Ethanol Groups Defend PM-Coronavirus Research, Fault EPA Policy

Source: By Inside EPA • Posted: Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Ethanol groups are attacking efforts by EPA and a top air policy adviser to downplay a recent Harvard University study linking high air pollution to increased deaths from COVID-19, while also accusing the agency of “broken promises” to the ethanol sector.

The arguments surface in a May 8 letter from the Renewable Fuels Association, Clean Fuels Development Coalition and farming groups that also urges Administrator Andrew Wheeler to take a fresh look at regulating emissions from gasoline, based on claims that such emissions could help exacerbate aerosol transmission of the virus.

“We were greatly disappointed to read recent statements by you and [Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council (CASAC) Chairman Tony Cox], that grossly mischaracterized the science linking fine particulate matter [PM 2.5] to greater incidence of adverse health conditions, including the pandemic of Covid-19,” the letter states.

The letter cites a recent assertion by Cox that the Harvard study is a “bogus analysis” with “sensational policy implications, none of which are trustworthy.”

The ethanol groups note that “Cox exercises considerable influence over EPA as CASAC chairman. . . . [U]nfortunately he is the proverbial ‘fox in charge of the chicken coop,’” given is his prior work for the American Petroleum Institute (API).

The Harvard study, released April 5, showed that people in U.S. regions with high air pollution levels are 15 percent more likely to die from the disease, though the estimate was later revised downward. Wheeler and Cox have stressed that the findings are not yet peer-reviewed.

An API official late last month also recently sought to “caution” EPA and its Science Advisory Board “from relying solely on the findings from this and similar studies to determine where to allocate resources and time.”

However, others are also exploring links between air pollution and worse COVID-19 outcomes, with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) planning to study the possible link.

“I think if the Harvard study survives peer review and CARB’s research produces similar results then that would call for tightening PM 2.5 standards,” says one environmentalist closely following the issue.

 ‘Broken Promises’

The ethanol groups’ letter not only addresses the Harvard study itself but more broadly argues EPA has long been far too lax in controlling toxic pollution from gasoline, and that this is now a particular problem given the COVID-19 pandemic.

The groups, for example, cite a recent study in the journal Nature highlighting the potential dangers of aerosol transmission of the virus as a reason to newly scrutinize combustion byproducts known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

These emissions “‘weaponize’ secondary organic aerosols (SOA), insulating and preserving them for long-range transport, [and] they could also act as carriers for the virus,” the letter argues. “The facts are clear: Gasoline aromatics are the predominant source of these dangerous pollutants.”

Further, the ethanol and farming groups separately accuse Wheeler and EPA of leaving a “trail of broken promises,” after the agency’s recently finalized rollback of vehicle greenhouse gas standards failed to include a “regulatory path forward” for high-octane fuels despite a December prediction by Wheeler that the rule would be a “win” for farmers and ethanol producers.

Such a victory for ethanol “was assuredly not the case” when the final rule was released, the letter says.

The groups also pledge that they are “watching these issues very closely and are determined to ensure EPA does right by the American people and the environment.” — Doug Obey (