SCAG Rejects Ethanol Funds

By Published On: February 12, 2010

A major regional council of governments last week rejected $11 million in federal stimulus and state grant money to install 55 new ethanol fueling pumps in California--mostly in the southern part of the state. The move is a blow against a nascent infrastructure for biofuels as an alternative to fossil-based vehicle fuels. In order to switch vehicle users to alternative fuels, the state has endorsed an alternative pumping system to allow access to those fuels. The infrastructure has not caught on and this move continues to dampen the availability of alternative fuels to consumers. While the fuel’s potential benefit to air quality was touted, other environmental impacts and the land-use sustainability aspects of corn-based ethanol led the Southern California Association of Governments to vote 29-to-19 to reject the grants funds. That included $6.9 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and $4 million from the California Energy Commission. The pumps were to provide motorists with so-called E-85--a fuel that consists of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. An association of governments staff analysis said installing and operating the pumps would have created 221 jobs. However, the council was not persuaded. The action came after representatives of the regional smog control agency cited air quality benefits from burning corn-based ethanol. “We strongly believe there are benefits to the air pollution problem we have in California,” said Henry Hogo, assistant deputy executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The district was seeking to become a partner with the association in managing the money. SCAQMD clean fuels officer Paul Wuebben urged the association to approve the deal because the pumps would provide infrastructure needed to market advanced biofuels in the future, like cellulosic ethanol. “Without this infrastructure, you don’t enable second and third generation biofuels,” said Wuebben. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency February 3 issued a final renewable fuel standard to require the transportation fuels industry to market 36 billion gallons of ethanol, biodiesel, and other biofuels by 2022. Under the standard, the fuels industry is supposed to cap conventional corn-based ethanol and ramp up the use of cellulosic and advanced biofuels in the years ahead. EPA found that today’s corn-based ethanol, when made with power from the cleanest natural gas power plants, cuts carbon dioxide emissions by 21 percent compared to gasoline. Advanced biofuels will further cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to the federal agency. EPA differed with the SCAQMD on the impacts of burning more ethanol on air quality. The federal agency found that ethanol would increase emissions of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and other smog-forming pollutants. The California Air Resources Board also has found that ethanol increases smog-forming emissions. In testimony urging the association to turn away the grant money, former council of governments member Debbie Cook noted “a disconnect” between the SCAQMD and the other agencies. SCAQMD spokesperson Sam Atwood said his agency maintains that when ethanol is burned as E-85, compared to the current lower blends of 10 or 15 percent mixed with gasoline, it reduces nitrogen oxides and benzene, a toxic air pollutant, as much as 30 and 85 percent respectively.

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