Remember the ozone hole? Eight years ago, the U.S. and scores of other nations agreed to phase out chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs) because they gobble up the gossamer layer of ozone that shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet light. Since then, industry has invested several billion dollars to produce substitute chemicals and design CFC-free systems. Problem solved.
Well, not exactly. Challenging the data and most experts, a tiny band of maverick scientists and economists is attempting to punch their own hole in the scientific evidence behind the ban. They claim the ozone scare is a hoax and the CFC ban a costly mistake driven by antigrowth ideologues. Such talk is picking up surprising political support among GOP stalwarts in Congress who are on an antiregulation tear. The result: Environmental groups are bracing for a bruising political fight they thought had already been won.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas is seeking to repeal provisions of the Clean Air Act that implement the CFC ban. Representative John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) wants to put off the deadline for a total ban on production from Jan. 1, 1996, to 2000. And Representative Dan Miller (R-Fla.) is leading a move to overturn a coming ban on the ozone-destroying pesticide, methyl bromide. "The backlashers are having a hell of a run," sighs John Passacantando, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Ozone Action.
"NO HOLE." This revisionism could delay the phaseout of some ozone-destroying chemicals, and backlashers hope for outright repeal of the CFC ban. That has infuriated environmentalists, scientists, and execs who have developed CFC-free technology. "The time to disagree with the science was 10 years ago," fumes Simon Oulouhojian, president of the Mobile Air Conditioning Society. "The commitment has already been made."
Defenders of the CFC ban are also incensed over what they see as a misinformation campaign. One leading attacker, Paul Craig Roberts of the Cato Institute, a BUSINESS WEEK columnist who has argued against a CFC ban in this magazine, asserts that a diminished ozone layer poses no danger. He points to a study by Brookhaven National Laboratory biophysicist Richard B. Setlow showing that deadly melanoma skin cancer in fish is triggered largely by a form of ultraviolet light, UV-A, not blocked by ozone. Nonetheless, a CFC production ban will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, Roberts says.
Wrong on both counts, most scientists say. Studies do show links between melanoma and ozone-limited UV-B. And UV-B causes other skin cancers and depresses the immune system. Even Setlow grouses that backlashers misinterpret him: "There's no hole in the ozone argument," he says.
@zone-scare skeptics also overstate compliance costs by assuming most CFC-based air conditioners and other equipment must be replaced or retrofitted immediately. Rather, an ample supply of recycled CFCs makes an overnight conversion unnecessary. In fact, a ban may save money in the long run. Air-conditioning giant Trane Co. has improved the energy efficiency of its CFC-free commercial-building chillers by 40% over older models--conserving enough energy to pay for new devices. "A building owner will save money," explains James Wolf, vice-president at American Standard Inc., Trane's parent. "I see the ban as an economic benefit, not a liability."
With such views in Corporate America, DeLay and his GOP allies may rally little business support. "Industries aren't interested in turning back," says Kevin Fay, director of a coalition of CFC makers and users that includes DuPont Co. and Detroit's Big Three. But given the GOP's zeal to gut regulation, environmentalists will need to scramble to save the ozone layer--yet again.