Chicagoan Sets Her Sights on Clean Air

Having led the charge to ban leaded gasoline 30 years ago, Marilyn Katz is leading a campaign to require E15 in the Windy City.
By Susanne Retka Schill | November 18, 2014

Marilyn Katz’s activism on clean fuels goes way back. In 1984, she led the successful campaign that made Chicago the first city to ban leaded gasoline. Today, her firm, MK Communications, has been retained by the nonprofit Americans United for Change to lead the effort to make Chicago the first city to require E15.

The ordinance introduced in the finance committee in July would require self-service filling stations to offer E15, with exemptions for small-volume stations and those who would have to replace incompatible underground tanks. Early in November, amendments were accepted that would exempt marinas and stations with annual sales volumes of less than 850,000 gallons and give a year for compliance instead the originally proposed six months.

Katz says there’s a strong prospect the ordinance will be adopted when it comes up for final testimony and a vote, now scheduled for Dec. 8. “We think we have the majority of the alderman going into the finance committee,” she says, “even though they are being heavily lobbied by the American Petroleum Institute with big money during an election year.” She reports 28 aldermen have already cosigned, “but we would like to get up to 35.”

With a 50-member city council, Chicago politics are very local, she explains. “We’ve had to really go retailer by retailer to assure the retailer, and therefore the alderman, that business in his or her ward would not be negatively impacted.”  She points to the broad group of supporters, which includes environmentalists, health advocates, the former city commissioner of the environment, labor groups and scientists from the University of Illinois, among others. “The only people on the other side are the American Petroleum Institute and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.” Katz finds the retail merchants’ opposition puzzling. “We’ve given them the facts. That, this is really good for station owners,” she explains. “You know, Chicago has the highest price gas in the country and a tax rate higher than anywhere else, including in the suburbs. By being able to offer a better quality fuel at 10 or 15 cents less than regular, it would actually make Chicago gas stations more competitive.”

“When the ordinance first came up, the petroleum institute guys sent out a scare notice to retailers,” she continues. “As we’ve being doing our work, speaking to alderman and groups, we’ve spoken to individual retailers.” In addition to explaining the exemptions, she says, “Once they’ve learned we put together a $10 million fund to defray any costs, and that we will help them become more competitive with the suburbs, they’re very happy with this.”

She doesn’t expect the full $10 million to be needed, however. The size of the fund was targeted to answer the biggest objection raised by the American Petroleum Institute—that it would cost $80,000 for stations to convert. Although those numbers are exaggerated, she says, it did influence the size of the fund. “We took a number of $40,000, which is high—most stations are only going to need something like $1,000—but we said, if every station of the 250 that are eligible needed $40,000 that would be $10 million,” she says. “That comes from corn growers, the lung association and from the ethanol industry—the Prime the Pump program.”

When asked to compare the E15 campaign to the one she led in 1984 to ban leaded gasoline, Katz says the atmosphere has changed. “E15 is an important, but incremental improvement. So it’s not on the top of anyone’s list of economic or environmental issues. In 1984, kids were getting poisoned by lead and lead poisoning was major issue in the city. There was a passionate group of moms and health care folks who were really concerned.” One strategy of the 1984 campaign, she recalls, was to test the level of lead in the playground soils next to the expressways. “The lead levels were astronomical. It was very graphic.”

Today, she says, the sky is mostly blue, the steel mills are gone and the last coal plant was shut down. “It’s not something people feel nervous about, even though, in fact, in communities west of the expressway, the cancer rate and asthma rates are much higher.”
Chicago has long been a leader in clean fuel causes, Katz says. In 2000, the city was the first to ban the oxygenate MTBE (methyl teritary butyl ether). That time, it was a slam dunk, she said. The city council overwhelming approved the ban.

This time, the issues aren’t so easy to visualize. “You don’t see carbon dioxide,” Katz says. “The positive environmental impacts [for E15] are very clear, but it’s definitely not the same sort of popular cause. That said, it’s such a sensible thing to do. You get a huge, up to 85 percent, improvement in air quality, and very importantly, you get the reduction in particulate matter—cancer causing particulates. This time around, it’s the health professionals, the environmentalists and folks like the veterans who are intimately involved with the issues who get it.”    

An example of one of those more complex arguments in today’s campaign involves the greenhouse gas (GHG) benefits. Steffen Mueller, principle economist at the University of Illinois Energy Resources Center, was asked by the Illinois Corn Growers to weigh in on the technical side. In July, he testified at the finance committee hearing, providing updates on the carbon intensity of corn ethanol and estimating the GHG reduction potential for the Chicago E15 proposal. Assuming 20 percent of annual fuel consumption in the city of Chicago becomes E15, an estimated 138.8 million gallons per year, “the total CO2 savings from E15 over E10 for the Chicago market would be 20,690 metric tons CO2 equivalent annually. As these assessments are often stated in terms of EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalency Calculator, this would equate to the carbon sequestered by 17,000 acres of forests annually,” Mueller testified.

The measure, Mueller says, “would be a step in the right direction.” Explaining that the midlevel pump is underutilized—the 89 octane between 87 and 93 octane blends—“why not put it to use with a biofuels blend that improves greenhouse gas emissions?” Katz adds that she was surprised to learn in her research that just 4 percent of total sales come from the 87 octane pump and just 3 percent from premium.

Joining Mueller as scientists weighing in on the proposal, Jennifer Dunn and Michael Wang from the Argonne National Laboratory wrote an op-ed column in support of Chicago E15. “We wanted to express that we viewed it as a small but positive step in tapping the potential of biofuels in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dunn, who leads the biofuels life cycle analysis team at ANL. “The incremental reduction in GHG emission could be small, but even a small change, if adopted broadly can have a bigger impact.” Introducing a higher blend of ethanol could help increase overall acceptance of biofuels, she adds. “Also, if the market for ethanol would expand, it would help new technologies like cellulosic ethanol and increase its deployment.”

“It’s a good step,” concurs Katz. “It doubles the amount of renewables and opens the market for cellulosic and next-generation fuels. We can envision a time when much of our waste can be converted to fuel. What a boon for cities that would be.” While the economic benefits can be somewhat abstract, the problem of city garbage is a real issue, she says, but you have to create a market to insure the more efficient creation of fuel. “Making room for the cellulosic and second generation fuels—that’s going to drive the industry.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]


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Chicago Clean Air Choice Supporters

Abengoa Bioenergy
Advanced Biofuels Research
Advanced Ethanol Council
American Coalition for Ethanol
American Council on Renewable Energy
American Lung Association of Illinois
Archer Daniels Midland Company
Argonne National Laboratory
Association of Equipment Manufacturers
Biotechnology Organization
Carbon Green
Chicago Area Clean Cities
Chicago Wilderness
Citizen Action
Environmental Law & Policy Center
Fuels America
Gen. Wesley K. Clark (Ret.)
Governors’ Biofuels Coalition
Growth Energy
Health & Medicine Policy Research Group
Illinois Corn Growers Association
Illinois Farm Bureau
Illinois Renewable Fuels Association
Illinois Science & Technology Coalition
Jim Houlihan, former Cook County  Assessor
National Corn Growers Association
National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center
National Farmers Union
Poet LLC
Power Energy
Prime the Pump
Renewable Fuels Association
Third Way
United Auto Workers
University of Illinois at Chicago Professor, Steffen Mueller
Urban Air Initiative
Vote Vets 

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