January 31, 2007 in Business

Ethanol trend fuels a new debate

John Heilprin Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Traffic flows into downtown Los Angeles. Scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency are due to recommend today a range of options for healthier air by tightening smog standards nationally.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON — Federal scientists want to tighten smog standards, a step that would allow tens of millions of Americans to breathe easier. The plan also would run head-on into President Bush’s hopes of weaning Americans from gasoline by using more smog-producing ethanol.

Today, Environmental Protection Agency scientists will say that tougher standards “would provide greater health protection for sensitive groups, including asthmatic children and other people with lung disease, healthy children and older adults — especially those active outdoors, and outdoor workers.”

Nearly 160 million people now breathe illegal levels of ozone pollution — smog — mostly in and around major cities in California and the East.

“The overall body of evidence on ozone health effects clearly calls into question the adequacy of the current standard,” EPA scientists say in their final recommendation to Administrator Stephen Johnson, a Bush appointee. Details were obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

What the scientists will recommend has stirred controversy within EPA, said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the subject.

EPA staff members have felt they were under pressure from administration officials, including people at the White House, not to give a specific recommendation for tightening the standard, the official said.

Bush, in his State of the Union speech last week, urged Americans to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over 10 years by substituting alternative fuels, mainly ethanol. The ethanol would be in gasoline blends of 10 to 85 percent.

Smog is produced mainly when tailpipe and smokestack pollutants react with summer heat. Other major sources of the pollution are gas vapors and chemical solvents.

Stricter standards could make it even more difficult for states and counties to comply with the Clean Air Act. Billions of dollars might have to be spent on cleaner-burning factories, power plants and cars and more mass transportation.

Johnson has until June 20 to decide what to do with the recommendation, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said Tuesday.

Last year, EPA was sued for ignoring its scientists’ recommendations for tighter restrictions on soot, fine particles from smokestacks and tailpipes that contribute to premature deaths and respiratory illness.

A federal appeals court in December struck down the Bush administration’s strategy for reducing smog, saying it allowed “backsliding” by states instead of making them order new pollution controls on industrial plants, more public transportation, tougher vehicle inspection programs or cleaner-burning gasoline.

Ethanol, a focus of Bush’s gasoline-reduction plan, helps cut carbon monoxide in winter but can raise smog levels in summer, air pollution experts say. Ethanol releases more nitrogen oxides, a key element of smog, and evaporates more easily than gasoline, adding other air pollutants.

EPA documents show that more ethanol use could raise smog levels about 1 percent, mainly in parts of the Midwest that don’t use cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline.

“If you’re a state air pollution official trying to lower the smog, that’s not helpful,” said A. Blakeman Early, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association, whose legal battle with the EPA over air quality standards forced Wednesday’s deadline. “The data we have is pretty thin. We need to look at this question much more carefully.”

Bill Wehrum, head of EPA’s air and radiation office, acknowledged that ethanol poses “a possibility of a very small increase” in smog-causing pollutants but said cleaner-burning motor vehicles and 85 percent ethanol blends would minimize it. He said EPA doesn’t view tougher smog limits as being in conflict with Bush’s ethanol goals.

As long as refiners spend enough to offset the volatility in ethanol that leads to smog, there’s no problem, said ethanol lobbyist Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association.

“A lot of concerns that have been out there are unfounded,” he said. “It’s not an air quality issue, it’s an economic issue for refiners.”

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