COVID-19 Impact Underscores Need for Biofuels

To say that 2020 has gotten off to a rough start is clearly an understatement. As we continue to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 across the world, one thing has remained unchanged. 

Fine particulate air pollution — specifically tiny particles called “particulate matter” that are generated in part by fuel combustion from cars — continues to be a significant health threat. In fact, the American Lung Association just released The State of the Air 2020, and one of the key findings is “that too many cities across the nation increased the number of days when particle pollution soared to often record-breaking levels.” 

While there have been reports it has temporarily improved as a result of our “new normal,” we owe it to ourselves to ensure we get on path to keep it that way. This is even more critical now — since recent research found a link between high exposure to fine particulate air pollution and pre-existing conditions that contribute to more severe outcomes from COVID-19. 

So far, the Trump administration has made it crystal clear that forging a path to “clearer skies” will not be easy. From releasing a shoddy final Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule to recent rollbacks on regulations that would have limited other dangerous air pollutants, it’s going to be an uphill battle. But like Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”

There are many steps that can and should be taken to improve air quality, but one solution that is painfully misunderstood is biofuels — specifically ethanol. Ethanol is the only octane-boosting additive that contributes to a myriad of societal benefits, including consumer savings, better fuel efficiency and reduced oil imports. Additional benefits of ethanol include the potential for rural economic stimulus, and just as important — but often not highlighted — reduced emissions and health costs. 

E30 gasoline is the “sweet spot” as far as ethanol blends go. It can significantly reduce toxic emissions from gasoline. These tiny emissions exacerbate air pollution and hurt our health — increasing instances of preterm births, cancer, IQ loss, neurological disorders and a multitude of respiratory diseases. 

In fact, research in a Guardian article noted that “the impact of different pollutants on many ailments remains to be established, suggesting well-known heart and lung damage is only ‘the tip of the iceberg.’” And similar to the research linking fine particulate air pollution and COVID-19, these particles have been proven to disproportionality affect low-income communities and vulnerable populations such as pregnant women.

None of this is new, but for decades, the problem and solutions that exist to fix it have been ignored by bureaucrats and trivialized by Big Oil. And as the current public health crisis unfolds, it’s a constant reminder that the time to change the status quo is now.

A solution exists: enforcement of the mandatory provision of the Clean Air Act that requires the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the toxic carcinogens that refiners use to increase octane in gasoline. And all this would take is the stroke of the president’s pen. Frankly, the SAFE Rule was a huge missed opportunity to make it right.

Thankfully, experts are bringing this issue back to the forefront. Earlier this year — even before COVID-19 was widespread in the United States — a distinguished group of energy and policy experts discussed the topic in the National Clean Fuels Technology and Health Effects Leadership Forum

One of the forum’s speakers, Reid Detchon, senior adviser for climate solutions at the UN Foundation, spoke about the smoking gun — the fact that the EPA itself admitted it was wrong about the dangers of gasoline aromatics. Another participant, former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), joined Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) late last year to urge environmental advocates to take another look at biofuels.

This problem will continue to be largely ignored until this country’s leaders and key influencers start addressing it with the urgency, relevancy and transparency it deserves. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, join me in fighting for our right to breathe clean air.


David E. Hallberg, founder and former president of the Renewable Fuels Association, is a principal at Dakota AG Energy with over 35 years of experience in the biofuels industry.

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