Houston we have a problem…

May 26, 2019 |

By Doug Durante, Clean Fuels Development Coalition & Dave VanderGriend, Urban Air Initiative

Special to The Digest

Actually we all do, it has just reared its ugly head in poor Houston. That famous line from the Apollo 13 Space Flight radio communication between astronauts and mission control, and immortalized in the film of the same name, is quite appropriate these days.

That great Texas city has certainly endured its share of hardships the past few years. Floods, horrible chemical fires, and now a barge accident in the port resulting in a chemical spill that further reveals the dirty little secret of gasoline — that it is toxic and can kill you. As CNN and other news outlets reported on the incident, they calmly talked about a “spill of the toxic chemicals used to make gasoline”, as if that is common knowledge and no big deal.

For those of us in the fuel business this is no surprise. When lead was phased out of gasoline for being a poison, it was replaced by carcinogens, a fact known to the medical community, Congress, and the EPA. With the gentile sounding name of aromatics, these toxic compounds are used by refiners to increase octane levels in gasoline. The primary culprit is benzene, which the American Petroleum Institute acknowledged in Congressional testimony as far back as 1948 was unsafe at any level. The other aromatics are all benzene derived and are classified as either “known” or “probable/suspected” carcinogens.

The toxic, microscopic particulates carrying these carcinogens are a result of incomplete combustion of fuel and can directly enter the bloodstream. As an oxygenate, ethanol promotes more complete combustion and can reduce the health risks associated with consumer gasoline. Moreover, because of ethanol’s higher octane, it can reduce the amount of aromatics in gasoline to begin with. This we know.

What we don’t know is what does all this benzene do in water. If it mimics MTBE and can travel great distance in both surface and underground water, we now have a big, big problem.

Trying to get people to understand these aromatic related health hazards is why we recently collaborated on the fact Book What Is In Our Gasoline is Killing Us: Mobile Source Air Toxics and the Threat to Public Health. To deny the linkage between gasoline emissions and the realities of cancer, respiratory disease, birth defects, and even neurological ailments like autism is to put one’s head in the sand. For our Environmental Protection Agency to collude with the petroleum industry, as they have done in the testing of fuels through the Coordinating Research Council, is negligent to say the least. That collusion has led to the denial of the benefits of ethanol as a direct substitute for aromatics. EPA has failed to meet their obligation under the Clean Air Act to reduce toxics to the greatest degree achievable.

And now we are paying the price through not just our lungs but possibly through our water as well. Even the Sierra Club, certainly no friend to ethanol, sued EPA for failing to reduce toxics after the agency developed a convoluted averaging scheme that led Sierra to ask “how can a directive to reduce toxics to the maximum result in a program that does not reduce toxics at all?

As for the Houston spill, the spin doctors were immediately dispatched to be the ones to define the risks and quickly tried to change the narrative from a gasoline spill to a component of gasoline called reformate, thinking they could soften the edges and shrug this off as inconsequential. As stated, however, some of us actually know what’s in gasoline. Heck, even Wikipedia calls reformate what it is:

“In addition to a gasoline blending stock, reformate is the main source of aromatic bulk chemicals such as benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene which have diverse uses, ……………………However, the benzene content of reformate makes it carcinogenic.”

Estimates of the volume spilled from the barge collision are upwards of 12,000 barrels. If aromatics like benzene comprise 50% of reformate, that means roughly 250,000 gallons of carcinogens were dumped into the water, and another 250,000 gallons of god knows what. Various health and environmental agencies have been testing the water and will only say the benzene levels do not exceed standards, other than to issue a “seafood warning”. No kidding. We’ll pass on the shrimp, thanks.

This begs the question we wanted people to focus on when reading our Fact Book — why is this stuff in gasoline to begin with? And why hasn’t the EPA done its job and reduced the level of aromatics? And the story gets worse — refiners are dumping even more into the gasoline pool for several reasons. First, the lower quality of tar sand and shale crude supplies are causing oil refineries to end up short on octane and need to use more aromatics. Second, export gasoline is not a BOB but rather a finished gas, driving up aromatic demand that is resulting in US gasoline seeing higher aromatics usage. Lastly, other markets for naptha and aromatic based compounds, such as the plastics industry, are looking for alternative feedstocks, creating even more of an aromatic glut.

Its low octane means they have to use more of it when ethanol has the highest octane blending value and the lowest cost of anything available today.

Source: Urban Air Initiative 

For anyone reading this in Biofuels Digest, the answer is probably obvious. It’s the rest of the world we need to educate. Reduce toxics. Clean up gasoline. Open the market to biofuels by removing volume limitations and correcting emission and lifecycle models. We are already replacing 8 billion gallons of toxic aromatics through ethanol blends. Imagine the improvement to fuel quality we could see with higher blends that refiners could choose to use if it was available.

With the RVP rule likely to come out any time now that ONLY applies to E15, and a fuel efficiency rule pending that could have been a pathway to toxics reduction but likely will not, promoting ethanol’s health benefits is of critical importance. We ask the industry, whether it is corn derived or cellulosic, where are we going to put our ethanol? Without establishing the highest value proposition, how do we expand the market?

The entire biofuels chain is missing an opportunity to take the lead and reject the notion that we simply must accept carcinogenic gasoline. Pound the table. Stomp your feet. You would not accept this in any other facet of your life. Demand EPA to reduce toxic aromatics, and when they say they can’t, offer to take them out to dinner to talk about it, just don’t order Texas seafood.


Doug Durante is Executive Director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition (www.cleanfuelsdc.org)  and Dave VanderGriend is President of the Urban Air Initiative (www.fixourfuel.com).

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