Motor vehicles are responsible for about half the air pollution generated in the United States.
U.S. air quality is much better than it used to be, thanks in large part to power plants shifting from coal to cleaner natural gas. Regulations have made vehicles more fuel-efficient as well, and thousands of people have switched to plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles. Together, these have helped bring down pollution levels, even as the number of total vehicle miles has approximately doubled since 1970.
And yet still too many people live in areas where the air is dangerously dirty: According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2016 report, more than half of all Americans — 166 million people — live in places where they are exposed to unhealthy levels of particulate matter and ozone.
Tailpipe emissions contain a variety of toxic substances , among them:
- Hydrocarbons. These include benzene, which is also found in cigarettes, and which can cause leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers.
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx). They react with hydrocarbons to form ground-level ozone, a major component of smog, which stings the eyes and can damage the lungs.
- Carbon monoxide (CO). This gas is created when there’s not enough oxygen to thoroughly burn the gasoline in an engine. In high enough concentrations, it’s poisonous.
- Particulate matter. Fine particles that are produced from combustion of a variety of fuels, including diesel fuel, wood and coal. Given their small size, they can lodge in the lungs, elevating the risk of respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease.
Air pollution causes a wide range of health problems, including asthma, cancer and heart attacks and strokes. Young children and the elderly are especially vulnerable, and pollution tends to be worse in urban areas.
A 2011 study at the University of Southern California, which has studied the effects of freeway pollution for years, showed that pollution in heavy traffic caused inflammation in the brains of mice that was similar to the effects of Alzheimer’s. A 2014 Harvard study said that women who were exposed to high levels of particulate matter during their pregnancies, especially during the third trimester, had twice the risk of having a child diagnosed with autism compared with women in areas with low levels of pollution.
FUEL FREEDOM AS ONE OF THE SOLUTIONS
More fuel-efficient cars are rolling off the assembly lines, but ask yourself: When’s the next time you’ll be able to buy a new car? Fuel Freedom’s goal is to give Americans a choice of cheaper alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol that can be used in the vehicles they already drive.
Creating wider access to replacement fuels will displace a portion of the gasoline we burn, resulting in fewer toxic compounds being sent into the air.
One of the most devastating effects of our oil addiction is the high number of oil spills that pollute our oceans, rivers and other waterways.
Regardless of where spills occur along the supply chain — at well sites, storage facilities, pipelines, or when it’s transported by ship or rail — these disasters exact a devastating toll on wildlife and the environment, as well as human lives and livelihoods.
In 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers. Oil gushed from the seafloor well for 87 days, spilling more than 200 million gallons. The disaster dwarfed the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident, when the oil tanker ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Another issue is the epidemic of derailments of trains carrying crude. The surge in U.S. oil production, mostly in shale-rock plays in North Dakota and texas, brought a 4,000 percent increase in the number of shipments of oil by rail between 2008 and 2014. The predominant tanker is the DOT-111, a rail car designed in the 1960s that has leaked in several derailments. Critics have called it the “Ford Pinto of rail cars.” Worsening the problem, the U.S. transportation secretary has said that Bakken oil seems to be more volatile than other types of crude. The oil industry and its proponents dispute this claim.
Among the more high-profile recent accidents:
- On July 6, 2013, a trainload of oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale play went out of control and crashed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, in Quebec. Oil tankers ignited, and an inferno engulfed the downtown, killing 47 people. The scars in the town remain.
- In January 2014, McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers published an investigation, citing federal data that showed 1.15 million gallons of crude had spilled in U.S. rail accidents in 2013. In the previous 38 years from 1975 through 2012, a total of “only” 800,000 gallons were spilled. In 2014, another 57,000 gallons were spilled from a record 141 “unintentional releases.”
- On May 19, 2015, a pipeline owned by a Texas company ruptured, spilling more than 100,000 gallons of crude near Santa Barbara, along the Southern California coast. Tar balls from the spill were discovered up to 100 miles away. The metal in the pipe was found to be badly corroded.
Smaller spills don’t grab the headlines of the major disasters, but they can still be a threat to health and wildlife. As The Denver Post reported in mid-July 2014, there had been nearly 2,500 oil and gas spills in Colorado since January 2010, with almost 21 percent contaminating either surface waterways or groundwater. Some of those spills contained benzene, a component of crude, which is known to cause cancer.
FUEL FREEDOM AS ONE OF THE SOLUTIONS
Extracting oil from the ground is dirty, dangerous work. Transporting product from oil fields to storage sites and refineries, across thousands of miles of an aging rail system, can be equally perilous. Often communities have no idea when a flammable cargo is rolling through town, and even when there is a spill, residents sometimes aren’t told right away there’s a danger. In May 2015 the federal government proposed new rules to improve the safety of oil trains, but the rail and oil industries objected to some provisions, owing to the high costs.
The best way to reduce the risk of a catastrophic accident is to reduce oil consumption in the United States. And the fastest way to do that, with our existing fuel distribution network and existing fleet of vehicles, is to allow alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol to compete with gasoline at the pump. Ethanol, for instance, is much less volatile than crude, and dissipates quickly if it’s spilled in rivers or streams, minimizing the risk to wildlife compared with crude spills.
Transportation accounts for about one-fifth of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced worldwide. In the United States, the proportion is even higher: As power plants increasingly switch to cleaner sources like wind, solar and natural gas, emissions from that sector have fallen sharply, while GHGs (mostly carbon dioxide) from vehicles have dropped more slowly. Transportation has overtaken power generation as the leading source of emissions in the U.S., about one-third.
We can’t address the GHG problem without finding ways to curb emissions from all those cars, trucks and SUVs.
CO2 and other greenhouse gases trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere, elevating global temperatures. On Jan. 18, 2017, two government science agencies — NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — jointly announced that 2016 was the warmest year for the planet since record-keeping began in 1880. The heat record has fallen three straight years now.
The average temperature on the world’s land and ocean surfaces was 58.69 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.69 degrees above the 20th century average, NOAA said. Sixteen of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, NASA said.
“2016 is a wake-up call in many ways,” said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona. “Climate change is real, it is caused by humans, and it is serious.”
FUEL FREEDOM AS ONE OF THE SOLUTIONS
Our complete dependence on oil as a transportation fuel limits our ability to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere without severely damaging the economy and our quality of life.
But if we created a truly competitive marketplace in which consumers could choose between gasoline and cheaper, cleaner-burning alternatives like ethanol, methanol, and natural gas, we could quickly replace millions of gallons of gasoline. Since the average American car emits 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, the environmental benefits of alternative fuels would add up quickly if those fuels were easily accessible.
In this case, what’s good for the economy would also be good for the planet.