Progressive Views: 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

by Kevin Henning, KCDP Chair
for the “Progressive Views” column, Boerne Star, April 17, 2020

View of the earth from space, showing the Arctic, Europe and Asia
“Blue Marble 2012 – ‘White Marble’ Arctic View” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

April 22 is Earth Day and the 50th anniversary theme is climate action.  Second only to the COVID-19 pandemic, Climate Change is the greatest current threat to humankind.

Trump’s Earth Day birthday present to the world is to roll back Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The White House and our congressional delegation are doing all they can to reverse the environmental progress made since the EPA came into existence. Pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, reversing environmental rules, and now undoing regulations that improve motor fuel mileage standards will result in American drivers burning an additional two billion barrels of oil, resulting in 900 million metric tons of additional global warming emissions.

Consumer groups, environmental groups, business groups, and even some conservative groups and automakers oppose the change.  The only people truly happy with the change are oil company executives. In response to this rollback, President Obama tweeted: “We’ve seen all too terribly the consequences of those who denied warnings of a pandemic. We can’t afford any more consequences of climate denial. All of us, especially young people, have to demand better of our government at every level and vote this fall.” The decision is another blow to the effort to clean up America’s air pollution from vehicles, and the Trump Administration will be on the wrong side of history.

As a retired petroleum engineer who worked for 35 years in the oil industry, I believe the fossil fuel industry has failed the nation when it comes to health and the environment. This is not unlike the tobacco industry which used its power to promote smoking long after it was known that it is a major cause of cancer, lung disease, and death. The history of Thomas Midgley and Clair Patterson is instructive.

Midgley was a mechanical and chemical engineer who was granted over 100 patents and initially worked for General Motors. Two of his inventions would shake the world. In 1921, he discovered that the addition of tetraethyllead (TEL) prevented engine knocking—a boon to the petroleum and auto industries as higher compression engines developed. Avoiding the word lead, the product was named ethyl and the Ethyl Corporation was formed to flood the world with the anti-knock additive.

Clair Patterson was born in Iowa about the time Midgley made his infamous discovery. After World War II, as a graduate student in Chicago, he was assigned the task of determining the age of the earth which he did using the uranium-lead dating technique he developed. Unfortunately, samples were contaminated with lead and Patterson couldn’t figure out why. Using data from ice-core samples taken in Greenland and Antarctica, he determined that atmospheric lead had begun to increase dangerously after the introduction of TEL. To solve his problem, he built one of the first clean rooms and ultimately determined the age of the earth to be 4.55 billion years, a figure that remains unchanged today.

The big story, however, was his fight to remove lead from gasoline. Lead is a virulent neurotoxin that is particularly devastating to the development of children. The Ethyl Corporation, auto industry, and oil industry all conspired against Patterson, working to take his grants away and get him fired. He did not give up and his efforts in part led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act, and by 1971 to conclusive proof that leaded gasoline was unhealthy. Unfortunately, it was not banned until 1986 largely due to the political power and lobbying efforts of the oil and auto industries. This demonstrates that these industries cared more about profits than the safety of children.

Today we have 625 times more lead in our blood than people did 100 years ago. Fortunately, the level of lead in our bodies has been declining since 1986. We can thank Patterson for his selfless fight against impossible odds. Thomas Midgley’s other great invention was chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). How ironic that the scourge that was blowing a hole in the ozone layer and contributing to greenhouse gases was Midgley’s second great invention. Time magazine includes both CFCs and TEL on its list of fifty worst inventions. At least CFCs were banned in 1974. I guess that industry didn’t have the power of the auto and oil industries.

While Midgley could not be aware of the environmental effects of CFCs in the 1920s, he was keenly aware that lead could do great damage to human beings. He became sick from lead exposure, and workers in the early TEL plants had lead poisoning resulting in insanity and death in a number of cases.

The free enterprise system is an excellent economic system but without proper regulation it can certainly run amok. Please join the Democratic Party and help stop the destruction of the earth.

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