Opinion: The 3 biggest contributors to our sickly air: wildfires, fracking, and auto emissions

Source: By Timothy E. Wirth, Colorado Sun • Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2022

To get them under control, take a page from Colorado’s Brown Cloud playbook

As if we don’t already have enough to worry about, the quality of the air we breathe is rapidly slipping well beyond agreed health standards.

From Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, low-level ozone is causing stinging eyes and throats, chest pains, coughing, and breathing difficulty. We notice this in particular when winds from wildfires blow in fine particulate matter, which combines with the higher level of ozone to create days when it is just not comfortable and is even unsafe to be outside.

Last summer, we had a record number of these unpleasant and unhealthy days, and future projections are pretty grim.

Colorado’s public health authorities are accustomed to working with the clean-air challenge. Three decades ago the region was challenged by the “Brown Cloud” – the noxious haze that regularly settled over the Denver area. The greatest part of that problem came from carbon monoxide-laden auto emissions, and this was largely solved by requiring ethanol to be blended into every gallon of gasoline.

A 10% ethanol blend became standard for most fuels sold in the area. The transition to this fuel blend was smooth and uncontroversial, gasoline burned more cleanly because of the oxygen atoms added by the ethanol, and our air cleared.

We should learn from this success as we address our newest clean-air challenge, which comes from three main sources – wildfires, industrial processes and fracking, and the increased volume of autos on our roads. How should we deal with this nasty soup? We should tackle each of the major components:

Wildfires are a product of climate change and the drying out of forest cover. The changing climate demands local, state, and national action, and Colorado is doing its share.

Fracking and much industrial processing produces methane (natural gas), which historically has been simply burned off (creating carbon dioxide) or worse yet, directly vented into the atmosphere.

We know how to capture these gases – which actually have their own commercial value – and now it is a matter of tightening the standards for methane release (especially from gas leaks), enforcing the regulations, and cleaning up the continuing emissions from hundreds of abandoned wells. The gas industry is slowly but surely making progress on cleaning up this part of our clean air challenge.

We also know how to attack the third component of our worsening air: dirty auto emissions. The worst of these comes from a brew of toxic chemicals called aromatic hydrocarbons.

Aromatics make up 20% of every gallon of gasoline we buy at the pump, and their emissions make the ozone problem worse and create a variety of other harms to public health. Aromatics are responsible for 30-40% of ozone production in urban areas, and are the most important source of secondary organic aerosols, which are the largest contributor to cancer risks nationwide. More than 95% of the particulate emissions from gasoline are caused by aromatics in the fuel.

We should learn from our Brown Cloud experience and back out these aromatics with a clean-burning oxygenated fuel, and again ethanol can come to the rescue.

A renewable fuel made from various plant materials such as agricultural waste and corn, a 10% blend of ethanol is now the standard fuel sold in the United States. The health and climate benefits are clear, and so is the benefit to the modern auto industry. While we must switch over to electric vehicles over the next 30 years, during the transition period we will continue to be dependent on more- and more-efficient fossil-fuel vehicles.

The auto industry has made it clear that it would welcome a mandate for cleaner high-octane fuels, which would allow the introduction of more efficient engines and enable a substantial cut in aromatics – with no impact on auto performance or consumer cost.

It is up to our General Assembly and clean-air authorities to facilitate this transition. By encouraging the sale of higher blends of ethanol, they would reduce dangerous particulate emissions because auto engines would run more efficiently, and the impact on our low-level ozone would be significant.

Of course, the oil industry will oppose this strategy: they produce the aromatics, while farmers produce the ethanol. But the health of our citizens and our climate must take precedence.

We can make real progress along the Front Range; we need to get to work on all three components of the clean-air challenge. Our children, elderly, health-compromised, and all outdoor enthusiasts will applaud aggressive action.


Timothy E. Wirth, of Boulder and Washington, D.C., represented Colorado in the U.S. House and Senate from 1975 to 1993.

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