Columns

Richard Miniter
Urban Ecology: New Fuels Won't Clear the Air
Spring 1993

Early last November, the price of gasoline in New York City surged by about ten cents a gallon, the result not of heightened tensions in the Middle East but of misguided federal regulations and special-interest politics in Washington.

Under new Environmental Protection Agency regulations gas stations in the New York metropolitan area are only permitted to sell “oxygenated” fuel—gasoline with an additive designed to cut down on carbon monoxide emissions—from October through April. And between May and September, New York-area gas stations must sell new alternative fuels, which are supposed to reduce the buildup of smog.

New York’s air is considered out of compliance with federal Clean Air Act standards governing the levels of both carbon monoxide and urban ozone (or smog). Through the use of reformulated fuels and other regulatory measures, the New York region is required to reduce its automotive emissions of carbon monoxide and the main components of smog—volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides—by at least 15 percent per year until it comes into compliance. If this goal is not reached before 1996, the region will face an even heavier regime of federal regulation.

But the EPA’s approach not only fails to address the principal cause of New York’s air pollution—older or poorly tuned cars—it also imposes costs on the consumer over and above the additional ten cents a gallon at the pump. The new oxygenated fuels reduce gas mileage, diminish a car’s performance, and increase repair costs.

Moreover, the new fuels have environmental costs as well as benefits, a key fact often neglected by the press. The two most common additives in oxygenated fuels are ethanol, which is derived from corn, and methanol, made from coal or natural gas. While ethanol can reduce carbon monoxide emissions by as much as 22 percent, it increases the emissions of VOCs, a main component of smog, by 25 percent. Methanol, the most commonly used alternative fuel in the New York area, reduces VOC emissions by at least 30 percent, but it does not significantly reduce nitrogen oxides or carbon monoxide, and it increases emissions of some other pollutants.

The environmental benefits of alternative fuels are further diminished by the fact that both ethanol and methanol have been approved for year-round use in the New York area, though the benefits of each are seasonal. Carbon monoxide tends to build up during cold-weather temperature inversions, and is therefore primarily a winter problem in New York. Smog, on the other hand, results from chemical reactions triggered by high temperatures, so it is mainly a summer pollutant.

Why not, then, use ethanol to cut carbon monoxide during the winter, and methanol to cut VOCs during the summer? The answer seems to lie in politics: Manufacturers of both ethanol and methanol have strong lobbying efforts in Washington; each fights to have regulations written in a way that will increase its market share, regardless of the effect on the environment. Last October, for example, at a Rose Garden ceremony President Bush announced new EPA regulations requiring oil companies to produce a less volatile gasoline that can be mixed with ethanol for summer use, to compensate for the additive’s increased emissions of VOCs. Among those attending was Jim Edgar, Republican governor of Illinois, the biggest ethanol-producing state. “This is going to help the economy of Illinois considerably,” Edgar said after the ceremony. “I think the president will carry Illinois.” (As it turned out, Bill Clinton won the state by a 13 percent margin.)

While seasonally targeting the alternative fuels would help alleviate the negative environmental side effects, it would not help the region meet its federally mandated emission reductions, because the EPA ignores crucial seasonal factors in setting its mandates. If the use of ethanol during the winter, for example, results in increased VOC emissions, that would count against the city in determining whether it meets the 15 percent targeted reduction of VOCs—even though VOCs are not a serious problem in cold weather.

There are other problems with the new fuels. Both ethanol and methanol are far more toxic than gasoline. Moreover, both are water-soluble, so a spill could foul ground water and be extremely difficult to clean up. Though spills are rare, it is not uncommon for underground fuel tanks to rust and leak.

Although the costs of oxygenated fuels are imposed on all drivers, almost all air pollution is produced by older or improperly tuned cars. Cars manufactured today, for example, emit 76 percent less nitrogen oxide and fully 96 percent less hydrocarbons (one form of VOCs) than those made in 1970. There are no benefits to using oxygenated fuels in newer vehicles, for all cars manufactured since 1983 are equipped with oxygen sensors, which ensure an optimal fuel-to-oxygen mixture, allowing the car to burn gasoline as cleanly as it would bum oxygenated fuel. A University of Denver study found that 299 out of 300 post-1983 cars show no decrease in emissions from using oxy-fuels.

A 1989 EPA study examined carbon monoxide emissions of eighty vehicles. Burning regular unleaded gasoline, they emitted a total of 397 pounds of carbon monoxide. When the same eighty cars were put on oxygenated fuels, total carbon monoxide emissions fell to 194 pounds. If, instead, the four dirtiest cars were taken out of service, total emissions would fall to 59 pounds—a far greater reduction than achieved by switching to oxy-fuels. University of Denver researcher Donald Stedman says similar results would be found for other pollutants.

The city has the option to request a waiver from the federal alternative-fuels program. It should do so, and instead embark on a program of reducing pollution by targeting the older cars that are responsible for the bulk of it. All privately owned vehicles in the New York region are required to undergo a tailpipe emission test every year. State and local governments should offer tax credits equal to the price of tuning up polluting cars to meet air pollution requirements. If the car is so old or in such poor condition that it cannot meet air quality standards, then the government should buy it and junk it. Further, all government-owned vehicles should be tested immediately and those that pollute either be tuned up or sold out-of-state, whichever is cheaper. Rather than force the owners of clean cars to pay more for fuel, such a program would make drivers individually responsible for the pollution they produce.

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