has now hit an ironic hurdle: anti-environmental lobbying by makers of batteries and other renewable energy technologies that rely on toxic substances. The chemical industry’s successful effort to resist regulation accelerated in the 1980s. Now they are asking renewable energy makers to join them as allies. Their argument is coherent and murderous:Regulation stifles innovation and economic growth. If we are required to follow environmental rules, we will lose in competition with companies from countries that do not have these rules.” The result was a more toxic environment and significant harm to human and ecological health. The chemical industry has succeeded in defeating and delaying almost all regulations on toxic chemicals. Tens of thousands of new substances have been introduced by the chemical industry since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was enacted in 1976, but only a handful of them have been regulated. The strengthening of the TSCA in 2016 still hasn’t changed the toxic facts on the ground. Even when chemicals are known to have toxic effects, they are often used indiscriminately. And now we see another twist on the industry’s strategy: arguing that the transition to renewable energy requires toxic chemicals. As Eric Lipton reported last week in the New York Times:
“The Biden administration is preparing to impose some the first new rules in a generation to restrict or ban a range of toxic chemicals widely used in manufacturing, confronting the White House with tough choices between its economic agenda and public health. Many of the substances in question are important to industries that President Biden has supported through other policies aimed at bolstering global competitiveness and national security, such as semiconductors and electric vehicles. The companies are touting decisions on new regulations for a first group of toxic chemicals as jeopardizing the administration’s drive to nurture America’s economy of the future. Environmental and public health groups stress the need to focus on protecting workers and communities from substances known to pose health risks, such as cancer, liver and kidney damage and infertility. A major lobbying clash is already underway. Chipmakers, the nascent electric vehicle industry and other businesses, including military contractors, are lobbying the administration to ease the new rules, saying the repercussions of a ban or new restrictions could be paralyzing.
Despite the arguments made by some in business, it is possible to reduce toxic use while growing a business. Additionally, most regulations in America are phased in, and companies often have years to fully comply with new environmental rules. The problem here is that America’s dominant anti-regulatory ideology seems to have convinced many corporations and their lobbyists that all rules are bad for business. History seems to show that the opposite is true. Regulations provide opportunities for innovation and often result in the creation of new businesses. Somebody has to make the airbags, the catalytic converters and the seat belts. Sometimes the technical capability needed to comply with a new rule is deployed elsewhere in the company once the rule is implemented. Today’s motor vehicle is more computerized and less mechanical than motor vehicles of the 20th century. Cars are lighter, more fuel efficient, safer and more reliable. Often, these new government requirements create competition around product features that weren’t in the original sales pitch. When buying a family vehicle, the car’s safety record is sometimes the deciding factor. When purchasing a new refrigerator, the annual cost of running the appliance is now factored in along with its retail price. Energy efficiency rules and operating cost disclosure improve product performance and help consumers make more informed purchases. The problem with regulation is that often a company’s culture resists new rules as inherently anti-business. When companies have to conform to rules, elements of an innovation culture are sometimes forced into a change-resistant company. It doesn’t always work well.
Nevertheless, there are many examples of companies not waiting for the new rules and instead deciding to integrate pollution reduction into their corporate culture. Apple is an example of an electronics company that has focused on reducing toxics while continuing to grow. According Apple:
“Apple believes that reducing, restricting, and ultimately eliminating the use of hazardous substances in materials is essential to ensuring the safety of the workers who make its products, the customers who use its products, and the recyclers who handle its products. at the end of the products”. useful life. This commitment to security has led Apple to lead the electronics industry in phasing out substances in its products… Apple began its safer materials program in the early 1990s, when certain heavy metals and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) were restricted in certain applications. At the time, Apple created a Restricted Substances Specification that required its suppliers to meet its restrictions on hazardous substances. Restrictions have risen steadily, with a major change in 2009 when nearly all use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and PVC was phased out.
Chemical companies have somehow convinced people that they have to choose between innovation and health. Once they’ve developed a new chemical with useful properties, they don’t seem too concerned about the side effects of their invention. Companies that use these toxic substances in their products seem to believe that they have no alternative, but they do. When engineers are given new design parameters, they often seem to find new ways to produce the products they are working on.
While the trade-off between green power and controlling toxic chemicals isn’t real, I suspect some climate policy advocates will accept the argument and see controlling toxins as less important than controlling greenhouse gases. Greenhouse. This testifies to the dominance of climate change on the environmental policy agenda. I do not consider any of these issues to be more important than the other. In fact, both can be subsumed under the overarching question of the unintended impact of the introduction and use of new technologies on people and the planet. The science of climate change, its causes, impacts and even its solutions are well known. Unfortunately, much less research has been undertaken on toxic substances and even less on ecosystems and biodiversity. Climate is a thorny issue for our political and economic systems, but not for science and engineering. We know what we have to do. When we are realistic, we know that even simple solutions take a long time to implement in the real world. We know we need to decarbonize, but it will take a generation to get this big job done. Many other environmental problems are much less straightforward. The science is less certain.
Toxic substances proved complicated and difficult to regulate, and the original 1976 law proved incredibly ineffective. In June 2016, at the end of his second term, President Barack Obama signed into law the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century. According to Environmental Defense Fund:
“For decades, the Toxic Substances Control Act 1976 has proven ineffective in ensuring the safety of chemicals used in everything from household cleaners to clothes and sofas. The broken chemical safety system… Allowed tens of thousands of chemicals to remain on the market without any safety review… (TSCA) Gave companies wide latitude to claim chemical information they submitted to the government as trade secrets and hide them from the public and even from state and local governments and medical professionals… The Lautenberg Act gives the EPA the tools to ensure chemical safety and significantly strengthen the protection of the health of American families. Notably, the law… Mandates safety reviews for chemicals in active commerce… Requires a safety conclusion for new chemicals before they can enter the market… Replaces the burdensome cost-benefit safety standard of TSCA – which prevented the EPA from banning asbestos – with a pure, health-based safety standard. Makes more information about chemicals available, limiting the ability of companies to claim confidential information and giving states and health and environmental professionals the access to confidential information they need to make their work.
The Trump administration has done next to nothing to implement this new law and now, more than two years into the Biden administration, a little progress is finally underway. It would be more than tragic if the false trade-off between green energy and chemical safety got political and media traction and killed off those baby steps to finally regulate some of our economy’s worst poisons. The toxins from our renewable energy technology must be phased out. They must be replaced by substitutes. These new rules can stimulate and accelerate the pace of technological innovation.