‘Green’ renewable fuel plants releasing harmful pollutants, environmental group reports

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2024

Despite their claim to produce a green alternative to gasoline, ethanol plants in Iowa and other Midwestern states are releasing large amounts of harmful pollutants, including one that’s carcinogenic, a national environmental group says.

“Although biofuel facilities release less carbon dioxide on average than petroleum refineries, biofuel plants still emit large quantities of greenhouse gases for an industry that portrays itself as climate-friendly,” the Environmental Integrity Project said in a report released Wednesday.

The Washington, D.C., environmental group, compared ethanol, biodiesel and renewable diesel emissions from 226 reporting plants to those of oil refineries, based on data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The group said it found the ethanol plants released four pollutants “at levels significantly greater than petroleum refineries:” formaldehyde, a carcinogen; acetaldehyde, a probable carcinogen; hexane, which can attack the central nervous system and cause dizziness, nausea and headaches; and acrolein, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and lung and eye irritation.

“While plant-based fuels have a role in America’s future economic growth, their benefits to the climate should not be exaggerated or their environmental problems ignored,” the Environmental Integrity Project said.

Iowa is the nation’s largest producer of ethanol. Monte Shaw, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association executive director, said Wednesday the report “cherry picks and mischaracterizes emissions from ethanol plants and oil refiners.”

“If you pull a full emissions report from an oil refinery, they dwarf ethanol plants in emissions,” Shaw said in a statement. “This report cherry picked the four most common emissions from ethanol plants, but ignored the massive amounts of hazardous outputs from an oil refinery,” like benzene and toluene.

“It is nonsensical to suggest that ethanol plants and oil refineries have the same emissions,” he said.

Despite exemption, biofuels plants accumulating emissions violations, group finds

In recent years, the Environmental Integrity Project has focused heavily on the oil industry’s emissions, saying it releases large amounts of toxic substances, including benzene, that with long-term exposure can cause leukemia and other cancers of the blood and bone marrow.

The group said Wednesday oil refineries that don’t also produce biofuels released 154 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2022, while biofuels plants released 33 million metric tons.

Even with an exemption that relaxes air emission requirements for ethanol, the biofuels industry has racked up violations, the environmental group said. It said that based on a review of federal enforcement and compliance data, about 41% of U.S. biofuels plants violated their air pollution control permits at least once from July 2021 to May 2024, “releasing illegal amounts of contaminants that threaten the health of downwind communities.”

Sixteen ethanol plants in Iowa have had at least one violation in the past year; two are considered serious or high-priority violations.

The group pointed to Grain Processing Corp. in Muscatine, saying the eastern Iowa ethanol plant had failed “stack tests” — taken to determine compliance with pollution limits — 16 times over the last five years without being sanctioned.

Grain Processing Corp., a Kent Corp. company, said Thursday it disagrees with the “report’s characterization of GPC’s activities and compliance. GPC has made significant improvements in its emissions over time and continues to invest in improving its overall environmental impact.”

Renewable fuels CEO says report includes pollutant not produced by ethanol

Geoff Cooper, the Renewable Fuels Association’s CEO, said in a statement that the “report is fundamentally flawed,” adding that hexane is not broadly used in U.S. ethanol production.

“The companies listed with the largest emissions are not ethanol plants per se, but rather wet mills where ethanol is only one of several products; well over 90 percent of fuel ethanol is produced at dry mills,” he said.

Cooper said U.S. ethanol facilities “are tightly regulated on their emissions,” and producers work to meet all federal and state emissions limits.

“When violations have been noted, which is very rare, producers have immediately taken corrective action and quickly moved into compliance,” he said.

Tom Pelton, the environmental group’s spokesman, said 86% of the ethanol manufacturing plants reported releasing hexane in 2022, the most recent year for which data are available.

Most of those plants also include grain mills as part of their operations, and as we acknowledge in the report, some of them make products beyond ethanol,” Pelton in a statement. “But that doesn’t mean that ethanol plants are not emitting hexane. Clearly, according to EPA data, nearly all ethanol production facilities in the U.S. report emitting significant amounts of hexane.”

Altogether, U.S. biofuels plants reported emitting 12.9 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants in 2022, with oil refineries releasing 14.5 million pounds of pollutants the same year, according to the group, which examined the release of 188 emissions the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers hazardous air pollutants.

Group: Nation should stop producing ‘carcinogens from corn’

In its report, the group said the EPA and state regulators should more strictly enforce clean air requirements. It also said the EPA should require the biofuels industry to install air monitoring devices to determine how nearby residents are impacted by pollutants, as is required of the oil industry.

And the group said lawmakers should kill federal subsidies for the industry, primarily renewable diesel plants. That includes the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates a certain amount of biofuel must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply, and more recently, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which provides tax credits to support the development of sustainable aviation fuels.

To qualify for the lucrative incentives and lower their carbon emissions, ethanol producers in Iowa and other states are joining pipelines projects that developers say would be used to capture carbon dioxide at the plants, liquefy it under pressure, and pipe it to North Dakota or Illinois to be sequestered deep underground.

Ethanol and biodiesel are deeply tied to Iowa’s farm economy. It is the largest grower of corn, with about half the annual crop used to make ethanol, and second-largest grower of soybeans, a product used to make biodiesel and renewable diesel.

Elsewhere, prospective producers of renewable jet fuel are eying woody biomass as a feedstock.

The Environmental Integrity Project said the nation should “turn to the sun and wind or clean power, and not to reap carcinogens from corn.”

“In the end, most crops like corn and soybeans should be used to provide affordable food for people, not to feed machines. And most trees and forests should be preserved and protected as natural carbon dioxide capturing systems, instead of cut down and mulched into jet fuel,” the group said.

U.S. Agriculture Tom Vilsack has pushed ethanol producers to lower their carbon emissions so the renewable fuel can be used to power jets, large marine vessels and other vehicles that would be difficult to electrify.

Kent’s Grain Processing Corp. has said it’s invested $83 million in reducing emissions since 2015. A judge in 2019 approved a $45 million class-action settlement between Muscatine residents and the company to cover noxious odor and health claims.

The company also agreed to spend $6.5 million on pollution controls at the Muscatine plant.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457. 

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