Registering my irritation
My last post was something I submitted to the Des Moines Register that they didn't take. I've got another they didn't run which I may slap up here as well just to give it an airing - and if nothing else, to get it off my mind. Anyway, they did run an earlier op/ed from me, on July 9th. They published a reply to it in their Letters to the Editor by some ethanol industry suit. I wrote a reply which they've not published. So I'm pasting here my op/ed, the ethanol flack's response that the D'Register published, and my reply below that. Air quality will never improve if we wait on politicians to do it: Canada's wildfires obscure big issues
The air quality here in Des Moines recently hit the “very unhealthy” level, purple on the AirNow.gov monitoring site. This poor air quality is especially harmful for older people and medically vulnerable people, including many people who have had COVID-19. Because poorer health outcomes tend to worsen people's economic prospects, and because lower income people generally have poorer health outcomes, this bad air will especially harm lower income Iowans.
Anyone who follows the national news will know that other parts of the country have recently suffered smoke problems similar to ours here in Iowa. News reports on this dangerous air have been using the phrase “Canadian wildfires,” which misleads by being partially true. The phrase is like a magician waving a wand to influence where the audience’s attention is, and where it isn’t. A news media focused on informing the public would minimize use of the phrase. Of course, there are big fires in Canada right now, these are record-setting fires and we are still early in fire season. My point is that where the smoke blew here from doesn’t explain much that matters. What’s far more important is why there is so much smoke in the air. The reason why is planet-heating pollution, which we often call global climate change.
The connection between pollution and wildfires is not complicated: emissions lead to hotter, drier summers. Hotter, drier forests burn more easily. And so we have more fires. If emissions continue to increase, the planet will keep heating, and we will have more wildfires of this kind. They are not a Canadian problem, they are a global humanity problem, caused by pollution. Despite this, the Biden administration keeps approving new fossil fuel projects. These projects amount to pouring gas on the fire. They will cause more pollution and more heating of our planet.
Iowa-produced ethanol is a part of the problem as well. Despite the labels on the pump at gas stations, ethanol does not promote cleaner air. Ethanol turns corn into a source of air pollution, and there is a lot of corn in Iowa. Ethanol causes more ozone emission in particular. Ozone is more easily created in the summer, which is why for years sales of higher ethanol fuels were restricted in summer, but the Biden administration has walked back those regulations. The results are dirtier air and more planetary heating. It is no surprise that we have had an especially bad year for ozone emissions this year as well.
Anyone waiting for state or national politicians to act out of genuine, principled concern for our health will be waiting a long time. Wealthy companies and powerful politicians simply do not have the health and well-being of ordinary people as a high priority, whatever they might say. Historically, ordinary people have only ever been able to make our interests matter to the powerful through the pressure of large-scale protests.
We should all bear this in mind when in the near future we are once again asked to vote and donate to politicians competing for the job of telling us to be patient, of redirecting our attention with words like “Canadian wildfires,” and of getting us to start to think that the unhealthy muck we are forced to breathe is normal. It’s not normal, it’s an outrage. Unless a protest movement forces a very rapid reduction in carbon emissions, however, this will become normal, and many people will live shorter, more painful lives from spending more days breathing in unhealthy air.
Response of July 6 by Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy
Iowa-produced bioethanol is key to improving air quality
Improving our air quality, decarbonizing transportation, and protecting human health are core missions of Iowa's bioethanol industry. That's why it was disappointing to read Nate Holdren's July 9 essay in the Register incorrectly suggesting that "Iowa-produced ethanol is a part of the problem." Sound science tells a different story. In fact, biofuels, like plant-based bioethanol, can immediately lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce harmful air toxins.
The latest studies by the University of California-Riverside confirmed yet again that bioethanol blends reduce toxic emissions, including lowering ozone forming potential and significant reductions of harmful particulates that contribute to smog. At the same time, bioethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 46% compared with gasoline. As a result, transitioning to higher biofuel blends like E15, a 15% bioethanol blend, would reduce CO2 emissions by 17.62 million tons, equivalent to removing 3.85 million cars from the road.
Fortunately, the Biden administration, Gov. Kim Reynolds, and Iowa's congressional delegation recognize the importance of biofuels for cleaner air. If we want to make even greater progress on air quality, we need to make sure E15 is permanently available year-round.
My reply of August 1:
Emily Sklor, the CEO of Growth Energy, an association of ethanol manufacturers, wants ordinary Iowans to believe that increasing ethanol production relative to other burnable fuels will benefit the environment and human health. But that’s just false. In a July 16th letter to the Register, replying to my column of July 9th, Sklor points to a University of California-Riverside study on ethanol emissions. The study found that a vehicle with ethanol-added fuel in the tank has cleaner exhaust coming out of its tailpipe than a vehicle without such fuel. In pointing to this study Sklor is acting like a stage magician who waves a wand with their right hand and says ‘look at my wand!’ The magician is not lying, the wand is real, but they are misleading by misdirection, by controlling where the audience focuses their attention.
In general, powerful people and their servants want to control what questions ordinary people ask. In pointing to that research Sklor wants us to ask ‘how dirty is the exhaust from a car fueled with ethanol-added fuel vs other fuel?’ Instead we need to ask what is the total effect of ethanol production on the world. That means we have to consider not only what comes out of an individual car’s muffler, but also what happens in farming when more corn is grown for fuel instead of food, and in the industrial and chemical processes required to turn corn into gas.
As the great Upton Sinclair once said, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it, so Sklor won’t be convinced. Register readers should know, though, that a study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that increased ethanol production led to greater emission of greenhouse gases due to land use changes. The study’s authors’ concluded that increasing ethanol production is not better than continuing with regular gasoline use and is probably significantly worse. The study also found that ethanol production raises food prices, because more corn is sold to make fuel, and leads to worse water quality due to increased use of chemicals in agriculture. Those are more reasons why ordinary Iowans are worse off due to the efforts of the industry Sklor serves, in addition to the air quality problems I talked about in my column.
When someone tries to control what questions we ask, it helps to look at who supports their efforts and whose efforts they support. Whatever political party one prefers, no one in their right mind thinks Governor Reynolds is an environmentalist, and neither is President Biden. The ethanol industry is bringing in about five billion dollars a year in Iowa. In general, if there are billions of dollars being made, the people in charge are doing it for the money, not because it helps regular people. Those of us who aren’t billionaires, friends of billionaires, or well-paid servants of billionaires need to remember that they don’t have the same interests we do.
We are in the middle of a rapidly worsening global climate disaster. Politicians, the wealthy, and the people they pay handsomely to distract us aren’t particularly worried about the climate because they know that disasters mostly hurt ordinary people, not the powerful. We need to reduce carbon emissions very rapidly in a very short period of time to prevent a huge increase in suffering. Ethanol isn’t a tool for that reduction, it’s a part of the problem.