This month, catastrophic wildfires raced through California, Oregon and Washington state, leaving over 30 people dead while toxic smoke blocked out the sun and created a cloud that slowly migrated to Nebraska, quite visible to the eye. State officials issued a statewide health advisory warning vulnerable Nebraskans to curtail activities. Unfortunately, a bigger problem exists in the air which we don’t see — toxic ultra-fine particles (UFPs).
For more than 30 years, regulators have failed to control this lethal pollutant. Unlike the smoke from forest fires, these particles are invisible and are a primary cause of pre-term births, childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease and a wide range of cancers. EPA has recently acknowledged that its own models fail to address these UFPs.
Regulating pollutants has always been problematic. It took almost three decades for lead, an octane booster, to be removed from gasoline because it was a poison. By the time Congress finally banned lead in the 1990 Clean Air Act, new health threats had emerged as refiners were replacing a poison with a toxic carcinogen — oil-derived octane boosters called aromatics. So Congress overwhelming voted to require EPA to replace aromatics as soon as safe substitutes became available. Congress reaffirmed that mandate in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Now, this important requirement to protect our health continues to be ignored. Currently, 25% of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline consumed in the U.S. contains carcinogenic aromatics, even though a less costly octane booster is widely available.
As an aromatics substitute, high octane ethanol is safe, reduces carbon emissions, is environmentally friendly and cost effective. Use of high octane ethanol in the nation’s gasoline could also bring a much-needed boost to Nebraska’s and the nation’s agriculture and ethanol producers shaken by the pandemic.
Respected political leaders have endorsed the benefit of using ethanol in much higher volumes than we are using now as an aromatics replacement. Last year, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and former Sen. Tim Wirth, in a bipartisan message, wrote that the use of higher ethanol blends is part of the solution to the nation’s energy and climate challenges. Recently, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition wrote to President Trump requesting that he direct EPA to reduce the use of toxic aromatics, as the Clean Air Act directs, by substituting high octane ethanol.
In Nebraska, a pilot program, sponsored by the Nebraska Ethanol Board, is under way that will confirm the benefits of using a 30% ethanol blend in conventional vehicles.
The president should direct EPA to enforce Congress’s long-neglected directive to reduce the toxic compounds in gasoline. By replacing aromatics with cleaner alternatives such as high octane ethanol, the nation will be meeting its obligation to protect the health and welfare of its citizens. We can’t always prevent wildfires, but we can prevent harmful emissions from toxic aromatics in gasoline.
Larry Pearce lives in Omaha and is the executive director of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition. Doug Durante is the executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition.