We will continue this column’s look at the unintended consequences and knee-slapping irony of our society’s mindless lurch toward becoming “green” by considering two new studies on alternative fuels.
From hybrid cars costing far more than they save in the way of fuel economy to Northern latitude forests causing global warming, to mercury-containing compact fluorescent light bulbs potentially turning homes into toxic waste sites, it’s becoming more apparent every day that green-ness is not necessarily what it’s cracked up to be.
Perhaps you have fallen (as did President Bush and the Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005) for the ethanol lobby’s line that ethanol is a “cleaner-burning fuel.”
You may then be quite chagrinned to learn about a new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (April 18) from Stanford University atmospheric scientist Mark Z. Jacobson concluding that ethanol poses substantial health risks.
“If every vehicle in the United States ran on fuel made primarily from ethanol instead of pure gasoline, the number of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations would likely increase,” states the media release for Jacobson’s study.
"Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution,” said Jacobson, “but our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage.”
Jacobson’s results are based on computer modeling of future air quality based on two scenarios -- a vehicle fleet fueled by gasoline and a vehicle fleet powered by E85, a popular blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
Jacobson’s modeling found that while E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens -- benzene and butadiene -- they increase the levels of two other carcinogens -- formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
“As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline,” Jacobson said.
The study also projected a 4 percent increase in ozone-related deaths nationwide (9 percent for Los Angeles) and increases in asthma-related emergency room visits and respiratory-related hospitalizations.
Jacobson concluded by asking, “If we’re not getting any health benefits, then why continue to promote ethanol and other biofuels?”
The ethanol lobby’s effort to parry to this study amounts to changing the subject. On its Web site, the American Coalition for Ethanol directs the media to another analysis that “shows that ethanol use reduced carbon monoxide and particulate matter emissions by at least one-third.” Carbon monoxide and particulate matter, however, are entirely different substances than formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
Less than a week later, a study published in Chemistry and Industry, a journal of the Society of the Chemical Industry, reported that biodiesel, another alternative motor vehicle fuel, “could increase rather than reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional diesel.”
According to the media release, researchers compared the emission of greenhouse gases by the two fuels across their overall life cycles from production to combustion in cars.
Though the results showed that biodiesel (derived from rapeseed grown on dedicated farmland) emits nearly the same amount of carbon dioxide as conventional diesel when burned in an engine, growing rapeseed emits significant levels of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which is 200 to 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately for the greenhouse gas-crazed European Union, rapeseed-derived biodiesel is the major biofuel used across Europe and was expected to play an important role in helping the EU to meet its greenhouse gas reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Under a 2003 EU directive, biofuel use is supposed to increase from 2 percent of all transport fuels to 10 percent by 2010.
But we ought not be too surprised. It’s part-and-parcel of the folly of eco-panic -- like the ongoing problem with the fuel additive known as MTBE.
In the 1980s, environmentalists pressured Congress to require that so-called oxygenates be added to gasoline to reduce tailpipe emissions. Of the two oxygenates available at the time, MTBE and ethanol, the Environmental Protection Agency blessed MTBE because it was cheaper and easier for refiners to use than ethanol.
What no one counted on was the 1980s-era problem of leaking underground storage tanks (known as LUSTs) at gasoline stations and other storage facilities.
The combination of MTBE's high water solubility -- meaning it moves faster than other fuel components in soil -- and the widespread problems of LUSTs turned MTBE into a national groundwater nightmare, which, according to a 2005 American Water Works Association study, could cost $25 billion to $33 billion to clean up.
Moreover, while oxygenated gasoline (also known as “reformulated gasoline” or “RFG”) added $0.10 to $0.20 to the price of a gallon of gas, it’s unclear whether any public health or environmental benefits were derived from its use. As the National Academy of Sciences reported in 1999, “although long-term trends in peak ozone in the United States appear to be downward, it is not certain that any part of these trends can be significantly attributed to the use of RFG.”
While further study of ethanol and biodiesel are needed, the current round of alarming results raises lots of pressing questions that ought to be considered before we take another environmentalist-prodded MTBE-like plunge into The Great Green Unknown.
Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRWatch.com. He is a junk science expert, and advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.