More is Less

More is Less

by Doug Durante, Executive Director Clean Fuels Development Coalition

There is curious myth following ethanol around like a slow growing weed in your yard that is beginning to encroach on your living space.  I am referring to the notion that we need “ethanol free” gasoline.

As a boat owner I have seen this nonsense perpetuated for years– claims that ethanol is corrosive and causes everything from phase separation to clogged fuel lines.  Similarly, small engines ranging from lawn mowers to chain saws have been assumed to have problems with ethanol.  In both these examples it is simply not true– whether it is a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower or a Mercury Marine outboard, they clearly and unequivocally approve the use of E10.  If either of those sectors have concerns above E10 that is a matter of choice– but going all the way back to zero is ridiculous.

For this to gain any kind of traction in the big show, which is the 140 billion gallon gasoline market, is beyond ridiculous– it is expensive and unhealthy.  We need more ethanol in gasoline, and in so doing we will get less.  Less drain on our wallets, less toxic aromatics, less carbon, less sulfur, less particulates and less related health problems.   What makes this so discouraging for all of us who have worked to provide cleaner fuels and a better environment is that it is coming at a time when all signs are pointing in a completely opposite direction.  It is like putting your umbrella away as storm clouds are racing towards you.

I refer to a recent report from the Harvard School of Public Health that builds on a study funded by the Urban Air Initiative in 2013 and shows that exposure to airborne fine particulate matter (PM) presents a significant health risk.  We already knew children were vulnerable to these emissions but this new study finds that even minor reductions could save 12,000 lives annually in what would otherwise be classified as premature death in older Americans.

What we now know is that the US Environment al Protection Agency (EPA) has grossly underappreciated the role of gasoline in forming these fine particulates and has tended to focus solely on diesel and stationary power. Not only do we have direct pm emissions from gasoline in the form of ultra fine particulates but the secondary organic aerosols that are formed as a result of combustion of aromatics.  These aromatics are the true bad guys in the oil barrel. Classified as toxics, they are known or suspected carcinogens and can make up more than 35% of a gallon of gasoline in some cases, and that is usually with ethanol in the mix.

The obvious question is if that’s the case, why are they in there?  Octane. High octane fuels mean high aromatic levels.  The Health Effects Institute, which had a hand in this new Harvard report, has helped raise the curtain on this issue in terms of getting EPA to grudgingly admit the connection between gasoline, air toxics, and aromatics. Furthermore, EPA often unwittingly has conceded that splash blending ethanol to achieve higher octane would reduce particulate toxics.

There is not enough space here to document the growing body of scientific evidence that connects the dots of gasoline emissions and negative health impacts, but it could fill this magazine.  An equally growing body of evidence is in the fact that we need higher octane fuels–and lots of it to meet fuel efficiency standards. Downsizing engines via turbo-charging and adjusting compression will be the norm and those engines require higher octane.

Even putting the health issue aside, increasing octane at the refinery level may be impossible without prohibitive cost impacts. As it is, “ethanol free” gasoline is now a niche fuel and is anywhere from 40 cents to a dollar more per gallon than E10/E15.  Ethanol has the highest octane blending value of any available additive and is considerably lower in cost.  Are you willing to pay $6-$10 more per fillup to increase cancer causing emissions?

But unless we open the door to a competitive octane market and in the process enforce laws on the books to limit the toxics in gasoline, get ready to see those statistics in the Harvard study rise.  Higher ethanol blends are the answer.

Remember– more is less.