Scientist: The Ethanol Mandate Harms Air Quality, ‘Leads To Increased Mortality’


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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A University of Minnesota scientist told lawmakers Thursday that mandating ethanol be blended into fuel supplies is leading to more deaths from poor air quality in the Midwest and along the East Coast.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard, because it is currently dominated by corn grain ethanol, is responsible for reduced air quality over much of the U.S., which leads to increased mortality,” Dr. Jason Hill, an associate professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, told House lawmakers in a hearing on the federal ethanol mandate.

In recent years, Republicans have become increasingly critical of the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, which requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of ethanol or other biofuels into U.S. fuel supplies. A broad coalition of business groups, environmentalists and anti-hunger activists have teamed up to oppose the mandate and are either pushing for reform or its complete repeal.

The RFS was first passed under President George W. Bush with the impression it would reduce U.S. reliance on foreign powers for oil, drive down the cost of gasoline and be better for the environment. Years later, the RFS is being increasingly seen as problematic for a whole host of reasons, including its environmental impact.

Hill’s research has shown producing corn ethanol emits more pollutants than conventional gasoline, even though it’s a cleaner fuel source when burned. Hill told lawmakers that “corn ethanol has higher life cycle emissions than gasoline of five major pollutants that contribute to [particulate matter] and [ozone] levels.”

“Cellulosic ethanol, which is considered here as derived from corn stover, emits greater amounts of some pollutants than gasoline and lower amounts of others,” Hill told House lawmakers. “It is also worth noting that using gasoline more efficiently, such as in a hybrid vehicle or other vehicle with improved fuel economy, reduces life cycle emissions of all five of these pollutants.”

Democratic lawmakers pushed back against Hill’s testimony, touting ethanol’s alleged economic and environmental benefits. Hill, however, countered that research showing ethanol to be more environmentally friendly largely ignored the whole production process that goes into making ethanol.

“Increased mortality from ethanol production and use occurs largely in the Midwest and Eastern U.S.,” Hill said in his testimony. “For both fuels, nearly all of the damage to human health is caused by PM2.5 rather than by O3.”

The federal ethanol mandate and other subsidies have been a huge boon to corn growers and business interests in the Midwest. Ethanol production now consumes about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop every year, and refineries are forced to purchase more biofuels every year. But the ethanol lobby says it’s helping state economies and increasing energy security.

Ethanol lobbyists recently celebrated a legislative victory in the Senate when Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed to include biofuel subsidies in a tax extenders package making its way through the chamber.

“Stability in the marketplace is crucial to encouraging development in second-generation biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol,” Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, said in a statement. “By extending these incentives, the Committee has helped to provide that needed stability.”

Many other groups continue to be opposed ethanol production, including environmental groups who argue increased ethanol production is harming the environment and contributing to global warming.

But Republicans and environmentalists have to be careful about claims that ethanol is increasing mortality across the country because it relies on “secret science” lawmakers have hammered the EPA for using to justify onerous regulations.

The EPA says particulate matter, or PM 2.5, causes premature death, but Republicans have criticized the agency for making this claim because it’s based on scientific data that’s not publicly available — the agency’s so-called “secret science.”

While EPA has publicly declared that PM 2.5 is deadly, the agency has exposed dozens of human test subjects to the air pollutant without disclosing the risk or mortality.

An EPA inspector general report from last year found that “exposure risks were not always consistently represented” in agency human experiments. The IG’s report also noted that “only one of five studies’ consent forms provided the subject with information on the upper range of the pollutant” they would be exposed to, and that only “two of five alerted study subjects to the risk of death for older individuals with cardiovascular disease.”

“This lack of warning about PM,” the IG’s report notes. “is also different from the EPA’s public image about PM.”

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