In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments and directed the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce the dangerous chemical additives in gasoline.  Today, 24 years later, this law has yet to be enforced in any meaningful way.  Aromatics, the poisonous chemicals that oil refiners add to all gasoline, remain a significant component of the fuels we use. This is unacceptable.

In the next few weeks, the White House will release EPA’s final rule for the biofuels blending requirements for 2014.  In addition to increasing the level of biofuels that must be blended into gasoline, the Obama administration also has the opportunity to order EPA to reduce the harmful aromatics in gasoline.

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In the decades since Congress first directed EPA to reduce the level of aromatics in gasoline, abundant, low-cost alternatives to these toxic additives have become available.  Replacing toxic aromatic gasoline additives with inexpensive, renewable alternatives would benefit the economy, environment, public health, national security, and even the auto industry.  But it would not benefit oil companies.

Petroleum refiners produce aromatics from crude oil.  Aromatics are the most toxic, energy inefficient, and expensive gasoline component, and on average, make up 25 percent of each gallon of gasoline we use.  While gasoline costs have recently come down, aromatics costs keep prices higher than they need to be.

In 1990, Congress directed the EPA to substantially reduce the use of aromatics in gasoline because of their proven health risks.  After 24 years, aromatics levels in gasoline have remained relatively consistent, and we now know the impact of these compounds is even more deadly than originally thought.  EPA’s options in the 1990s were limited and cost-effective substitutes did not exist.  Today, many options exist, including high-octane biofuels.  Now there is an available replacement, and its time for the Administration to follow the law and give Americans the benefit of sustained, lower gasoline prices by replacing aromatics with biofuels.

Entrenched interests will fight to deny alternative fuels the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.  Recently, the oil industry’s well-funded misinformation campaign has sought to reduce the use of high octane, clean burning biofuels.  Substituting biofuels’ clean octane for aromatics’ dirty octane would yield at least two major benefits.

The first benefit would be lower-cost gasoline.  A 2008 U.S. Department of Energy analysis found that the use of high-octane biofuels saved the U.S. $22 billion in imported gasoline costs, and motorists approximately $.51 per gallon from 2005 to 2007.  When refiners manufacture aromatics, they lose a substantial amount of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel output in the process.  Since aromatics typically cost a dollar or more than biofuels, substituting more biofuels for aromatics would save consumers billions of dollars each year.

The second benefit would be reduced pollution and better health.  Aromatics are not only energy inefficient and costly, they pollute the environment and substantially increase health costs.  As a friend of the court in a challenge to EPA’s rules, the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition recently pointed out that aromatics are the primary source of carcinogenic air toxics like benzene as well as fine and ultrafine particulates in urban areas.  Recent studies confirm that aromatics-generated air toxics are major causes of asthma and other respiratory, cardiovascular, and brain diseases, in addition to a wide range of cancers.  The human health risks, and the associated costs, are so high because the majority of Americans live near congested roadways, or spend time commuting in their cars, and we are unable to escape these invisible and lethal particles.

America’s biofuels industry is a remarkable achievement.  Unlike the oil industry, which after 100 years still retains its subsidies, the U.S. biofuels industry stands on its own, without tax incentives or putting at risk the lives of Americans to protect foreign oil supplies.  A wave of hi-tech, advanced biofuel production has just begun and will do even more to save consumers money, reduce air pollution, create quality jobs, and grow the economy.

The White House should not only reject EPA’s lower biofuels requirements, but should also order EPA to obey Congress’s long-neglected directive to reduce the toxic compounds in gasoline.  By replacing aromatics with cleaner alternatives, the nation will be on the right path to cleaner burning, less costly fuel.  Any other approach is the wrong policy for America.

Pearce is executive director of the Governors' Biofuels Coalition, a group of governors who believe that biofuels play a vital and strategic role in the nation’s and their states’ energy future.