Ed O'Rourke


 

Petroleum Products Are Hazardous To Your Health
February 2007



A recent study by the University of Texas School of Public Health shows a possible link between cancer risks and hazardous pollutants in Harris County. Children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, it found, have a 56 percent higher risk of being stricken with acute lymphocytic leukemia than children living more than 10 miles from the Channel. Children exposed to increased emissions of 1,3 –butadiene have an increased risk of developing leukemia. The study made front-page news in the January 19, 2007, issue of the Houston Chronicle.

The fact is that drilling, transporting, refining and using petroleum products are dangerous for all concerned. Terry Tamminen, former Special Assistant to the California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, portrays the health effects of petroleum and actions of oil companies and automobile manufacturers to keep the public from seeking legislative protection. His book, Lives Per Gallon: The True Costs of Our Petroleum Addiction, is a scathing indictment of Big Oil.

Given the Governor’s environmental feelings and political clout along with the Democratic Congress, I see big changes in energy regulation, tax laws and an Energy Act of 2007.

Most Americans live in areas where air pollution exceeds standard set by federal and state authorities. In Los Angeles, some pollution measurements show double the amount allowed by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns generated by smokestacks, tailpipes, and the exhaust of trains, planes, ships and trucks is especially toxic, causing respiratory ailments, cardiopulmonary disease, premature death, low-weight babies and infant deaths. The National Resources Defense Council’s research shows that diesel engines emit one hundred times more particulate matter than gasoline engines. These tiny particles bypass the lungs and bloodstream to attack cell structure directly, inducing many diseases, including cancer.

The United States should consider outlawing any further manufacture or import of diesel engines. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) determined that particulate matter, mostly from diesel engines, might be responsible for up to 25 percent of all measured global warming. There is progress in cleaner diesel fuels, with lower emissions of particulates and soot. Unless there are far-reaching results in a few years, the drastic solution will be the best protection for our citizens.

The oil industry in the United States uses about one billion tons of drilling mud per year in its offshore operations. These muds contain toxic materials: mercury, cadmium, lead, hexavalent chromium and barium.

Transporting petroleum always carries the risk of leaks. Oil tanks are among the least maneuverable vessels on the open sea. Groundings and collisions are not surprises. From 1991 to 2006, tankers spilled about a billion gallons of gasoline worldwide. From 1990 to 2002, US pipelines leaked an average of 5.3 million gallons of petroleum products per year. The safe life span of a pipeline is about 15 years. However, petroleum companies use them until the cost of repairing pipe exceeds the cost of replacing it.

Areas around refineries are especially dangerous. Northern California’s Contra Costa County with its six refineries emitting 60 tons of benzene, 30 tons of formaldehyde and other carcinogens each year is known as “Cancer Belt.” Likewise the area between Baton Rouge to New Orleans is “Cancer Alley.”

The federal Clean Air Act identifies automobile fuel combustion as the major source of air pollution in the United States, contributing to or causing many illnesses including cancer. Gasoline contains 225 toxic or carcinogenic chemicals. Of them, airborne benzene, 1,3 –butadiene and formaldehyde are the greatest risk to humans.

Surprisingly, there is virtually no air pollution regulation for airplanes, ships, trains, construction equipment, farm equipment or lawn movers. With the exception of California, federal law prohibits states from making regulations on such equipment or vehicles. In California only, the EPA has granted the state’s Air Resources Board the authority to regulate air quality to standards more stringent than its own regulations. California also has regional Air Quality Management Districts, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District, whose regulations include a ban on outdoor charcoal grills and gasoline-powered lawnmowers.

Before 2005, the Union of Concerned Scientists calculated that the oil industry pays an effective 11 percent tax rate because of numerous credits and deductions. The non-oil average effective tax rate is 18 percent. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 added $60 billion in new subsidies to the oil companies over the next 10 years. The same Act gave new regulatory exemptions from the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

With the tax breaks and subsidies already in place in 2004, the oil companies were due to receive $160 billion in donations from the federal government. The oil companies have received an averaged 1,000 to 1 benefit for their combined campaign contributions.

Defending the oil supply routes before the Iraq War cost the American public between 55 and 100 billion dollars for military bases and logistics.

Even though the federal government subsidizes the oil companies, as seen here, these same companies allege that they would go bankrupt if they were to provide cleaner burning fuels or reduce pollution. Similarly, automobile manufacturers in years past have alleged that they would go bankrupt if they had to install seat belts, air bags or do virtually anything to help public health.

The US auto industry learned nothing from the oil embargo of the 1970s. They kept on making gas-guzzlers while the Japanese made fuel-efficient cars and addressed customer concerns. By 2003, Toyota stock value was higher than that of General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler combined. By 2006, Consumer Reports magazine’s 10 best cars were all Japanese. Not a single American car made the top 10. In 1970, US automakers’ share of the U.S. market was 86 percent, while Japanese and European cars had an 11 percent market share. Now, the U.S. share is 51 percent and the Japanese-European share is 49 percent.

Irresponsible Refinery Maintenance

Refineries in the United States run at nearly 100 percent capacity. For the past 10 years, petroleum consumption has risen two and a half times faster than refinery capacity. Running a refinery takes a lot of care and management. The liquids are all highly flammable under intense heat and pressure. There are thousands of pieces of equipment to monitored and repaired.

Some refineries in California and the rest of the U.S. are old. Their lack of environmental care takes a heavy toll on citizens. The Chevron refinery at El Segundo, built in 1919, spilled a quarter of a billion gallons of petroleum products into aquifers beneath the plant that was undetected over an 80-year period. The Valero refinery at Benicia (over 40 years old) is the youngest in California. It suffered five serious breakdowns in the first half of 2003 alone.

Oil Companies Have Lied About Health Hazards

Oil companies have sometimes lied to their own workers or contractors about health hazards. After the Exxon Valdez disaster, Exxon persuaded authorities not to designate the oil spill mitigation as a hazardous materials cleanup to avoid paying workers for 40 hours of hazardous materials training. Exxon supplied improper instruction on protective clothing. The high pressure hot water wash separated oil from rocks creating a toxic petroleum aerosol that penetrated workers’ lungs. In direct violation of federal law, Exxon did not report 6,722 cases of upper respiratory infections.

Secret Devices on Catalytic Converters

Automobile manufacturers installed “secret devises” that would turn off emission control equipment after an engine had run for a while. The manufacturers thought that the vehicles would get more power that way. Six companies (Caterpillar, Cummins, Detroit Diesel, Mack Trucks/Renault, Navistar/International and Volvo) admitted to installing defeat devises on more than a million vehicles over a decade. To settle claims with the EPA, they agreed to retrofit the engines during scheduled maintenance and to desist from making these devises in the future.

A New Look at Hydrogen

It takes about 1.65 energy units to produce one useful hydrogen unit. All fuels need more energy to produce them than what results in useful product. It takes about 1.25 energy units to produce any useful petroleum product. In the future, energy units required for hydrogen will decrease while petroleum units will increase. The 1.25 required petroleum units do not count oil spills, defense costs to maintain the oil supply nor health effects. Oil companies are searching in remote places and drilling deeper to find petroleum deposits. The cheap easy deposits no longer exist. There is much talk about extractions from shale and tar sands. Shale extraction is terribly hard. There has not been a single barrel of oil derived from it yet. The tar sand approach is like strip mining to the landscape. There is nine tons of toxic debris for every ton of oil obtained from tar sands.

Mr. Tamminen offers some solutions. In areas like Los Angeles and Houston that have not attained required air quality, he recommends that fuel be rationed. I take his idea a step further. Ration fuel in all of the United States. This would help save a lot on freeway construction and urban sprawl.

Impose taxes on petroleum fuels that would reimburse those damaged by emissions, fund alternative fuels programs and subsidize mass transit.

Consider this as “taxpayer protection fees” that would impose the accounting matching principle on petroleum use. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute calculates the true cost of gasoline to be $11 per gallon, once defense and health care costs are considered.

I offer other solutions:

* Get legislative action to impose severe fines and prison terms for health violations (oil spills, defeat devises for catalytic converters, lying about health risks). Ask Congress to allow states to monitor air emissions and allow them to set higher standards than federal law.

* Start a federal program for alternative fuels, on the scale of NASA’s Apollo program, which landed the first man on the moon.

* Legislate that America oil companies must use best practices everywhere in the world.

* Repeal all U.S. oil companies’ tax breaks and subsidies in an Energy Act this year.

* When the hidden costs of our oil addiction become public, all of these solutions will seem tame or even bland.

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Copyright © 2005 Ed O'Rourke, P.C.
Last modified: 04/19/2007