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New Ethanol Blend Needs a Second Look

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The National Academy of Sciences should review the health, environmental and safety effects of E15 ethanol blends before they’re allowed on the market, but limiting EPA’s authority to enforce the Clean Air Act would be a bad idea.

Tomorrow (Feb. 7), the House Science Committee of Congress will take up a bill that would require a comprehensive scientific assessment of the effects that a new, higher-ethanol gasoline blend would have on the environment, public health and safety and engine performance.

That’s a good idea. The Environmental Working Group believes that the government made an error when it recently approved introduction of a 15 percent ethanol blend (E15) into the fuel supply. But at the same time, EWG thinks it would be a mistake to curb the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to enforce the Clean Air Act, which the pending bill also proposes.

The legislation before the Science Committee (H.R. 3199) calls for the National Academy of Sciences to do a comprehensive assessment of the environmental, safety and performance effects of allowing E15 into the nation’s fuel supply.

As EWG’s Chief of Staff and General Counsel Heather White noted in testimony before the committee in July 2011, America’s biofuels policy is on the wrong path. The EPA should not have waived the Clean Air Act to allow widespread sale of the E15 blend, which contains half again as much ethanol as most of the gasoline currently sold, which is a 10 percent ethanol blend. Once the EPA decision goes into effect, it will be legal to use the E15 blend in any vehicle manufactured after 2001.

There are serious concerns about E15’s potential effects on public health, consumer safety and the environment, so EWG supports the proposed study by the National Academy of Sciences to analyze the impacts of “mid-level” ethanol blends. The EPA, meanwhile, should hold off on putting E15 on the market and take the Academy’s assessment into consideration before it takes any further action. But limiting EPA’s authority to protect public health and the environment would set a dangerous precedent.

As Ms. White said in her oral testimony:

“We believe in a strong, vibrant, well-funded EPA and robust authority for the administrator. Most of the time, we’re on EPA’s side. This agency protects our public health and has saved billions of dollars in health care costs through environmental enforcement and regulation. But we think this decision is a bad call. It asks Americans to play roulette at the gas station if they fill an unapproved vehicle with E15.”

The proposed study should focus on identifying specific health impacts of E15 and its associated air pollution on children, pregnant women, environmental justice communities and other sensitive populations. It’s also essential to examine the direct and indirect impacts of E15 on fuel mileage, underground storage tanks and other fueling infrastructure. Air quality and water resources should also be examined.

There’s good reason to go slow on E15. Scientific research has shown that it can lead to these safety, health and engine problems:

  • Higher levels of emissions of toxins such as volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and nitrous oxide, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde;
  • Potential mis-fueling of and damage to older vehicles and small and off-road engines such as outboard motors, chainsaws and lawnmowers;
  • Corroded engine parts, storage tanks, gasoline pumps and hoses;
  • Contamination of water supplies by ethanol leaks;
  • Engines stalling, misfiring or overheating and degradation of emission control systems;
  • Voided warranties on cars and engines;
  • Lower gas mileage;
  • Potential engine damage or failure.

Before the public is subjected to these risks, it makes sense to have the National Academy of Sciences take a closer look, but not to limit EPA’s authority.

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