Wednesday, May 24, 2006

News notes: ethanol's (dirty) little secret, and more...

With a new “American Idol” champ about to be crowned, and Jack Bauer on a literal slow boat to China, we will soon be entering the summer doldrums. However, we are still on the alert for interesting stories from around the globe:

"States Eye Pollution Cuts to Offset Emissions Increases from Ethanol” – Now that was a jarring headline!

In this political season, so many stories that we read about ethanol -- even in major newspapers (see ) -- seem as if they were ghost-written by the Iowa Corn Growers or Archer Daniels Midland.

So it was quite fascinating to read the piece by Dawn Reeves in the publication Inside EPA, which notes that “air regulators in the Midwest and other parts of the country are considering new requirements on stationary and other pollution sources to address expected emissions increases from the energy law mandate to add more ethanol to gasoline.”

This story isn’t about the effort by Senator John Thune (R-SD) to bully the EPA on behalf of the corn lobby into proposing weaker air pollution standards for ethanol refineries; that’s a separate pollution problem.

Rather, this is about a special exemption in the Clean Air Act which permits weaker pollution standards for regular gasoline blended with ethanol. Note Reeves: “Ethanol that is blended into conventional gasoline is automatically granted a waiver from EPA rules aimed at limiting fuel volatility to control emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which contribute to ozone.”
As a result, pollution could increase. Even more extra pollution could happen from fumes that leak through car hoses. Some states, particularly in the upper Midwest, are said to be wondering if they will have to compensate by tightening smokestack pollution standards. Stay tuned.

(Note: these concerns should not apply to the more visionary goals of using mainly ethanol in cars designed for its use – or the very visionary goal of designing a plug-in hybrid electric car that would run mainly on ethanol (from waste products) when not powered by the battery.)

Whatever Happened to Hydrogen? President Bush told NBC’s Brian Williams in a recent interview: “The ultimate solution (to high gas prices) is to promote ethanol." But it seems like only yesterday (actually, it was last month, on Earth Day) that the President declared "I strongly believe hydrogen is the fuel of the future.”

Has hydrogen been discarded that quickly?

Not really, though it has at least temporarily been eclipsed as the Great Green Hope. Still there are developments on the hydrogen front. Just this week it was reported that a second hydrogen fuel station will open in Las Vegas

And just yesterday it was reported that scientists have determined that waste products from caramel production could be used to make hydrogen. No kidding:

Refiners Admit They Are Making Big Expansion Plans: The word from Washington is that bi-partisan discussions about new refinery legislation have collapsed. That means that congressional Republicans led by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) will probably try after the Memorial Day recess to forge ahead without significant Democratic support on a plan to limit environmental reviews of refinery expansions.

Ironically, the oil industry basically admitted this week that it is moving ahead with big refinery expansion plans under current environmental rules. In a May 22nd statement, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association noted that, with regard to temporary tight gasoline supplies:

This situation will ultimately be addressed through announced additions to U.S. refinery capacity, estimated at 1.4 to 2.0 mmb/d. This is an 8-11% increase in U.S. capacity, which should be in place by 2010 at the latest… Over the past 10 years, domestic refining has increased by an average of 177,000 barrels per day of production each year or the equivalent of building one new, larger than average refinery each year. This fact should assuage some concerns about the fact that no new grassroots refinery has been built in the U.S. in over 30 years.

In other words, all the complaining by Barton, President Bush and others about no new refineries is just political baloney.

Neville Feinstein? One of the more interesting things to watch for when Congress returns is the spending legislation for the U.S. EPA, which will be subject to scrutiny by Senate appropriators. Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), has already signaled he may try to use this legislation to interfere with planned EPA attempts to set new pollution standards for lawn mowers and other small engines.

Twice (in 2003 and again last year) Bond has interfered to protect a single big polluter, the Briggs & Stratton Corporation. And twice, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) has appeased Bond through striking deals that delay cleanup. Will that appeasement continue? Will other senators weigh in with Bond, who has earned the nickname “Senator Smog” from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch?

This is an issue, of course, that has implications far beyond California. New Jersey, for example, has noted that small engines produce more than 10% of smog-forming volatile organic compounds in that state on a typical summer day. The same is likely true for other states.

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