Octane Enhancement Cannot Come from the Oil Barrel

FROM THE DECEMBER ISSUE: Toxic aromatics in gasoline should be replaced by ethanol to improve air quality and public health.
By Dave VanderGriend | November 20, 2018

As we get ready to turn the page of the calendar to another year, it is both a time for reflection and to look ahead. We all know there is never a dull moment or downtime in the ethanol industry—2018 was as busy as ever. Constant threats to the Renewable Fuel Standard, rulemakings on the annual volume obligations, fuel economy rules, the vapor pressure/E15 issue, falling commodity prices, small refinery waivers, shrinking ethanol demand—all of which make it necessary to defend, explain and justify our primary product: ethanol.

Sometimes lost in all the noise is perhaps the most important reason to continue to develop and use ethanol: The fact that we are saving lives. This is not overdramatic; it’s the truth. Today, at 10 percent of the motor fuel pool, ethanol is displacing the most lethal components in gasoline—toxic, carcinogenic aromatics. When lead was phased out of gasoline, refiners replaced it with an equally dangerous mix of toxic chemicals representing the worst part of the oil barrel.

Aromatics, despite the genteel sounding name, are classified as toxic substances, with the family of benzene compounds taking center stage. Benzene is classified as a known human carcinogen and, as far back as 1948, the American Petroleum institute acknowledged in Congressional testimony that it was unsafe at any level. 

Part of our mission at the Urban Air Initiative is to understand and define our value as the ethanol industry to protect public health. To do so, we are constantly questioning the composition of gasoline and frankly, we don’t like the answers.

These toxic aromatics are ubiquitous in gasoline and we will never eliminate them entirely. We can, however, displace significant volumes and in so doing improve air quality and reduce the risks of cancer, respiratory disease and even neurological disease that are increasingly linked to gasoline. Benzene is limited in reformulated gasoline areas, but it and other aromatics find their way into other areas of the country at alarming levels.

Reputable, peer-reviewed studies from Los Angeles to Boston have concluded the public is at risk from exposure to vehicle exhaust containing microscopic particulates that are carriers of benzene and other toxics causing premature death and illness. The good news is we are making progress in getting the medical community to clearly make the connection between fuels and health. “The single most important action we can take for our children is to cure our addiction to fossil fuel,” says Dr. Federica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.

Like many of you, we recently submitted comments to the U.S. EPA on its proposed rule to increase fuel economy standards and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. EPA specifically asked for comments on the potential role of octane and, even more to the point, asked for comments on how this rule could assist in meeting the goals of Title II of the Clean Air Act. That title addresses all the mobile source provisions and can limit aromatics and air toxics.

UAI, along with many of our supporters and partner organizations, submitted detailed comments citing the increasing body of evidence linking these aromatics to a range of health problems. While we need increased octane levels—which allow automakers to make higher compression, more efficient cars—it must not come from the oil barrel. Instead, we know that ethanol is a superior octane enhancer and a healthier alternative to current petroleum-derived octane.

It appears we had a small victory with the Trump administration’s commitment to allow year-round E15 sales, but that is just the beginning.

In 2019, EPA must do its job to improve fuel quality and protect public health. It can do this by opening the market to ethanol, providing consumers with a higher-octane fuel that’s less expensive, safer and healthier.

Author: Dave VanderGriend
President, Urban Air Initiative