AS I SEE IT: Unsung benefits of sound renewables policy

Source: By Bob Dinneen, Telegram • Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Last month, the town of Charlton won a major victory against Big Oil. As part of the agreement, ExxonMobil will pay $30 million to bring clean water to Charlton Heritage Elementary School and other sites contaminated by a dangerous gasoline additive that has been linked to cancer and other health effects. It is the kind of human health crisis that would be far more prevalent without sound energy policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

According to the EPA, Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) “migrates faster and farther in the ground than other gasoline components, thus making it more likely to contaminate public water systems and private drinking water wells.” As a result, decades of gasoline and pipeline spills have left behind a legacy of contamination that continues to impact communities from California to Vermont. Every cleanup is a fight to hold oil companies accountable, and not all communities are as successful as Charlton.

Interestingly, MTBE wasn’t phased out by U.S. refineries until a short decade ago. When lawmakers refused to shield oil companies from lawsuits over contamination, those same companies claimed that the octane-enhancing benefits of MTBE could not be replaced fast enough to prevent gasoline shortages and price spikes. But Congress called their bluff. Policymakers knew that toxic additives could be phased out thanks to the immediate availability of American-made, renewable fuels. And, in 2005, they enacted the bipartisan RFS, which requires that oil companies add renewable energy into America’s fuel mix, creating a market for biofuels that continues to drive innovation and investment.

As it turns out, ethanol serves the same chemical function as more dangerous additives like MTBE or lead. It boosts the octane in fuel, allows for a cleaner burn, and reduces smog. That is why NASCAR drivers use a 15 percent ethanol blend to power their high-performance engines. By 2006, MTBE was replaced with clean, affordable American ethanol in virtually every state.

Today, almost every gallon of gasoline sold in the United States is a ten percent ethanol blend. Under the RFS, the share provided by clean-burning biofuels will continue to grow. Just as importantly, the share provided by more toxic, oil-based constituents will continue to shrink. Among the greatest beneficiaries will be urban communities, particularly in the Northeast and California, which struggle to keep airborne smog below dangerous levels.

At the same time, the whole planet benefits, since biofuels emit far less carbon dioxide than gasoline. In fact, global ethanol production and use in the transportation sector reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 589 million metric tons over the past decade, the equivalent of taking more than 124 million cars off the road.

When lawmakers later expanded the RFS in 2007, these health benefits were only one factor in the decision. For many, the most important aim was to break America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil. They were right there too. Last year alone, biofuels displaced 527 million barrels of oil, which is more than the U.S. imported from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Even better, the domestic industry providing this energy now supports more 85,960 direct high-tech, green American jobs, as well as 271,440 indirect and induced jobs across all sectors of the economy.

Unfortunately, the RFS is under siege. Lobbyists for the oil industry point to today’s relatively low gasoline prices and say that consumers don’t need any other options at the gas pump. They hope that lawmakers will forget that biofuels saved consumers anywhere from $.50 to $1.00 per gallon when gasoline prices spiked in 2008 and provide a vital cushion against the next global energy shortage – whether that’s due to manipulation by foreign oil cartels, war in the Middle East, or a surge in energy demand among developing countries.

Memories might be short when it comes to gasoline prices, but these lawmakers should be reminded that communities like Charlton won’t forget about the need for cleaner, earth-friendly fuels. American-made biofuels are powering a new generation of high-performance vehicles and doing it in a way that protects our climate and our health. This progress should be accelerated, not slowed, and protecting the RFS is critical to our long-term success.

Bob Dinneen, a former Norwood, Massachusetts resident, is president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington, D.C., a trade organization representing the interests of the ethanol industry in promoting renewable fuels. It is funded by 181 member companies that study, grow, process and distribute renewable fuels.