TCS Daily

Another Environmentalist Bromide

By Ben Lieberman - November 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Environmentalism has never been more predictable than it is today. Left-leaning activists and environmental journalists reflexively turn every green issue into a formulaic "Bush administration rollback" story, often with little regard for the facts and history of the issue. So it is with the much-criticized administration attempt to obtain exemptions for farmers who wish to use the chemical methyl bromide beyond its 2005 phaseout deadline. In truth, these exemptions will help prevent significant hardship for thousand of farmers and their customers, and will do so without any discernable threat to the environment.


Along with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, the once-widely used class of refrigerants and solvents) and other chemicals believed to contribute to depletion of the earth's ozone layer, production of the crop fumigant methyl bromide has been restricted. Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a multilateral treaty designed to reduce and eventually eliminate ozone-depleting compounds, methyl bromide production was to be gradually phased down in the developed world, culminating in a ban by 2005. Developing nations were given an additional ten years, until 2015.


In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency initially used its authority under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments to set a more ambitious phaseout target of 2001. But users of methyl bromide -- such as California strawberry farmers who inject it into the soil to kill nematodes and other pests -- had no viable alternatives. Responding to these concerns, the Clinton administration enacted legislation in 1998 moving back the deadline to 2005, in line with the rest of the developed world.


Now, as the 2005 deadline approaches, adequate methyl bromide substitutes are still not available for certain applications. The Montreal Protocol does allow limited exemptions for nations that believe they cannot completely forego methyl bromide. Under these provisions, the US is now seeking exemptions for some methyl bromide uses.


As a consequence, the environmental lobby has accused the administration of threatening the planet, and the New York Times recently asserted that "[t]he two-decade effort to eliminate chemicals that harm the ozone layer faces its most serious test in recent years..."


Some perspective is badly needed. Methyl bromide was considered a relatively minor contributor to ozone loss even when its use was at its peak in the 1990s. At that time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that "man-made methyl bromide is responsible for 3-10 percent of global stratospheric ozone destruction." And the exemptions at issue now, assuming all of them are granted, represent only a fraction of the amount of methyl bromide used then.


That these exemptions are environmentally trivial is further underscored when compared to the far larger natural sources of methyl bromide. The World Meteorological Organization's (WMO) Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2002 confirms that "the data suggest that substantial natural sources exist for atmospheric methyl bromide." In fact, the WMO identifies the oceans as the most significant source of methyl bromide, dwarfing the amounts for which the Bush administration seeks exemptions.


Perhaps more significantly, recent evidence demonstrates ozone depletion to be far less of a problem than initially predicted. It should be noted that temporary thinning of the earth's ozone layer, in and of itself, is not of concern for human health or the environment. It is the fear that an eroded ozone layer will allow more of the sun's damaging ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB) to reach ground level that gave rise to the costly ban on CFCs, methyl bromide, and other compounds. But there is little actual evidence of a long-term UVB increase, and many scientists concede that any anthropogenic change is too small to be discernable amidst the much larger background fluctuations. Needless to say, the claims of UVB-induced skin cancer epidemics and the like -- the fodder of environmental alarmists in the 1980s and early 1990s before they moved on to global warming -- show no signs of coming true. Nonetheless, that has not stopped several activists from linking the administration's methyl bromide policy with increased skin cancer risk.


Overall, ozone depletion has proven to be a legitimate but grossly exaggerated threat, and most of that is attributable to compounds other than methyl bromide.


The costs of banning methyl bromide are considerable. According to a study conducted for the US Department of Agriculture in 2000, the methyl bromide phaseout could cost between $400 and $450 million annually in the U.S. In addition, some methyl-bromide dependent farmers fear that absent these exemptions they will lose out to competitors in Mexico, Chile, and other developing nations that still have access to methyl bromide.


In sum, the scary hype surrounding these exemptions has little basis in reality, and the administration's effort to secure limited continued use of methyl bromide is good policy. As it stands now, the international body that reviews the applications for exemptions has indicated that it may reject at least some of the US demands.  Environmental officials with the European Union loudly complained that the American exemption requests are excessive, and may have won the day.  The final decision will be made in March.  And, since these exemptions last for only one year, the US will have to re-apply annually and face global political pressure each time.


For this reason, vineyard owner and Congressman George Radanovich (R-CA) co-sponsored a bill that would take the exemption process out of international hands and place it with the US EPA. This bill is a step in the right direction towards ensuring methyl bromide use where needed, at least for a few more years until adequate substitutes are available.


Ben Lieberman is Director of Air Quality Policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in Washington DC.



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