What does the federal biofuels program mean for human health risks

Written by: Jane Marsh

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Renewable biofuels are becoming increasingly popular in the energy sector, especially as governments around the world adopt more stringent environmental regulations in an effort to combat climate change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a federal biofuels program in place to promote the use of renewable fuels, including biofuels made from feedstocks of plants and food. However, the EPA recently approved Chevron to start producing a plastic-derived biofuel that may pose human health risks to surrounding communities.

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The EPA’s Renewable Standard Fuel Program (RFS)

The EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program, implemented in 2005, requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to reduce the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel, oil for heating or aviation fuel. According to the EPA, there are four categories of biofuels under the RFS:

  • Biomass-based diesel
  • Advanced biofuel
  • Cellulosic biofuel
  • Total renewable fuel

Ultimately, biofuels are a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels and come with several benefits. For example, biofuels are renewable, non-toxic, can replace landfill waste and pose little to no threat to human health.

Controversial EPA Approval of Chevron Biofuel Production

On February 23, 2023, ProPublica and The Guardian published a joint article discussing a recent event involving the EPA and major oil and gas company Chevron. The EPA recently approved a Chevron refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, to start producing biofuels from discarded plastics.

However, according to agency reports outlined in the article, using plastics to produce biofuel can have a significant impact on the environment and human health.

The article reports that processing new biofuels from plastic waste can emit air pollution that is so toxic, one in four people exposed to it during their lifetime could develop cancer. This risk is said to disproportionately affect low-income and Black communities within three miles of the refinery.

It’s already well-established that contaminants and pollutants from smokestacks or other industrial facilities can enter nearby buildings, posing a risk to citizens in the Pascalouga area.

How Biofuel Production Impacts Human Health

Typically, biofuels pose no real risk to humans or the environment, as they’re renewable and non-toxic. However, the jet fuel Chevron plans on producing at the refinery in Mississippi is known to have harmful effects on the environment and human health because they’re derived from plastic waste.

The Future of Biofuels and the RFS

While biofuels have proven themselves as feasible alternatives to fossil fuels, there’s still a long way to go in producing biofuels from renewable sources. Although companies may want to meet federal standards and programs like the RFS, it is of the utmost importance that the EPA takes human health effects are taken into account.

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