Misleading on American Manufacturing

Those of us involved in policy debates over the energy sector know that it is hardly a fair fight. The people advocating greater government intervention routinely use phrases such as “clean energy,” “green energy,” “greenhouse gas pollution,” and other such loaded terms. It’s difficult to have a rational discussion about carbon taxes or chemical plant regulation when the debate is cast between those who are for and against “clean energy,” for example.

As yet another example of loading the deck in favor of more government intervention, consider the interactive map established by the Center for Effective Government, following a Louisiana chemical plant explosion in June. When you go to the map, here is the default view of facilities with flammables that have reported at least one accident:

Wow, looks like the US is being overrun by chemical plant accidents, doesn’t it? Yet if you click on the tab to show facilities with zero accidents, here is the new picture:

Quite a different view isn’t it? And there are other problems, too. For one thing, according to the legend in the top left of the map, a facility merely handling propane would count. Yes, propane is flammable and needs to be handled properly, but the phrase “chemical plant explosion” conjures up a different mental picture, than what might be a minor fire involving propane.

Another problem is that it’s not obvious from the map what the time frame is. If those numerous red dots referred to accidents within the last 12 months, that would be one thing. If it refers to the number of accidents over the entire history of reporting for each facility—which it seems to be—then that’s something else entirely.

Nobody denies that certain chemicals can be dangerous, and that proper procedures should be taken to safeguard the public. However, the mere fact that accidents do occasionally happen, is not proof that government must “do something.” The one truly effective safety measure would be to stop using chemicals altogether, but that would (of course) be a cure worse than the disease.

In any event, the interactive map put out by the Center for Effective Government is designed to give the default view of a very dangerous status quo, when the actual situation is much calmer. By the same token, someone could create a map of drownings in public swimming pools, with a default view that would make it seem as if swimming needed to be tightly regulated by the federal government. Swimming and chemicals both carry risks, but they also confer substantial benefits for the modern American way of life. Any discussion of further regulation should be balanced and based on a sober assessment of the facts.

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