Biofuels Could Be Good for Your Health (Especially If You Live in New York, Chicago, or L.A.)

A recent study at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab indicates that biofuels may have health benefits:

Although there are a number of uncertainties that must be addressed for a more accurate picture, these early results show that a biofuel eliminating even 10-percent of current gasoline pollutant emissions would have a substantial impact on human health in this country, especially in urban areas.

In particular:

“We found that for the vehicle operation phase of our LCIA [life cycle assessment], the annual health damages avoided in the U.S. with 10-percent less gasoline-run motor vehicle emissions ranges from about 5,000 to 20,000 DALY [disability adjusted life years], with most of the damage resulting from primary fine particle emissions,” said McKone. “While county-specific damages range over nine orders of magnitude across all U.S. counties most of the damage, as you would expect, is concentrated in urban populations with the highest impact in the Los Angeles, New York and Chicago regions.” Large urban regions also suffered disproportionate health damage as a result of benzene emissions at service stations and during the transporting by truck of gasoline to service stations – approximately 930 DALYs.

These co-benefits may be significant in assessing the desirability of biofuels, particularly for ethanol derived from corn, where the carbon benefits are unclear.  On the other hand, the increase in food prices resulting from corn ethanol could cause an equal or even larger number of deaths globally.  And on the “third hand,” the increased price of corn syrup could reduce sugar intake and resulting health problems in the U.S.  But these countervailing harms may not apply to cellulosic ethanol, increasing the case for some forms of biofuels.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Biofuels Could Be Good for Your Health (Especially If You Live in New York, Chicago, or L.A.)”

  1. Where is the science?

    Statements like this are absurd: “… health damages avoided in the U.S. with 10-percent less gasoline-run motor vehicle emissions …”

    The implication is that if all of the gasoline in the U.S. had 10% ethanol in it, the U.S. would use 10% less gasoline, thus reducing our dependence on foreign oil. But the result, 10% less gasoline usage, would never obtain from adding 10% ethanol to all gasoline.

    First ethanol has about 1/3 less energy than gasoline, so with 10% ethanol one would expect a drop on mileage of about 3 % for all cars fueled by E10. Thus, at best, we might expect that we were using 7% less gasoline. (The mileage loss increases if we go to E15 or E20.)

    But the reality is much more subtle. There has never been a statistically significant, independent study of mileage loss when E10 is introduced. Nobody has a clue what the fuel computers in modern fuel injected cars do when they see E10. It is clear from anecdotal evidence in Oregon, which is a mandatory E10 state, that the mileage loss is much higher than the physics would indicate, even as high as 30%. If a significant number of cars are getting a mileage loss of 10% or greater, then we aren’t using less gasoline, certainly not 10% less, but we may actually be using more gasoline than before the E10 program.

    Until independent scientific studies are done, and we understand what the software is doing in the ECUs of modern cars, any claim of a reduction of health damage and a reduction of our dependence on foreign oil is spurious.

  2. Stopethanol raises a reasonable question, did the study replace 10% of gasoline with an equivalent amount of ethanol or was the amount of ethanol in the replacement adjusted for its energy content?

    The Stanford study I cited indicated that increased ethanol use would lead to more ozone in certain populated areas and a slight increase, nationwide, in ozone-related mortality. That study focused on ozone (I believe), the study above seems to focus more on particulates.

    The author of the Stanford study, Mark Jacobson, said the important point was to question any significant investment into a biofuels (or other liquid fuel gasoline replacements) when the benefits to air quality are small or questionable. If we want cleaner air, we need to get away from combustion. Non-combustion engines are a lot, lot more efficient too.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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