Supporters of the now-dead energy/climate bills are bemoaning the irresponsible abandonment of energy independence. As the Environmental Protection Agency’s own analysis shows, however, this legislation would have done virtually nothing to reduce oil use — it was almost all about stationary sources of pollution (i.e., causes other than vehicles). But from now on, EPA can take its own huge steps toward energy independence (which is really about oil) by cleaning up transportation fuels.
About a quarter of what is in your car’s gas tank is highly toxic. Thus, your exhaust, and that of others, contributes substantially every day both to unacceptable cancer risks for those people who breathe it and to tens of thousands of premature deaths from cardiopulmonary complications.
One of us and a colleague (C. Boyden Gray and Andrew R. Varcoe) examined, in the Texas Review of Law and Politics more than three years ago, the huge impact on our health and our budgets from EPA’s historic unwillingness, although it has the obligation under the Clean Air Act, to deal with this major source of toxins. Basically, when the U.S. got the lead out of gasoline some three decades ago and needed to find an octane-boosting substitute to prevent engines from knocking, oil companies were permitted to use so-called “aromatics” instead of clean alcohols and ethers (like ethanol).
This, however, merely replaced lead with another set of toxic agents (benzene, toluene, xylene) that contribute to cancer and fine particle pollution (PM 2.5, which causes cardiopulmonary difficulties, is the most dangerous of all criteria pollutants.)
The costs of EPA’s failure to reduce adequately the toxics in gasoline are stunning. The Gray-Varcoe piece calculates them at tens of thousands of premature deaths annually and more than $100 billion each year owing to added health care costs and shortened lives.
The Clean Air Act requires EPA to impose strict limits on toxic emissions from both stationary sources (like chemical plants) and transportation fuels. EPA is enforcing strict limits on industrial plants, but has done little with respect to fuels, where human exposure is far greater. EPA has also essentially prohibited states from seeking available low-cost, high-value PM reductions from car and truck fleets by switching them to clean electricity, biofuels or natural gas, forcing other PM sources to incur greater costs for less valuable reductions.
This amounts to an indirect subsidy to oil that dwarfs our other energy subsidies. Oil’s tax breaks such as the depletion allowance are many times the indirect subsidies that benefit ethanol (but actually go to the oil companies). But what is, in effect, oil’s regulatory forbearance subsidy is much bigger yet — and a major share of that cost to our society is in premature deaths.
The oil and, interestingly enough, the “grocery manufacturers” (read junk food) lobbies have tried to do a thorough job of demonizing biofuels. Certainly more advanced biofuels than what we have today (e.g., biobutanol from waste products, biodiesel from algae) will exhibit better characteristics than today’s alcohol fuels. But even today’s biofuels can do an excellent job of replacing aromatics since they have higher octane values, but contribute nothing to cancer or PM 2.5.
We need in any case to begin to move quickly toward biofuels (and natural gas and electric cars) because of the huge strategic, environmental, economic and health costs of letting oil products have a monopoly (today, about 95 percent) over transportation. We essentially pay both for major health costs and for both sides in our war against Islamist terrorism, borrowing $1 billion a day to import oil.
But what about food? Aren’t we increasing the price of corn on the cob if we use ethanol made from corn for fuel instead of food?
No. About 95 percent of corn in the U.S. goes to feed animals, not people. And producing ethanol uses only the starch, which is bad for cattle, and leaves the rest of the corn available as a high-value animal feed.
Critics also blame rain forest destruction on ethanol production. But aside from the fact that Brazilian forest destruction has declined as ethanol production has increased, the amount of land the U.S. devotes to corn production has shrunk substantially over the decades since World War II. What has increased is yield, by a factor of six or so, as have our agricultural exports — by 19 percent in fact the last quarter.
The White House has just ordered EPA to re-examine the issue of air toxics. Good. Perhaps attention to the adverse health effects of oil will do what concerns about national security, climate change and the BP oil spill have not, to lead us to switch to homemade, job-creating biofuels, natural gas and electric cars instead of oil.
• C. Boyden Gray served as U.S. ambassador to the European Union; R. James Woolsey is a former CIA director.