Monday, May 04, 2009

Will the corn lobby celebrate... while the risk of cancer goes up?

As you may know, last week the White House Office of Management and Budget finally completed its review of proposed EPA rules to quadruple the amount of ethanol in gasoline.

So EPA could propose this rule at any time. And the contents are worth close scrutiny.

You may recall there has been a huge ongoing battle behind the scenes about a key aspect of this proposal – how to account for the “indirect” emissions of greenhouse gases caused by clearing land to plant more corn. The corn lobby has fought tooth and nail to discount this sort of analysis because it shows that corn-based ethanol makes global warming worse!

The state of California dealt the corn lobby a setback in its recent “low-carbon” fuel standards, but there are signs this morning that the Obama administration – which has been a vocal proponent of ethanol – may be more generous in its treatment of corn. (Climate Wire notes this morning that “ethanol advocates are optimistic that EPA has heard some of their concerns.”

This could happen if EPA manipulates its analysis to minimize the impact of indirect emissions. (I can give you a short version of this. Our friend, Jonathan Lewis with the Clean Air Task Force, is a real expert on this. If you’re interested, he’s worth consulting.)

I do want to point out a separate problem with ethanol, brought to mind by a story in the May 5th edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, published by a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The article, on the risk of breathing cancer-causing air pollutants, notes that more than 100 sites around the nation already have unacceptably high levels of acetaldehyde, which the federal government views as a probable human carcinogen. And that is before ethanol levels are quadrupled! (Prior EPA analyses – see below – note that increased use of ethanol will caused increased acetaldehyde emissions.

So the corn lobby may be celebrating, but at what risk to public health?


The full report Environmental Health Perspectives report is at

The map on page 23 of supplement

shows a widespread problem with acetaldehyde in the East, Southeast, Midwest, California and other areas.

EPA studies showed that the national concentrations of acetaldehydes could skyrocket with increased use of ethanol – up by 36% (page 179 of regulatory impact analysis of 2007 rule)

EPA notes on increased emissions from earlier (2005) RFS requirement at

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