More is Less

FROM THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE: Doug Durante, executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition, writes a column this month about myths surrounding the ethanol industry.
By Doug Durante | August 17, 2017

A curious myth follows ethanol around like a slow-growing weed in the yard beginning to encroach on living space. I am referring to the notion that we need ethanol-free gasoline. As a boat owner, I have seen this nonsense perpetuated for years—claims that ethanol is corrosive and causes everything from phase separation to clogged fuel lines. Similarly, small engines ranging from lawnmowers to chainsaws have been assumed to have problems with ethanol. In both these examples, it is simply not true—whether it is a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower or a Mercury Marine outboard, they clearly and unequivocally are approved for the use of E10. If either of those sectors have concerns about blends above E10, that is a matter of choice. But going all the way back to zero is ridiculous.

For these falsehoods to gain any kind of traction in the 140 billion-gallon gasoline market is beyond ridiculous—it is expensive and unhealthy. We need more ethanol in gasoline, and in so doing, we will get less drain on our wallets, less toxic aromatics, less carbon, less sulfur, less particulates and fewer related health problems. What makes this so discouraging for all of us who have worked to provide cleaner fuels and a better environment is that it is coming at a time when all signs are pointing in a completely opposite direction. It is like putting the umbrella away as storm clouds race in.

I refer to a recent report from the Harvard School of Public Health that builds on a study funded by the Urban Air Initiative in 2013. It shows that exposure to airborne fine particulate matter (PM) presents a significant health risk. We already knew children were vulnerable to these emissions, but this new study finds that even minor reductions could save 12,000 lives annually in what would otherwise be classified as premature death in older Americans.

What we now know is that the U.S. EPA has grossly underappreciated the role of gasoline in forming these fine particulates and has tended to focus solely on diesel and stationary power. Not only do we have direct PM emissions from gasoline in the form of ultra fine particulates, but we also have secondary organic aerosols from the combustion of aromatics. These aromatics are the true bad guys in the oil barrel. Classified as toxics, they are known or suspected carcinogens and can make up more than 35 percent of a gallon of gasoline in some cases, and that’s with ethanol in the mix. 

The obvious question is if that's the case, why are they in there? Octane. High-octane fuels mean high aromatic levels. The Health Effects Institute, which had a hand in this new Harvard report, has helped raise the curtain on this issue in terms of getting EPA to grudgingly admit the connection between gasoline, air toxics and aromatics. Furthermore, EPA often unwittingly has conceded that splash blending ethanol to achieve higher octane would reduce particulate toxics.

There is not enough space here to document the growing body of scientific evidence that connects the dots of gasoline emissions and negative health impacts, but it could fill this magazine. Another growing body of evidence proves we need higher-octane fuels to meet fuel-efficiency standards. Downsizing engines via turbocharging and adjusting compression will be the norm and those engines require higher octane.

Even putting the health issue aside, increasing gasoline octane at the refinery level might be impossible without prohibitive cost impacts. As it is, ethanol-free gasoline is a niche fuel and is anywhere from 40 cents to $1 more per gallon than E10 or E15. Ethanol has the highest octane blending value of any available additive and is considerably lower in cost. Are you willing to pay $6 to $10 more per fill-up to increase cancer-causing emissions?

But unless we open the door to a competitive octane market and, in the process, enforce laws on the books to limit the toxics in gasoline, get ready to see those statistics in the Harvard study rise. Higher ethanol blends are the answer.

Remember—more is less.

Author: Doug Durante
Executive Director
Clean Fuels Development Coalition