Grill a Burger, Go to Jail?

I recall clearly back in my graduate school days in southern California in the late 1980s/early 1990s when the South Coast Air Quality Management District—the smog police—was kicking its regulatory program into warp speed and proposing regulations for just about everything imaginable.  This might even have included regulating landscaping, since biogenic emissions from certain kinds of trees (Ronald Reagan was right about this!) can contribute to ozone formation, if cooler heads hadn’t prevailed and told them they were nuts.

Mmmm . . . burgers . . .

One especially notorious proposal was a ban on barbecue lighter fluid, since the evaporation of lighter fluid while it soaks into charcoal constituted a source of VOC (basically unburned hydrocarbons) emissions that cause ozone.  But what’s a patriotic backyard barbecue without a large inaugural flame out to announce it is getting under way?  It’s like the Fourth of July without fireworks.  (Actually, we’ll come to that liberal ukase in due course.)  A bunch of us printed up bumper stickers: “Use a barbecue—go to jail!”  The regulators were not amused (since having a sense-of-humor-ectomy seems to be a job requirement for all regulators everywhere), and responded that everyone could still barbecue, but just use one of those electric starter elements instead of glorious, flame-throwing petroleum-based starter fluid.  Pffft!

Industry responded with a simple fix: they reformulated lighter fluid to lower its evaporation, and instructed users to light the fluid immediately on application instead of letting it soak into coals first for 60 seconds or so (which is to say, the manufacturers simply told everyone to do what they did as a matter of course anyway—did anyone ever really let the fluid soak in for 60 seconds?  Heck no—less of an inaugural flame that way.)  So we still have Barbecuing as We Know It.

But the regulatory juggernaut never rests.  Now they’re after our flame-broiled whoppers, our animal-style In-n-Outs, and other cavalcades of carnivoric calories.  At least that’s how I read the news of the new study from UC Riverside (a prime contractor for pro-smog regulator research) that finds that “Air Pollution from Burger Joints Worse than Trucks.

A UC Riverside study found that commercially cooked hamburgers cause more air pollution than diesel trucks.

The study, which focused on commercial charbroilers found in burger restaurants, said the equipment generates grease, smoke, water vapors and combustion products, which emit a large amount of particulate matter into the air.

“For comparison, an 18-wheeler diesel engine truck would have to drive 143 miles on the freeway to put out the same mass of particulates as a single charbroiled hamburger patty,” said Bill Welch, the principle engineer.

It seems to me the lede here is exactly backwards: the real story is how dramatically we’ve been able to cut diesel emissions through a combination of engine emission controls and reformulated, low-sulfur diesel fuel.  Two more things I remember from the old days: belching smoke-stacks of long-haul trucks, and diesel fuel much cheaper than gasoline.  Today, diesel is much more expensive than gasoline, as the refining process to make low-sulfur diesel is more difficult and expensive (but worth the cost, I’ll hasten to add).  And state-of-the-art diesel trucks don’t belch as much black smoke any more (unless they are not maintained properly).

Air criminals?

Though there is something fishy about the claim that a single charbroiled burger puts out more particulates than a diesel truck driving 143 miles (I’d be willing to bet dollars-to-deep-fried-donuts that this calculation won’t even come close to matching up with the aggregate emissions inventory for the LA air basin), it is probably true that the technological advances in emissions controls for cars, trucks, refineries, manufacturing (most heavy manufacturing has left southern California—that’s one way to lower smog for sure) means that small sources like burger joints are comparatively larger sources, but of a steadily declining problem.  LA can look forward to many more years of falling air pollution simply from turnover in the surface vehicle fleet to the latest generation of low emission engines.

But that never satisfies regulators, who always need something new to regulate to save their phony-baloney jobs (as the great Mel Brooks once aptly put it).  So, as the killer-burgers story continues:

Researchers at UCR, who found few regulations for the restaurant emissions, said they’re developing a contraption to trap the particulates.

Yup, there it is.  Just watch: after the come for our burgers, they’ll come for our grilled chicken, too.  Time to mount the barricades at Chick fil-A.  What’s that?

Still, I like the common sense response of some of the “person on the street” comments the reporter sought out:

Customers at a Hesperia burger joint said you can’t compare diesel emissions with hamburger smoke.

“Either way, we’re living in a world (where) we’re still going through pollution. But the difference is we are getting some type of benefit from (the burger),” said Maria Segura.

Clearly Maria Segura didn’t get the memo from the food police that burgers are bad for you.

Coming next: why 16-ounce colas need to be banned because of the global warming effect of the CO2 bubbles in supersized drinks.

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