Ignored Study Finds Pollution Program Costly and Fuelish

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Fuel

(DENVER, COLORADO) Oxygenated fuels started here in Denver and took the nation by storm — sort of like the Denver Boot, a nasty contraption they clamp onto your wheel when you don’t pay your tickets.

But unlike the boot, which works all too well (don’t ask me how I know!), it turns out that oxy fuels may be virtually worthless, yet cost motorists across the country billions of dollars.

That’s the conclusion of a recently-released report by the National Research Council (NRC), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The report has been utterly ignored outside of the Denver area, yet it concerns municipalities — and drivers — across the country.

Oxygenated fuels, generally shortened to "oxy fuels" are made by putting an additive into gasoline, usually either ethanol made from corn or a chemical derived from natural gas called MTBE. These additives put more oxygen into the gasoline, and in theory make your car burn cleaner. Allegedly they especially reduce the production of carbon monoxide, which reaches relatively high levels in many places during the winter.

About 27 areas around the country are using oxy fuels during the winter months. They are not provided as options, but rather forced into your gas tank by law. Which is the only way local governments can get motorists to use them, since they not only cost as much as seven cents a gallon more than regular gasoline but also decrease mileage by at least 2-3 percent.

As to how much this is costing the nation as a whole, bizarrely enough the EPA says it doesn’t know. "That should be one of the easiest things to identify," says Carleton Howard, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado.

In any case, the Colorado Health Department says the program has cost the Denver area alone about $14 million a year since 1988 and critics say it could be twice that. It could therefore easily be setting back the nation over half a billion a year.

And for what? We don’t know, says the NRC. Nobody knows.

The Colorado Department of Health (CDH) instituted the oxy fuels program back in 1988 under pressure from lobbyists funded in great part by the huge grain conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). ADM is the biggest producer of the oxy-fuel additive ethanol. It has also been supporting an activist who goes around saying that ethanol’s chief rival, MTBE, makes people sick.

The CDH concluded the oxy-fuels program was a resounding success and made it permanent in Denver. Mayor Federico Pena (now Secretary of Transportation) crowed about it, the Environmental Protection Agency crowed about it, and next thing you know, Congress was requiring it around the country.

But CDH had based its approval on two findings. First, it said that carbon monoxide levels in Denver’s air had gone down significantly since the program was instituted. Actually the city’s carbon monoxide levels had been dropping yearly since the 1970s, primarily due to the installation of catalytic converters on cars.

Ah! Details, details, said the CDH. Don’t bother us with details!

Second, it put together a nice computer model that it claimed showed that an area-wide oxy-fuels program would reduced carbon monoxide by 29 percent.

But while computers don’t lie, liars compute. The NRC found that the most optimistic study which actually measured carbon monoxide reductions from oxy fuels found a 16 percent drop. And the author of that study, University of Denver chemist Donald Stedman, says that even if everybody else had such promising results "it wouldn’t be cost effective."

Other studies such as one conducted by the University of Georgia found virtually no reduction in carbon monoxide emissions at all.

According to one NRC panel member, University of Colorado professor Douglas Lawson, it does seem to be the case that at warm temperatures oxy fuels reduce carbon monoxide. But carbon monoxide is only a cold-weather problem. "In some studies there were higher carbon monoxide emissions with oxy fuels at that lower temperature than with standard fuels," Lawson told me.

Further, even if oxy fuels do reduce carbon monoxide, they can increase levels of other pollutants. For example, benzene levels go up. Benzene is strongly suspected to be a human carcinogen.

Carbon monoxide, on the other hand, merely replaces oxygen in the bloodstream. While this can be fatal in massive doses (such as when a faulty propane heater killed former tennis great Vitas Gerulaitis), in even the heaviest levels ever recorded in the air above a city it never causes anything more than headaches and fatigue.

In any event, notes Lawson, "It’s been known since 1983 that majority of emissions come from a small percentage of the cars on the road." Says Stedman, "Forcing all drivers to use oxy fuels for the sake of those few broken cars is like making everybody take aspirin every day for the sake of a few who will get headaches."

As a result of the NRC findings, Colorado Governor Roy Romer — hardly an enemy of regulation — says he is considering dropping the oxy-fuels program. Unfortunately, since this story was ignored in all the other parts of the country that have since adopted it, the evil that Colorado’s regulators did will live on.