A Two for One – Biofuels Reduce Carbon for Both Climate and Health

June 7, 2021 |

By Dave VanderGriend, President, Urban Air Initiative

Special to The Digest

For the last decade, efforts to reduce carbon were simmering on back burners in various pockets of government but have now reached a full boil with legislative proposals and regulatory directives going all in on carbon reductions. The buzzwords we hear in Washington and in many states are that we need to “decarbonize our transportation fuels”. And while I certainly agree with this effort and the immediate role biofuels like ethanol can play, we can do more. Biofuels can also directly protect public health and improve air quality across the nation.

At the Urban Air Initiative, we have been trying to reduce carbon before reducing carbon became cool. Carbon emissions include not just CO2 but a range of unburned hydrocarbons that are criteria pollutants that form ground level ozone, or summertime smog. Fine and ultra-fine particulates from toxic aromatics in gasoline present a host of negative health impacts as they enter the lungs and bloodstream. They have been linked to everything from asthma to neurological ailments.

We have spent the past decade understanding the emissions created by toxic aromatics and the role ethanol plays in reducing emissions. Aromatics are added to fuel to increase octane. Ethanol already helps replace some of these toxic compounds, eight billion gallons a year with E10. Moving to higher blends will make an even bigger impact.

So I call out to all biofuel supporters to make sure we are letting the world know they get a “two-fer” when our products are used– we can be part of the broader climate change effort and can do what no other alternative fuel can do in such an immediate time frame which is to protect public health.

The ethanol industry has done a good job of late letting policymakers at all levels know that biofuels like ethanol can significantly reduce CO2 emissions. The recent Harvard study confirms that, along with the Department of Energy’s updated GREET Model and several other studies looking at both carbon sequestration and tailpipe emissions.

What we are not doing as well is putting forth our credentials as a solution to the other half of the story, which is reducing carbon for health. Policymakers should also be recognizing carbon reduction as a public health issue. The reason ethanol is used as an oxygenate in gasoline is because it increases combustion and together with evolving engine technologies minimizes harmful emissions. These emissions are microscopic particles of carbon that carry toxins so small they can bypass the lungs and directly enter the bloodstream.  The U.S. Supreme court ruled in 2007 that CO2 was a hazardous pollutant and re-affirmed that in a 2011 case. This had nothing to do with climate change, it was solely in recognition of what we know to be the connection between high carbon gasoline and dangerous particulates.

As we put forth ideas and policies to facilitate increased use of ethanol through higher blends, we’d be selling ourselves short if we don’t educate the public and the lawmakers on the dual role of ethanol. As a nation we should be reducing carbon for not only climate change but also the myriad of health problems it can cause. As someone who has suffered from respiratory challenges himself, we hope new EPA Administrator Michael Regan will help us continue to make this linkage between fuel quality and public health. In a recent Mother Jones Magazine article, Regan talked about his health issues. “During days of high ozone and high pollution I did suffer respiratory challenges,” he said. “I’ve been keenly aware of the impact of pollution from an early age and what that means, from lost school days or from preventing me enjoying the outdoors with my grandfather and father. That’s always been part of my knowledge base.”

EPA can begin this effort by removing barriers to higher ethanol blends and the forthcoming rewrite of the fuel economy rule is a great first step.  EPA has the authority to increase the minimum octane standard in gasoline. By ensuring it does not come from carbon intensive oil derived compounds we can realize a range of environmental, health, energy, and economic benefits.

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