This summer, the shadows of oil dependence have been thrown into stark relief.
The Gulf oil spill, of course, highlighted the environmental risks of going farther and deeper in the search for more remote and costlier oil supplies. There was a potboiler of a story in Friday's New York Times on the interpersonal tensions and dramas behind the scenes during the struggle to put a cork in the blown-out Macondo well.
China supplanted the U.S. as the biggest energy consuming country in the world. China's growth, along with India's, is a signal of the tough competition for oil that the U.S. will be up against as Asian demand rises and global dependence grows on giant oil reserves in the Middle East, the world's roughest neighborhood.
We also saw our political system at its worst, as weak leadership from the administration and congressional Democrats, coupled with the obtuse irresponsibility of congressional Republicans who put party above country, sank prospects for a comprehensive energy bill that could start lessening oil dependence.
As if all that were not enough ... sorry to be such a wet blanket during these lazy days of summer there's a dirty little secret about oil that hasn't received as much attention it deserves.
The story is being told by Jim Woolsey, a former CIA director, and C. Boyden Gray, who served as counsel in the George H.W. Bush administration and pushed the cap-and-trade concept for reducing pollution, which, in the revisionist history of today's amnesiac Republicans, is a socialist plot to destroy jobs.
Here's the scoop. Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency must enforce limits on 188 air toxics that are emitted both from industrial sources and from motor fuels. Woolsey and Gray argue that EPA has attacked toxins from industry, but has not done enough about the toxins found in motor fuels. (An exhaustive take of the argument is an article that Gray co-authored in 2006 for a Texas law journal.)
Such as gasoline. About one-fourth of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline that Americans burn every year is made up of "aromatic" hydrocarbons. "Aromatics" sounds like a perfume brand. They're not. Aromatics include toxins such as benzene, toluene, and xylenes. Benzene is a carcinogen. Perhaps more salient is that aromatics are precursors that form particulate pollution, which is a respiratory and cardiac health hazard. Many metropolitan areas in the Northeast and in California violate EPA's ambient air standard for ultra-fine particles that are 2.5 microns are smaller, the kind that can burrow deeply into people's lungs.
Woolsey and Gray estimate that toxins in gasoline result in health and environmental damage that costs $100 billion per year.
Aromatics were added to gasoline as an octane booster to substitute for the neurotoxin lead, which EPA rightfully banned as a motor fuel additive, beginning in 1973. There's a dispiriting story behind the introduction of lead into gasoline in the 1920s even though its hazards were well known; plant workers handling the stuff called it "loony gas" for a reason. That's a story for another day.
When EPA got the lead out, refineries put aromatics in. Reformulated gasoline and engine emission control requirements, which were designed to reduce ozone smog pollution, have helped reduce the aromatics component of fuel to a degree. In 2007, EPA adopted rules, which take effect next year, that would cut the benzene content of gasoline by 36 percent, but it includes a trading program that would allow some refiners to significantly increase benzene content.
Gray and Woolsey point out that ethanol could substitute as an octane booster without aromatics' toxic and particulate pollution baggage. Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of turning to ethanol as a strategy for getting rid of poisonous aromatics, especially if that ethanol is distilled from corn. Corn ethanol has its own set of issues, including subsidies, hydrocarbon emissions, the energy and chemical intensity of growing corn, and the impacts of corn agriculture on water, soils, and wildlife. Woolsey points out that corn is used mostly to feed livestock, and argues that corn starch would be better used for fuel production than to fatten cattle or produce high-fructose syrup, which he said has resulted in a wasp's nest of negative consequences, including heart disease, obesity, and overuse of agricultural antibiotics.
Ethanol is not the only alternative to gasoline for providing motive power, however. Electricity, natural gas, and, in the future, fuels derived from wastes and algae, are others. Tougher fuel efficiency standards are a must. The right menu of choices will depend on a broader analysis and balancing of energy security, climate, public health, and economic factors.
The central point to remember is that oil dependence is unhealthy and dangerous. The poison in gasoline is one of many reasons to start rolling back that dependence without further delay.
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