Ethanol can help Iowa ‘weather the storm’ and tackle thorny pollution problems for the country

Source: By Doug Durante and Doing Sombke, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, October 12, 2020

As an aromatics substitute, high octane ethanol is safe, reduces carbon emissions, is environmentally friendly and cost effective.

It was just a couple of months ago when the powerful derecho sent intense winds and thunderstorms over a 700-mile stretch from Nebraska to Indiana, causing catastrophic damage. In Iowa, more than 40% of the corn and soybean crop was severely damaged by the storm. The overall destruction to homes, farms and businesses has been estimated to reach $4 billion. There will also be long-term effects including more flooding and poorer air quality because of the extensive loss of trees.

However, there is good news. There are still significant corn supplies that could help speed the recovery through not just processing it to ethanol but also ramping up production to achieve higher blends than typically are used. In doing so, we can not only help ourselves, but also produce cleaner fuel that will help urban pollution and, potentially, the spread of the coronavirus.

Respected political leaders have endorsed the benefit of using ethanol in much higher volumes than we are using now as an aromatics replacement. Last year Sen. Chuck Grassley and former Sen.Tim Wirth wrote in a bipartisan message that the use of higher ethanol blends is part of the solution to the nation’s energy and climate challenges.  Recently, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition wrote to President Donald Trump requesting that he direct the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the use of toxic aromatics, as the Clean Air Act directs, by substituting high octane ethanol.

For over 30 years, regulators have failed to control these toxic ultrafine particles, or UFPs, from gasoline emissions. This lethal pollutant, invisible to the naked eye, is a primary cause of pre-term births, childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease, and a wide range of cancers. EPA has recently acknowledged that its own models fail to address these UFPs.

Regulating pollutants has always been problematic. It took almost three decades for lead, an octane booster, to be removed from gasoline because it was a poison. By the time Congress finally banned lead in the 1990 Clean Air Act, new health threats had emerged as refiners were replacing a poison with a toxic carcinogen — oil derived octane boosters called aromatics. So, Congress overwhelming voted to require EPA to replace aromatics as soon as safe substitutes became available. Congress reaffirmed that mandate in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Today, 30 years later, this important requirement to protect our health continues to be ignored. Currently, 25% of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline consumed in the U.S. contains carcinogenic aromatics, even though a less costly octane booster is widely available.

As an aromatics substitute, high octane ethanol is safe, reduces carbon emissions, is environmentally friendly and cost effective. While all Iowans should be aware of the tremendous economic impact the ethanol industry has brought to the state, imagine the benefits of doubling or tripling that impact through these higher blends. Adding 20% more ethanol to today’s 10% blend could reduce toxic aromatics significantly, and create demand for billions of additional bushels of corn. For all of agriculture shaken by the pandemic and the most recent derecho, this would be a market-driven solution that is a win for farmers, consumers, and the petroleum industry as we are providing them with a clean, low-carbon additive.

The president should direct EPA to enforce Congress’s long-neglected directive to reduce the toxic compounds in gasoline. By replacing aromatics with cleaner alternatives, such as high octane ethanol, the nation will be meeting its obligation to protect the health and welfare of its citizens, and as a leader in ethanol production, Iowa can lead the way for the nation.

Doug Durante is the executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition. Doug Sombke is president of the South Dakota Farmers Union and a fourth-generation crop and livestock farmer from South Dakota.