A Little Mercury. A lot of Mercury. What’s the Difference? Some Members of Congress Don’t Seem to Care.
**First published at Shark. Laser. Blawg.**
There's a number of reasons why the House bill to repeal national energy efficiency standards for light bulbs makes no sense. The standards, enacted by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 ("EISA"), require that new light bulbs be 30% more energy efficient by 2013. The EISA does not "ban" incandescent bulbs as conservatives have claimed. Industry supports the efficiency standards. The standards, moreover, are projected to save Americans money (about $85 per year, per home and $12.5 billion in energy costs nationally by 2020). One of the stranger elements of Republicans' desire to repeal EISA, though, is a new-found concern over the health effects of mercury.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), who sponsored the bill, has called CFLs "health hazards." Michael Burgess (R-TX), a co-sponsor, expressed his concern, too: "I have stated all along that exposing our citizens to the harmful effects of the mercury contained in CFL light bulbs . . . is likely to pose a hazard for years to come."
It isn't the fact that the amount of mercury in a CFL is one-fifth the amount in a wrist watch battery that makes their concern strange. It's that these same congressional Republicans in recent years have rarely exhibited concern over mercury exposure. To the contrary, Joe Barton previously doubted that mercury exposure from coal-fired power plants was a problem, as he did back in April at a congressional hearing: "To actually cause poisoning or a premature death you have to get a large concentration of mercury into the body. I’m not a medical doctor, but my hypothesis is that’s not going to happen!" Barton and Burgess, along with other supporters of the bill, also paradoxically supported an amendment prohibiting the EPA from spending any money to enforce mercury emissions reductions from cement plants in the United States.
Science isn't a casual accessory to a sound argument. Rather, science is its foundation. Politicians who try to pick and choose when to treat toxins like mercury as harmful, especially when they get it empirically wrong, likewise play a cynical and intellectually dishonest game of Russian roulette with public health. Who cares whether the chamber is loaded, they appear to reason, just so long as they're not the ones holding the gun in the end?
Fortunately, the public seems to have seen through this gambit. In fact, public opinion, as well as that of the energy and light bulb industries, broadly supports the EISA, no doubt because it promises to save consumers $12.5 billion in the next nine years. In attacking the EISA, however, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) nonetheless remarked that "[t]hese are the kinds of regulations that make the American people roll their eyes." The public's eyes might be rolling, but not for the reason Rep. Blackburn seems to think.
Why have lawmakers tilted at this windmill? What explains their fervor in attacking a measure that would save consumers tens of billions of dollars? What to them is worth that expense? It would appear to be nothing more than a pat on the back from fellow ideologues and head-in-the-cloud utopists.