Industry coalition plays up air quality in bid to reframe debate

By Amanda Peterka | 05/20/2015 01:06 PM EDT

Ethanol backers have launched a campaign to steer attention away from the corn-based fuel’s potential impact on food prices and toward air quality and public health.

Ethanol backers have launched a campaign to steer attention away from the corn-based fuel’s potential impact on food prices and toward air quality and public health.

Calling itself the Urban Air Initiative, the ethanol coalition aims to tie its foes in the petroleum industry to air pollution from automobile tailpipes. Ethanol, the initiative says, can clean up dirty air and help automakers achieve climate change goals.

The initiative recently challenged a U.S. EPA model that ties ethanol to increased air pollution, weighed in on the Obama administration’s ozone proposal and began a public awareness campaign centered in Nebraska’s Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area.


"This is a different deal than just saying, ‘Hey, we need jobs in rural America. Ethanol is great,’" said Doug Durante, executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition. "It’s a totally different kind of way we’re looking at this."

At the helm of the Urban Air Initiative: brothers Dave and Steve VanderGriend of the Kansas-based biofuel company ICM Inc. Dave VanderGriend is the company’s CEO and serves as the initiative’s president. His brother leads ICM’s research and development and is the initiative’s technical director.

In a recent interview, Steve VanderGriend said that the idea to form a pro-ethanol coalition focused on air quality was spurred by issues raised in technical papers on the automotive industry. Those papers, he said, question how the government measures ethanol’s air pollution, arguing that agencies assume oil companies blended ethanol with a lower-quality oil than what’s actually used.

"One of the things that I started to do over the past couple of years is collect a lot of these studies and really look at how test fuels are blended," VanderGriend said, "and found that a lot of times, ethanol is never simply added, and sometimes a worse gasoline was developed as ethanol increased."

Those studies and others done by universities also highlighted a growing concern with air pollution tied to aromatics — hydrocarbon compounds added to gasoline to boost octane. For high-compression engines, octane ratings measure a fuel’s ability to resist engine knock.

Aromatics generally make up 20 to 30 percent of gasoline. According to a 2013 study by Harvard University, they contribute to the formation of secondary organic aerosols, a major component of fine particulate matter. Fine particles have been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular disease and the formation of smog.

While not comprehensive, there’s growing evidence showing that hydrocarbon aromatics in gasoline also release ultra-fine particles, unregulated particles that are 100 nanometers or less in diameter and could be more toxic to humans. Aromatics also been linked to the release of airborne chemicals.

ICM formed the nonprofit Urban Air Initiative in 2012 to promote ethanol as a cleaner-than-hydrocarbon-aromatics power boost for car engines. According to the initiative, raising ethanol from its current norm of 10 percent to 30 percent could reduce hydrocarbon aromatic use by up to 60 percent.

"The goals of the Urban Air Initiative are to protect public health by focusing on urban areas where our citizens are exposed to mobile source emissions at dangerous levels," the group says on its website.

The initiative has acted as a clearinghouse for several groups that have raised concerns about the aromatic content in gasoline. Prominent among them is the Clean Fuels Development Coalition, a almost-30-year-old nonprofit focused on alternative fuels that counts among its members both ethanol and auto companies.

Durante, the group’s executive director, said that CFDC began focusing on aromatics when EPA issued its greenhouse gas rule for cars and trucks in 2010. To meet the greenhouse gas requirements in the rule, automakers said they would need high-compression engines that need a lot of octane.

"If that octane comes from the oil barrel, it’s going to come from aromatics, and that’s going to increase toxics. So that’s a problem," Durante said. Automakers "really rang the alarm bell at first, and we said, heck, if that’s the issue, we happen to have clean octane."

The Urban Air Initiative also acts as a sort of technical arm for the Energy Future Coalition, which was formed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by former White House adviser John Podesta; President George W. Bush’s U.S. ambassador to the European Union, C. Boyden Gray; and the vice chairman of the United Nations Foundation, Tim Wirth. The coalition, which began by exploring energy issues broadly, has recently drilled down into the issue of gasoline aromatics.

UAI does not disclose its donors, but spokeswoman Kim Trinchet said it has a "wide mix" of people who "donate money to the cause."

The initiative has recently shifted from focusing on research to getting more involved in public policy.

"The last several years have been primarily research. It’s just been in the last year or so that we’ve been more public in getting more information out there," Trinchet said. "We have data to back it up."

Lawsuit over EPA model

The group is basing its policy push on the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, in which Congress told EPA to reduce hydrocarbon aromatics to the greatest degree possible.

One of the initiative’s main policy drives is to force EPA to withdraw a model that it rolled out last year to help states calculate air emissions from transportation.

The model made available in October is an update to EPA’s Motor Vehicle Emission Simulator (MOVES), which was released in 2009 and revised in 2010. The update is based on millions of emission test results and takes into account new data, including the air impact of adding ethanol gasoline, according to EPA.

But the initiative says the model and an underlying study attribute emissions of particulates to ethanol instead of to hydrocarbon aromatics because of the way it has designed its tests for ethanol and gasoline.

The initiative, along with the Energy Future Coalition and the states of Nebraska and Kansas, has filed a lawsuit against EPA over the model in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The groups and states have also petitioned EPA directly to withdraw the model.

"The key fact obscured by the MOVES model is that blending ethanol into ordinary gasoline is good, not bad, for emissions," Dave VanderGriend said in a statement in March. "Ethanol does this by diluting the most harmful components of gasoline with its own clean octane."

EPA has encouraged all states except California — which uses its own model — to use the MOVES2014 model for analyses needed to shape required Clean Air Act pollution control plans. In two years, EPA intends to require the model for certain types of air quality analyses.

EPA’s brief in response to the lawsuit is due in August. In a recent interview, EPA’s director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, Christopher Grundler, said he was "surprised" and "not very happy" about the legal challenge.

"From my perspective, it all began with a fundamental misunderstanding of how we did a test program that was part of developing the model," he said. "And that’s what’s frustrating for us because we have tried to explain to the litigants the misunderstanding. They misunderstood a lot of it."

While the Urban Air Initiative is not directly involved in the litigation, the Energy Future Coalition and eight ethanol producers — including ICM — have also challenged EPA in court over the agency’s rule for curbing sulfur in gasoline.

The ethanol entities are arguing that the rules create a Catch-22: EPA seeks higher blends of alternative fuels to be used in the market while at the same time restricting test fuels that new cars are required to use for certification to lower blends. A three-member panel of federal judges heard arguments in the case in March (Greenwire, March 20).


Aside from taking on EPA over its testing procedures, the Urban Air Initiative is trying to use the agency’s recent ozone proposal as a way to promote ethanol’s tailpipe emission benefits.

EPA in November proposed to tighten the national ambient air quality standard for ozone from 75 parts per billion to between 65 and 70 ppb. In public comments, the Urban Air Initiative argued that the agency was placing too much focus on power plants and other industrial facilities that contribute to ozone pollution and not enough on gasoline exhaust.

"This rule should do more to address the primary cause of ground level ozone in urban areas, where the vast majority of Americans live, work, and commute: gasoline exhaust, more specifically the combustion byproducts of aromatic hydrocarbons used to enhance gasoline octane ratings," UAI wrote.

Earlier this month, the initiative launched a "Clean Fuels Omaha" campaign to research fuels and promote both ethanol and its connection to ground-level ozone pollution. There, UAI is partnering with the Nebraska Ethanol Board, Nebraska Corn Board, Nebraska Ethanol Industry Coalition, Nebraska Soybean Growers and Clean Fuels Development Coalition.

Nebraska doesn’t have its own fuel-testing program, and the Nebraska Ethanol Board has already been doing some of its own measurements of the aromatic content in gasoline by pulling gasoline samples from fuel terminals that supply the Omaha and Council Bluffs area. Preliminary results found that aromatics make up nearly 30 percent of the base gasoline.

The testing indicates that fuel suppliers are not using ethanol to the greatest extent that they could, according to Nebraska Ethanol Board Administrator Todd Sneller.

"Our goal is to take some proactive steps in addressing ozone exceedances," he said. "In a lot of those transportation fuels, we’re going to have a particulate problem that directly relates to health and a potential for ozone formation."

One of the Omaha campaign’s goals is to boost public awareness of hydrocarbon aromatics in gasoline. Steve VanderGriend said that a big challenge was parsing a very technical issue into easy-to-understand concepts.

"I think the first challenge is to get people to understand that, on average, 25 percent of your gas is some kind of benzene component, an aromatic," VanderGriend said. "Two, we can do things to help reduce that, promote lower levels."

Supporters of the broader Urban Air Initiative are also hoping it will get environmentalists and public health organizations back to the side of ethanol. Environmental groups have long argued that ethanol has not lived up to its promises of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They’ve also tied expansions in monoculture cropland in the United States to the increased ethanol production spurred by the federal renewable fuel standard.

"Hardly anyone ever talks about the health issues of this," Durante said.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on advanced policy to promote cleaner energy, has recently increased its focus on hydrocarbon aromatics.

"It’s a problem that’s getting worse and worse," said Carol Werner, EESI executive director. "We think it’s really important to try to bring it to the attention of more people within the overall policy community. … I think there’s just not a lot of awareness and it can get very complex very, very fast."

While the group supports ethanol as a piece of the solution, EESI also would like to see increased electrification of the transportation fleet.

"The ultimate policy goal would be for EPA to recognize that this is a serious problem," Werner said, "and they have the authority to regulate aromatics under the Clean Air Act."