Everyone understands that fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide, which threatens the global climate. The introduction of biofuels under the “renewable fuel standard” has helped cut some of those emissions, with cleaner-burning ethanol replacing about 10 percent of the gasoline in the U.S. fuel mix. But the day-to-day threat facing many communities doesn’t come from carbon. It comes from airborne chemicals with less attention-grabbing names like volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and ozone.
As with carbon, the most effective solution is to simply replace more of the fuel in today’s cars and trucks with renewable biofuels – only we should be doing it much faster.
A landmark eight-year study published July 18 by the American Medical Association shows that children and adults are four times more likely to be treated for asthma if they lived near fracking – a technique now used on more than 90 percent of oil and gas wells.
The same day that the fracking study came out, the EPA and Department of Justice announced a $425 million settlement with refineries in Alaska, California, Hawaii, North Dakota, Utah and Washington where leaking valves and pumps spew a toxic mix of chemicals into the air.
The chemicals involved get less attention because really dangerous levels are typically found near places that produce fossil fuels – oil wells and refineries – rather than automobile tailpipes. According to the EPA, those chemicals are the top culprits behind some of America’s most serious health threats – cancer, birth defects and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
From the July settlement, about $12 million will go toward environmental projects in affected communities, but that doesn’t reverse birth defects or cure cancer. Meanwhile, the problems associated with fossil fuel production continue to grow.
Ethanol and other biofuels are nontoxic alternatives made from plants that can readily replace the most dangerous petroleum-based additives in gasoline like benzene, toluene and xylene. Currently, these aromatics make up as much as 39 percent of a gallon of gasoline. Not only do biofuel alternatives burn clean, but new technologies and greater efficiency in U.S. agriculture have allowed farmers to grow more biofuels on less land.
The renewable fuel standard was designed to accelerate the transition. It requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuels into new options for consumers. Unfortunately, the policy has been under siege by fossil fuel interests, and the EPA is considering renewable targets for 2017 below statutory minimums.
The EPA seems afraid to push oil companies too far when it comes to distributing non-petroleum fuels, but for consumers, the benefits can be immense. Even modest amounts of ethanol in the fuel mix saved drivers 50 cents to $1.50 per gallon the last time oil prices spiked. At the same time, the U.S. biofuels industry supports an estimated 852,000 American jobs and reduces our reliance on nations in the Middle East. Even engines run better, as ethanol provides a natural octane boost to the fuel, which is why NASCAR mechanics opt for a 15 percent blend.
However, for communities that struggle with high asthma rates, smog and haze, the best reason to support a strong renewable fuel standard has less to do with savings at the pump. It’s all about protecting the air we breathe from increasing levels of toxic emissions that are an unavoidable byproduct of producing, refining and burning fossil fuels.
We can do better, but it will require vocal support from the White House and policymakers on both sides of the aisle to keep the EPA on track, hit statutory targets and keep America moving forward.