Thursday, May 1, 2008
Getting the Lead Out
Actually, the title of my paper is, "Losing the Lead: A Case Study of Transportation Fuel Transitions and Considerations for the Renewable Fuel Standard". I like the phrase "Getting the Lead Out" because one of my favorite radio stations back home would play one hour blocks of Led Zeppelin called "Getting the Led Out".
Today in the U.S., the transporation fuel market is facing a fairly substantial transitional time with the passage of EISA 2007, which boosted the requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to a 'final' target of 36 billion gallons by 2022. Instead of focusing on negative aspects of first generation biofuels or diggin into technical aspects of next generation feedstocks and advanced processing technologies, etc, I took a higher level systems and policy view by examining historical transitions in the transportation fuel market. Examples include the removal of lead additives from gasoline, the experience with ethanol in Brazil, the more recent introduction of ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) in the U.S. diesel market, etc.
In my paper, I examined the introduction of unleaded gasoline following the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act. If you are interested in the history, take a look at my paper when it gets posted. I provide a somewhat brief (and dry) review as I wanted to avoid the controversial aspects of the leaded gasoline history and focus on the pertinent technological, institutional, and economic aspects of the transition. The main idea is that much can be learned from these historical cases, which can in turn be applied to the present day introduction of renewable fuels.
After reviewing the history, policy, and industrial impacts of the transition to unleaded gasoline, a set of lessons were gleaned from the experience to develop a sort of framework for assessing the current transition that the EPA-administered RFS will force upon the U.S. transportation fuel market. I did not go through the full assessment in my paper, and recommed this as a next step.
After submitting my paper, I realized that one very important lesson was left out: Ex ante analysis of the potential for unintended consequences. When unleaded gasoline was initially introduced, more intensive refining of hydrocarbons--primarily naptha--to produce higher octane molecules (e.g. benzene) was widely used to make up for octane enhancing lead additive. We soon learned that benzene, and other aromatics, are suspected carcinogens. An additive still used in some areas of the nation to enhance octane is MTBE (methyl-tertiary butyl ether). We now find this junk polluting ground water acquifers and the like; this has led many states to ban MTBE and shift towards ethanol as the additive of choice.
As Texas State Rep. Hardcastle would say, "the answer to one questions always leads to five more questions!"