Buried inside Robert Bryce’s relatively new book entitled Power Hungry is a call to “aggressively pursue taxes or caps on the emissions of neurotoxins, particularly those that come from burning coal” to generate electricity such as mercury and lead. This is notable not because Bryce agrees with many environmental and human health experts, but also because the book credibly debunks the move to tax or cap carbon dioxide emissions both from technical and political perspectives.

The word “neurotoxic” literally translates as “nerve poison”. Broadly described, a neurotoxicant is any chemical substance which adversely acts on the structure or function of the human nervous system.

As its subtitle signals, Power Hungry also declares policies subsidizing renewable sources of electricity, biofuels and electric vehicles as too costly and impractical to make a significant difference in making the U.S. power and transportation systems more sustainable.

So why take aim at mercury and lead, which is certain to drive up the cost of coal-fired electricity just as a carbon cap or tax would? Because, Bryce asserts, “arguing against heavy metal contaminants with known neurotoxicity will be far easier than arguing against carbon dioxide emissions. Cutting the output of mercury and the other heavy metals may, in the long run, turn out to have far greater benefits for the environmental and human health.” Bryce draws a parallel to the U.S. government ordering oil refiners to remove lead from gasoline starting in the 1970s.

In the book, which has has received predominantly good reviews on Amazon.com, Bryce makes some valid points about the carbon density of our energy sources. Among his overarching messages is that the carbon density of the world’s major economies is actually declining (see graph below). Not to be missed: his attack on carbon sequestration, pp. 160-165. His case about the threat of neurotoxins begins on p. 167.

There’s a lot more to this challenge of reducing America’s reliance on coal-fired power plants than this. But considering the failure by the U.S. Congress to agree on a carbon tax or cap, his idea has serious merit and deserves a broad discussion, especially as Congress reassess its budget priorities. This includes billions of dollars of tax breaks and incentives for oil and other fossil fuels.


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