Category: Blog

The Great Ethanol Caper – A Seemingly Good Idea Gone Wrong

It is a rare event indeed when oil industry, environmental groups, poverty advocates, taxpayer groups and livestock growers all unanimously agree that a federal program has gone horribly wrong. But that is exactly what happened with respect to the federal ethanol in gasoline mandate. How did this come to be?

While the concept of adding ethyl alcohol, commonly referred to as “ethanol,” to gasoline dates all the way back to the early 1900s, a real push for such a result began in the 1970s by corn growers. It finally gained some traction in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which mandated that oxygenates be added to gasoline to make it burn more cleanly in areas with poor air quality. While methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) became the oxygenate of choice based primarily on its price, leakage of the chemical from underground storage tanks (and because it migrates faster and farther in soil and groundwater than other gasoline components) resulted in the product being banned and a switch by fuel manufacturers to corn-based ethanol. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 cemented the role of corn-based ethanol by including a Renewable Fuel Standard that required all gasoline sold in the nation to be comprised of 5 percent oxygenate. In 2007, that requirement was revised to require increasing amounts of oxygenate in every year up until 2022. However, starting in 2012, the amount of corn-based ethanol that could be added to gasoline was capped, and the remaining oxygenate requirement had to be filled by so-called advanced biofuels — oxygenates made from cellulosic biomass such as switch grass. If transportation fuel manufacturers failed to achieve the required levels, the law required that they purchase “waiver credits” instead. Unfortunately, while cellulosic biomass and other biofuels may someday become readily available, no such fuels for commercial use were produced in either 2011 or 2012.

This series of events, caused by federal policy, has produced a number of negative consequences that have given birth to the strange coalition of forces mentioned above, who are now lobbying Congress and the EPA to make drastic changes in the mandate. Among those consequences are the following: With respect to corn-ethanol, a huge percentage of all corn grown in the United States (at least 40 percent), which produces about 40 percent of the world’s total corn supply, has been diverted from food and animal feed production for use in fuel, resulting in an increase in the cost of corn-based products that has been estimated to be as high as 68 percent, which in turn has increased world hunger and caused rapid deforestation in order to plant more crops. Because that deforestation increases the amount of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere, many experts have now concluded that ethanol causes greater harm to the environment than the gasoline it is intended to replace. With respect to advanced biofuels, fuel manufacturers have been forced to obtain waiver credits, costing millions of dollars for biofuels they did not purchase because the products do not exist, driving up the cost of providing another essential consumer commodity — motor fuel.

It will be interesting to see how this well-intentioned fiasco finally gets sorted out.

New Revisions to Federal Total Coliform Rule Unlikely to Have An Immediate Impact on Public Water Systems

The Total Coliform Rule is a national primary drinking water regulation that was published in 1989 and became effective in 1990. The rule set both health goals and maximum contaminant levels for total coliform in drinking water. The rule also provided baseline requirements for testing that water systems must undertake. Coliforms are a large class of micro-organisms found in human and animal fecal matter, used to determine whether the drinking water may have other disease-causing organisms in it. A high total coliform level in water indicates a high probability of contamination by protazoa, viruses and bacteria that may be pathogenic.

On December 20, 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency signed off on final revisions to the rule to be submitted for publication in the federal register. Based on advisory committee recommendations, the revisions will require public water systems that are vulnerable to microbial contamination to identify and fix those problems. More specifically, public water systems that are vulnerable to microbial contamination in the distribution system (as indicated by monitoring results for total coliforms and E. coli) will be required to assess the problem and take corrective action that may reduce cases of illnesses and deaths due to potential fecal contamination and waterborne pathogen exposure. The revisions will also establish criteria for public water systems to implement reduced monitoring, thereby incentivizing improved water system operations.

Some states, like California, have requirements that were already stricter than the federal requirements, and compliance with this new revision to the federal Total Coliform Rule is not required until April 2016. As a result, the publication of these changes to the rule is unlikely to have any immediate impact on many public water systems, but it may encourage states to respond with their own regulatory changes to either mirror or strengthen the new federal requirements. Many utilities already rigorously test for both total coliform and E. coli; or, they test for E. coli if there is any total coliform positive result. Because utilities must strictly adhere to regulatory sampling and notification requirements to protect the public health, and to prevent liability suits, there is also unlikely to be any immediate changes in utility sampling conduct based on this revision to the federal rule — absent specific changes in the state regulations, which govern testing. But time will tell.

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