New Gasoline May Force Blacks to Run on Empty, by Syd Gernstein

Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

There has never been a worse time for the government to push policies that would raise gasoline prices, especially since they’ve risen almost 45% over the past year. But this is exactly what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is doing with reformulated gasoline (RFG).

RFG was implemented as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. It is blended to burn more completely and evaporate less than conventional gasoline, thus creating less air pollution. But, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), two of the five factors now contributing to high gas prices directly relate to EPA-mandated RFG.

Some say higher prices at the pump are a small sacrifice to help the environment. But RFG provides no environmental benefits and is a health hazard. Poor and minority communities are the hardest hit because residents are digging deeper into their wallets than other citizens to pay for gasoline they need for work and other necessary tasks.

In 1994, President Clinton issued an “environmental justice” executive order charging the government with stopping private businesses from taking advantage of the poor and minorities. There is, however, no check on the government’s ability to pass rules and regulations with unfair negative effects on these same communities. In this particular case, if the EPA truly cared about environmental justice, it would remove the unnecessary budgetary and environmental burdens that RFG inflicts on poor and minority Americans.

RFG contains oxygenates meant to increase the combustion efficiency of gasoline and reduce carbon monoxide (CO) emissions. A 1999 report conducted on RFG by the National Academy of Sciences concluded, however, that the “commonly available ethanol and MTBE blends do little to reduce smog.” The study credited air quality improvements to things like the new emissions control equipment in today’s cars, not RFG.

Concerning health risks, scientists have linked the RFG additive MTBE to cancer, reproductive and developmental ailments, asthma, problems of the central nervous system and liver, damage to the tissues of the heart and more. While air pollution is blamed for increased asthma cases in the inner city, the EPA remains silent on the link between MTBE and this debilitating respiratory condition – creating a double-standard in the EPA’s environmental justice agenda. Furthermore, the EPA identifies MTBE as a Group C carcinogen.

MTBE is water soluble and doesn’t break down easily – travelling faster and further under ground than any other gasoline component. A study by the United States Geological Survey and the Oregon Graduate Institute found that as many as 9,000 community water wells in 31 states may already be affected by MTBE contamination from leaking underground storage tanks. In the inner city, MTBE spillage at gas stations could poison the ground in nearby neighborhoods.

Ethanol is no better. According to the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, ethanol increases emissions of acetaldehyde – a probable human carcinogen – by about 70%. In addition, the complex nature of ethanol makes trucking the only real means to transport it – creating increased traffic and exhaust. It would also require the construction of new storage tanks and production facilities.

The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration estimates increased costs will force consumers to pay $5 billion more for gas in 2005 than they do today.

There are other, more general problems with the EPA’s RFG program. The CRS estimates that the environmental regulations imposed by RFG drove the price of gasoline up 25 cents a gallon in the Midwest this past summer. Also, a court decision in March found the Unocal Corporation owns a patent on the most efficient method of making RFG. This forces refiners to either use a less efficient method or pay royalties to Unocal. Either way, consumers will suffer.

As gas prices rise, consumers in poor and minority communities will be the hardest hit. People in these areas earn less per household than the national average, and must pay a substantially larger portion of their budgets to operate their cars and trucks. For small businessmen or people with long commutes or family obligations, increased gas prices could mean difficult and life-altering decisions.

The EPA is beyond its boundaries with its RFG mandates. Even if RFG worked, the EPA should only set the environmental goals for gasoline to meet, not the specific methods and tools refiners must use to meet them. By allowing more freedom, refiners are more likely to seek out the most efficient means at the lowest prices.

Increased costs, health risks and economic devastation are not the products of a logical government policy. Nor is it fair when the policy falls hardest on the shoulders of poor and minority citizens who can least afford it and live in areas most likely to feel the negative environmental effects of implementing the EPA’s RFG policies. The government clearly needs to rethink its environmental justice policy.


(Syd Gernstein is a research associate for the African-American leadership network Project 21. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.