Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New Study Says Ethanol Literally Kills People

In my reporting, I'm often confronted with dubious, incomplete and potentially inaccurate information. I have to decide what's verifiable and logically sound enough to include in a story. It's usually not that hard, but sometimes the value judgments about how to describe something can be tricky. That having been said, I don't think this study is one of those pieces of information. Hopefully sooner or later the ethanol craze will die and we'll move on to more practical solutions.
WASHINGTON - Switching from gasoline to ethanol — touted as a green alternative at the pump — may create dirtier air, causing slightly more smog-related deaths, a new study says.

Nearly 200 more people would die yearly from respiratory problems if all vehicles in the United States ran on a mostly ethanol fuel blend by 2020, the research concludes. Of course, the study author acknowledges that such a quick and monumental shift to plant-based fuels is next to impossible.

Each year, about 4,700 people, according to the study's author, die from respiratory problems from ozone, the unseen component of smog along with small particles. Ethanol would raise ozone levels, particularly in certain regions of the country, including the Northeast and Los Angeles.

"It's not green in terms of air pollution," said study author Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor. "If you want to use ethanol, fine, but don't do it based on health grounds. It's no better than gasoline, apparently slightly worse."
If 200 a year doesn't sound like a lot, just stretch it out over a decade, and then over a person's lifetime, and then over centuries. It adds up quickly. "Deaths averted per year" is actually how the EPA measures the benefits of its regulations, as in, "Setting such-and-such a limit on the amount of mercury allowed from smokestacks saved X lives last year." It's usually in hundreds, not hundreds of thousands. It's very hard to measure with pinpoint accuracy, but this sort of study gibes with a lot of others I've written about. There's a huge debate going on right now at the EPA about whether ozone actually kills people, and if it does how to regulate it, but that's another story.

As a final thought, I'd just like to point out that turning the vast majority of the country into a cornfield will not only be an obscenely profitable boon to big agribusiness, it will take away land needed for other crops. Furthermore, corn demands a lot of nutrients to grow. No one has ever actually studied the economic implications of this.


Blogger nolo said...

Thanks for the informative post!!

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This study is a piece of crump. First of all, this represents a 4.2% increase in the number of ozone-related fatalities. This is probably within the margin of error of a credible study, given the poorly-understood physiological effects of ozone and the complexities of global air flow. So let’s not put too much stock in the “nested global-through-urban air pollution/weather forecast model” cooked up by this Jacobson nut.
Second of all, 200 people isn't a lot, no matter how much you want to stretch it out. Roughly 100 people are killed in this country each year by lightning. Boo-hoo. Just put up a billboard reminding people to burn ethanol instead of drink it, and you’ll save 200 lives.
Thirdly, the ozone produced during ethanol combustion is not an inherent chemical property of the ethanol itself, but depends on the specific properties of the associated combustion engine. Obviously, a national switch to ethanol fuel would be accompanied by significant improvements in the efficiency of ethanol engines. Gasoline engines have been perfected over 100 years, ethanol deserves some chance to catch up.
On your final points, though, I agree with you. An ethanol economy would be “obscenely profitable boon to big agribusiness.” Although you seem to think this would be inherently a bad thing? Have you considered that the money would otherwise be going to big oil? Surely big oil trumps big agribusiness on the list of lefty boogeymen. I also take some issue with your concern that ethanol-production will “take away land needed for other crops.” Which crops? Sorghum? Alfalfa? The economics of land-use allocation are complicated and not zero-sum. You shouldn’t assert without evidence that more ethanol for the world’s engines means fewer potatoes for the world’s hungry. Corn, for example, can be grown in places where few other crops are successful.
Which brings me to corn. You correctly state that “corn demands a lot of nutrients to grow.” Corn is a terrible crop, requiring unsustainable levels of fertilizer, irrigation and pesticides. This is environmentally bad and economically bad. It is only produced in such vast quantities today because of bloated agricultural subsidies which the ethanol boom promises to make more bloated. But there is no law of nature that says that ethanol must be made from corn. With a bit of clever biochemistry, it might be made from much more abundant, gentle crops, such as switchgrass. Cutting-edge research, such as mine for example, may soon make this possible.
So I say, let the ethanol fever burn. In the short term, time and money will be wasted coddling the corn lobby. But in the long term, the engines of the world will be primed for the day when biotechnology can coax ethanol more effortlessly from the earth.

6:40 PM  

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