The workshop’s final session was devoted to government agency perspectives on biofuels and human health. The four panel members represented four different U.S. government agencies: the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The panel presentations were followed by an open discussion.
The first speaker was John Balbus, physician and a senior advisor to the director of the NIEHS on public health issues. He also is the leader for the NIEHS efforts on climate change and human health.
NIEHS is 1 of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “We are unique in many ways within the NIH,” Balbus said, “not just because we are in North Carolina and everybody else is in Maryland, but also because we don’t focus on one organ system or one set of diseases or one population. Environmental health is very broad, and our portfolio reflects the breadth of it, ranging from toxicological investigations at the molecular level to community epidemiology and over a large number of different kinds of health impacts.”
Thus, the main contribution that the NIEHS can make to the biofuels discussion, Balbus said, is to provide basic scientific results that can be used to inform health impact assessments (HIAs) and sustainability assessments. “Our core mission is research.”
The NIEHS budget is approximately $800 million, of which about 40 percent goes to funding investigator-initiated research and centers research in institutions outside of the NIEHS. Another third of the budget goes to funding the NIEHS’s intramural labs, which focus on a variety of molecular toxicological questions as well as some substantial epidemiology studies.
Within those areas of research, Balbus said, the institute has a long history of air pollution research. “We have funded many of the fundamental air pollution studies that inform current risk assessment models,” he said. “We continue to look at an ever-widening range of health impacts, so that is a core area which has been our strength and will, I think, continue to be an area where we will contribute.”
By contrast, the NIEHS is relatively new to research on climate change impacts. During the past 3 years, it has been leading the development of a pilot funding program at NIH that aims to build a community of health researchers focused on the impacts of climate change. “One of the things that is important about our climate change impact research program,” Balbus said, “is that not only does it focus on what happens from changes in weather, precipitation, and climate, but it also explicitly includes the health implications of measures taken to either mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gases or to adapt to climate change impacts.” For example, the program examines how measures such as changes in types of fuel or changes in housing impact health.
Out of the 14 or so grants that are now being funded in the NIEHS climate change program, two are looking at the implications of climate change policies. One is examining the health implications of air conditioning use and, in particular, of increasing air conditioning use in the Midwest, while the other is looking at changes in housing insulation and housing stock and what those changes imply for the rates of heat stress and heat mortality.
Another NIEHS program that may be of interest to those assessing biofuels-related impacts is the National Toxicology Program (NTP). That program’s mission, Balbus said, is to support the EPA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other agencies by carrying out gold-standard toxicological investigations, developing of new methods, and other projects. A new research project there is focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. It is important to know the properties of these cancer-causing chemicals for use in analyses of various petrochemical issues, but knowledge about them could also inform analyses of biofuels-related issues. The NTP accepts nominations for toxicologic analysis of substances
from the general public as well as from federal colleagues. “This is the kind of thing that the National Toxicology Program could be taking on—looking at specific components of any aspect of biofuels, whether it is additives to enhance their performance in engines, or emissions themselves,” he said.
Finally, Balbus noted that although much of the NIEHS budget is devoted to supporting fundamental research, it also has a research translation mission. “The support of this roundtable is one of the manifestations of this,” he said. “We believe that the best science and the best decisions are made when we bring our science to forums like this to inform those who are making those decisions.”
The NIEHS also considers its research translation mission to have a global component. As part of its global environmental health program, it is supporting an “innovation collaborative” focused on sustainable development. The goal is to study the decisions that are made around the world concerning energy policy, agricultural policy, and economic development and examine how environmental health plays a role in those decisions—or sometimes does not play the role that it should. The ultimate goal is to learn how to “create the frameworks, the basic science, the indicators and metrics, and the surveillance and evaluation programs that can allow sustainable development decisions to be properly informed by environmental health science.”
The next panelist was Christopher J. Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH), which is part of the CDC, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). He began by talking about the things he had learned from the workshop. Replacing petroleum-based fuels with biofuels is likely to produce a spectrum of pollutants that is less damaging, although it is not completely clear yet. Biofuels production can provide economic support to rural communities. “It potentially contributes to national security, although I have my doubts after some of our discussions yesterday.”
A variety of biofuels-related issues are likely to have implications for health, both good and bad, he continued. Biofuels effects on food and water security and on the depletion of agricultural resources all have the potential to affect health.
“I found some things confusing,” Portier said. “Is it or is it not efficient to create ethanol from corn? That is a fundamental question for us. If it takes 1 unit of energy to produce 1.01 units of energy, then why are we doing this? Yet, that fundamental question has not really been brought to the forefront, and a complete answer given.” This is not just a question about economics, he said; it is also a question that concerns health. If producing biofuels is not energy-efficient, “then the energy that is spent to make the biofuel itself is a pollution source that will be contributing to health concerns.”
With that introduction, he described NCEH and ATSDR. It is a classic CDC center, he said, or, literally, linked center and agency. Its combined mission is to protect people and save lives by preventing harmful exposures to things in the environment. The center/agency has a number of programs that touch on the biofuels issue, he said, but biofuels are not a major focus of their programs. The center/agency does have a climate and health program, and the staff there is aware of what is going on in biofuels, but, again, biofuels is not a large focus of their efforts.
One of the efforts that has examined biofuels is the asthma control program. It has studied whether the exhaust from biofuel-powered vehicles triggers asthma to the same extent as exhaust from gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. “They are still looking at that issue,” Portier said.
There is also an environmental public health laboratory at NCEH. One of its missions is to perform bio-monitoring on the U.S. population, looking for chemicals in blood, urine, and other bodily fluids of individuals, and trying to determine if there are any national trends in the distribution of those compounds. Some of the studies carried out by that laboratory are relevant to biofuels, Portier said. For example, the lab keeps track of aldehydes and “a dozen other things” that are relevant to biofuels. He said he did not know if there is anything in place that is looking at whether exposures to biofuels in the United States are increasing. “It is something we will look into and think about,” he said.
Describing himself as a “systems person,” Portier said, “When I think of environmental exposures, I think in terms of systems interacting with systems. For example, human beings don’t just exist by themselves. They exist within an international network of our environment.”
Human bodies also contain networks, he noted. “These networks interact within our bodies, our bodies interact with the outside world. When you tweak that complex outside environment in which we live, the consequences for health are extraordinarily complicated.” Thus, Portier
said, “when you think about energy policy in the United States, and its implications for health, it gets very complicated.”
To illustrate that complexity, he showed a diagram of the various ways in which energy usage may affect human health (see Figure 10-1). “When I start thinking about biofuels and what the net impact might be, this picture is pretty good for playing that question,” he said.
For example, the diagram indicates that a move to biofuels will lead to changes in air pollution. “We are not actually certain what they are,” Portier noted. “Changes in air pollution can be detrimental or beneficial to health, depending on which way they go. I think that is an area we have to carefully examine.”
Climate change is something else that could be affected by biofuels use. The effects are not just environmental, he noted. Climate change has many different types of implications for human health.
Using biofuels can also alter ecological systems, as when grasslands are turned into croplands and used for growing corn. The ecosystem effects in turn affect human health in various ways. “We have to be able to understand that, as well,” Portier said.
One issue that is not often mentioned in discussions about the impacts of biofuels is an evaluation of what social systems are affected. “You go into a small community, you put a large factory into it, and you bring in a lot of outside workers, and a number of things happen to health,” Portier said. “Sexually transmitted disease levels go up, the cost of housing goes up, and mental health issues go up in those communities. We have seen it over and over again. Those types of boom-and-bust situations have major impacts on human health.”
Thus, when one carries out an HIA looking at, say, using biofuels at the current level versus not using them, these are the sorts of issues that must be taken into account in order to get a complete and accurate picture on how biofuels affect health.
The next panelist was Daniel Cassidy from the USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist and the senior advisor for renewable energy and natural resources. He offered the USDA’s perspective on biofuels.
He began by explaining the USDA’s focus concerning biofuels, which is the development of regional sustainable biofuels systems. “We look at everything from developing the plant, all the way through to the
FIGURE 10-1 Direct and indirect routes by which energy sources may affect human health.
NOTE: CO2 = carbon dioxide, NOX = nitrogen oxide, PM = particulate matter, SOx = sulfur oxide.
SOURCE: Gohlke et al., 2008.
distribution … the logistics, the storage, and the conversion technologies.” The USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist also interacts with partners at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Cassidy said. “We want to make sure that the feedstocks we are developing are matching the conversion technologies that they are developing.” He also spends a great deal of time working on reviews for the EPA—reviews on fuel pathway and feedstock decisions, for example.
Given that focus, he said, he was not really sure why he had been invited to take part in the workshop. He had wondered, “What does that have to do with health?” But after hearing the first day’s presentations, Cassidy said, he had revisited the vision statement for the Office of the
Chief Scientist. It is built on six pillars: energy and natural resources; food safety, nutrition, and food security; plant health; animal health; agricultural systems and technology; and agricultural economics in rural communities.
“Now, all of the presentations that I have seen over the past 2 days touch on every single one of those six pillars,” Cassidy said. “I now understand the [way in which] USDA needs to be more active with this group.”
His office’s major focus is on research and development, both basic and applied, he said. And there are a number of those program that would be applicable to the issue of biofuels and health.
For example, the office conducts genetics and genomics research concerning the production of plants in which the goal is to lower the amounts of fertilizer—particularly the nitrogen and phosphorus—that make their way into waterways. There is also research aimed at developing plants that use less water so that there is less need for irrigation and more clean water left for other uses. A related program is studying water reuse as a way of using existing water supplies more efficiently. The office has joint programs with the U.S. Forest Service looking for ways to make the harvesting of wood—a potential feedstock for biofuels—safer. And the coordinated agricultural projects funded by his office have a health and safety aspect to them, mainly involving equipment safety. “After what I have heard this week,” Cassidy said, “I think we need to expand that health area.”
His office also has a program involved with assessment. The Natural Resources Conservation Service runs a program called the Conservation Effects Assessment Program, a multidisciplinary, multi-institution effort to examine the environmental effects over time of putting best management practices in place. For example, in trying to help farmers and ranchers do their work in a more sustainable way, are they really having an impact on the land?
Cassidy said he is seeing a large increase in multidisciplinary collaborations and consortia. “I thought at first that agriculture and engineering would never meet because we were always in separate buildings.” But now, he said, it seems as though every grant application his office gets includes both an agricultural and an engineering component to it. “We need to expand that,” he continued. “We need to include more social scientists, and we need to include more scientists [looking at] the medical aspects of our biofuels programs. I highly encourage that. I think those applications would rise to the top.”
Finally, Cassidy mentioned the education efforts that his office funds. A memorandum of understanding was recently signed between the USDA, DOE, and the State Extension Partnership. The goal of the memorandum was to increase energy efficiency but also to increase energy literacy.
He mentioned that his 5-year-old daughter has little understanding of where food comes from. She always just thought of milk as coming from the grocery store. But he recently took her to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where Mississippi State University had set up a robotic cow and held demonstrations on how to milk a cow. Now his daughter understands where milk comes from.
The story offers a lesson for the importance of energy literacy as well, he said. “I think it would go a long ways if we could explain to our leaders, our community leaders, and our families where energy actually comes from and how it impacts us.”
The panel’s final speaker was Karl Simon, director of the Transportation and Climate Division of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the EPA. He offered an overview of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program and related issues at the EPA.
As had been noted by other speakers, RFS was established in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and is implemented by the EPA. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required changes to the program, producing what is known as RFS2. One of the important features of the 2007 act, Simon said, is that it required the EPA to do life-cycle assessment. According to the act, the life-cycle assessment for each renewable fuel category must look at “direct emissions and significant indirect emissions, such as significant emissions from land-use changes.” That is a fairly broad statement, Simon noted, and it “has been the subject of an awful lot of thinking by the agency and … also a number of people that have been helping us interpret and implement that provision.”
The RFS2 consists of four separate standards: biomass-based diesel (1 billion gallons by 2012 and beyond), cellulosic biofuel (16 billion gallons by 2022), advanced biofuel (total of 21 billion gallons by 2022, including cellulosic biofuel), and total renewable biofuel (36 billion gallons by 2022). It is worth noting that the numbers for cellulosic
biofuel can be adjusted every year, and it has been done the past couple of years. “If we actually adjust those volumes,” Simon said, “we have the opportunity—but we don’t have to—to adjust both total and advanced biofuel numbers, as well.”
Another point is that there is a grandfathering provision: Biofuels facilities in existence or that have commenced construction prior to December 19, 2007 (domestic and foreign), are not required to meet the greenhouse gases threshold for the general renewable fuel category. This applies primarily to corn-based ethanol, and in practice it means that there are somewhere between 14 and 17 billion gallons of corn ethanol production, depending on who is counting, that do not need to meet any of the life-cycle requirements from the act.
In putting together the final rule, the EPA carried out an impact analysis of the program, assuming the standards would be met by 2022. According to that analysis, RFS2 is projected to result in about 7 percent of the expected annual gasoline and diesel consumption in 2022 being replaced by biofuels, with a resulting decrease of $41.5 billion in oil imports. A much smaller amount of other fuels are also projected to be replaced by biofuels, including jet fuel, home heating oil, and locomotive fuel.
According to the EPA’s life-cycle estimates, once the program is fully implemented in 2022, the use of renewable fuels is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 138 million metric tons—equivalent to the annual emissions of 27 million passenger vehicles. Net farm income is expected to increase by $13 billion by 2022. The effects of the use of biofuels on emissions and air quality will vary both by region and type of pollutant, with some emissions expected to increase and some expected to decrease.
Simon then described the life-cycle modeling approach that the EPA used to produce its estimates. It modeled the U.S. agricultural sector, the international agricultural sector, biofuels processing in both the domestic and international agricultural sectors, and land-use change. The processing model, for instance, examines such things as how fuel gets processed and the impacts associated with processing it. Because different sources can be used to provide energy to make the biofuels, that must be taken into account—electricity from the grid has different impacts than electricity generated from, say, captured biogas.
The life-cycle assessments were conducted in close coordination with the USDA and DOE. The EPA worked with stakeholders and experts to determine the most up-to-date data for use in the modeling,
Simon said, and it conducts regular technical exchange with organizations pursuing similar analyses.
The proposed rule was subjected to public review, with a 120-day public comment period and a 2-day workshop for stakeholders to detail the methodology of the proposed life-cycle assessments.
In addition, the proposed rule went through an independent peer review which focused on four areas of the life-cycle assessment that covered new ground: land-use modeling, methods to account for the variable timing of greenhouse gas emissions, greenhouse gas emissions from foreign crop production, and how the models the EPA relied on were used together to provide overall life-cycle estimates.
Based on the life-cycle assessment, the EPA developed a list of qualifying biofuels pathways—that is, ways to produce biofuels that meet the standards. For example, ethanol produced from corn starch at a new facility powered by natural gas, biomass, or biogas and using advanced efficient technologies meets the 20 percent threshold; coal-fired facilities are not eligible. Biodiesel produced from soy, canola, wastes, or algae meets the 50 percent threshold.
The EPA is carrying out ongoing life-cycle assessments. “One of the many things we have learned as we have gone through this program,” Simon said, “is never underestimate the ingenuity of the American or international business community in terms of trying to find ways to make fuels out of anything. It has been nothing short of amazing, and sometimes, you have to scratch your head at the questions that we get from people that are bringing various feedstocks in, and saying can they make a renewable fuel out of it.” So, the RFS program provides a petition process through which parties can request that the EPA analyze new fuel pathways and provide a compliance determination.
Simon then briefly discussed the air quality assessment that the EPA carried out that looked at the impact of using 36 billion gallons of biofuels in 2022, relative to the RFS1 requirements, which called for 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol. In the assessment, the EPA assumed that 34 billion of the 36 billion gallons would be ethanol and also assumed that 20 billion gallons would be used in the form of E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline), with the remaining 14 billion gallons used in the form of E10.
The analysis accounted for the rule’s impacts on emissions from vehicles and engines, production of feedstock, and fuel production and distribution. It modeled the 48 contiguous states using the Community Multiscale Air Quality 4.7 photochemical model that the agency uses for many of its air quality assessments; the model translates the various
calculated emissions into a map of ozone concentrations and other air pollution impacts. According to the model, the air pollutants that are expected to increase include hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, acetaldehyde, and ethanol, while decreases are predicted for carbon monoxide, benzene, and 1,3-butadiene. The air quality impacts are expected to vary widely across regions, Simon said, but in total the modeling predicts that increases in annual average ambient levels of particulate matter and ozone concentrations could cause up to 245 cases of adult premature mortality.
“That was based on the emissions impacts from the vehicles that we understood at the time as well as the assessment on both the health impacts and also where we thought the fuel mix would be,” Simon said.
There is a great deal of additional work under way that may sharpen or modify some of these conclusions, Simon said. Much of it centers on emissions modeling that reflects the effects of fuel properties. One piece of it is an extensive vehicle emission test program being supported by the EPA, DOE, and the Coordinating Research Council. There has been a “really-well-done study” that has provided a significant amount of high-quality fuel-effects data for statistical modeling of gaseous and particulate matter emissions. These data will be very helpful in updating the understanding of the potential impacts of ethanol and different blends on motor vehicle emissions, he said, and the results are being analyzed and incorporated into the EPA’s motor vehicle emissions model.
The EPA is also carrying out what Simon referred to as an “anti-backsliding study.” The purpose is to examine the impact on air quality of the biofuels required by the RFS and to make sure that the biofuels do not make air quality worse. The agency is in the process of carrying out that anti-backsliding study, and it is also updating earlier analyses with the use of new tools. He said he did not yet know when the updated analyses would be released, but he said he believes it will help “expand the state of understanding … of the impacts on renewable fuels in this country.”
A brief discussion followed the panelists’ presentations. Jamal Hisham Hashim, United Nations University International Institute for Global Health, asked Simon about life-cycle assessments for palm oil. “Has that been done, or is it still in the process? If Malaysia as a producer
of biodiesel would like to have that assessment done, how would we go about achieving that?”
Simon responded that the EPA has been working on a palm oil analysis and that, indeed, it had issued a Notice of Data Assessment in 2012 concerning its preliminary life-cycle assessment for palm oil. The analysis included numbers for both regular biodiesel and renewable diesel, and both fell below the 20 percent threshold, he said.
Since the analysis was put out for public comment, the EPA has received “60,000 comments and counting,” Simon said. “We have been working closely with the Indonesian and Malaysian governments as well as stakeholders there to both understand the data and also to see what else is out there. We want to make sure we have the best information before us.” Thus, nothing needs to be done to get such an assessment carried out, he said.
There are three particular issues concerning palm oil that the EPA is trying to sort through, Simon said. “One is what is the appropriate number to use for the impact of palm oil production on peat oil and peat emissions? Two would be methane capture—what is the appropriate number on that? Three, there is a significant amount of uncertainty on what the land-use implications would be for providing that pathway for palm oil.”
As a follow-up question, Hisham Hashim asked if the life-cycle assessment was based on data from Malaysia and Indonesia. Simon answered that because 90 percent of the world’s production of palm oil comes from those two areas, the appropriate way to model palm oil was to use data from those areas. Similarly, the life-cycle assessment for corn-based ethanol used the United States as the primary market, and for the life-cycle assessment for sugarcane-based ethanol, it was Brazil.
Al McGartland, National Center for Environmental Economics at the EPA, asked Cassidy whether any work had been done on the effects of replacing some of the coal in coal-fired boilers with woody biomass and what might be the life-cycle implications of such a switch. Cassidy replied that the USDA does quite a bit of research on using wood in coal-fired boilers, mainly through the U.S. Forest Service. The EPA has also collaborated on the research. Much of the work is focused on such questions as, How big should the wood chips be and how should the coal be pulverized so that one gets the best mix? What are the resulting emissions? What type of scrubber technology can be used to lower those emissions? There is a large body of research going on there, Cassidy said.
McGartland also asked whether the USDA funds research on converting stover—the leftover corn stalks and leaves—into cellulosic ethanol or other uses. Cassidy replied that yes, corn stover is an acceptable feedstock that the USDA is studying. The department’s researchers are very interested in cellulosic biofuels in general, and they are looking not only at corn stover, but also at oilseeds, wood, perennial grasses, and even algae, although most of the research on algae is being carried out by DOE.
Luz Claudio, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, asked if the emphasis on biofuels as an alternative source of energy might be taking attention away from other alternative sources, such as solar energy or wind power. Cassidy responded that he wouldn’t comment on the policy itself, but he said that the USDA rural development mission area still does support a lot of wind, solar, and biomass research. These other alternative energy sources are “not out of our portfolio,” he said.
Simon said he agreed with Cassidy that the EPA’s interest in biofuels was not taking away any of its focus on other alternative energy sources.
Gohlke, J. M., S. H. Hrynkow, and C. J. Portier. 2008. Health, economy, and environment: Sustainable energy choices for a nation. Environmental Health Perspectives 16(6):A236–A237.