How Basketball and Alternative Fuels Deliver Environmental Justice

How Basketball and Alternative Fuels Deliver Environmental Justice

Author: Bryan Berry, October 19th, 2020

Over the past few months several cities across the country were fortunate to receive a visit from a formerly abandoned school bus that has been rebuilt, brightly painted, and outfitted with basketball hoops and backboards aft and stern.  The HoopBus, as it’s called, just completed a nationwide tour to spread positivity, amplify the Black Lives Matter movement, and unite communities through the game of basketball.  To get from community to community and coast to coast, the bus featured something unique under its hood – an engine that did not burn diesel as its fuel, as most heavy-duty vehicles do, but instead was powered with renewable natural gas (RNG).  The type of fuel used during the tour may seem inconsequential, but in fact it is quite the opposite.  It is notable because, as the country continues to grapple with the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, a related, but oftentimes overlooked issue continues to plague many minority communities–they are disparately affected by air quality so poor that health outcomes in those areas are much worse than in more affluent white suburbs.  The cause of this is not a mystery and hasn’t been for some time.

The most significant contributor to poor air quality in densely populated areas is vehicle emissions, particularly from diesel-fueled medium- and heavy-duty vehicles rolling through and by these neighborhoods, belching exhaust that contains multiple carcinogens and harmful chemicals.  It’s a problem that has persisted for decades as no economically and technically viable alternatives to diesel trucks has been available. More recently though, as communities and the nation continue to address the impacts of climate change and navigate issues related to social and environmental justice, innovators and policymakers are looking to alternative fuels as a possible solution, which in some cases can nearly eliminate the harmful airborne contaminants that are negatively affecting health in these communities.

Without Clean Air There Cannot be Environmental Justice

For decades, communities of color have been subject to discriminatory zoning, land-use, and lending policies that have resulted in exposing those residents to environmental conditions so poor that levels of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and other diseases, are far beyond levels seen in more affluent urban and suburban neighborhoods.   Environmental Justice (EJ) is a term and a movement that emerged out of this inequity.  EJ refers to the fair treatment of all people regardless of race or socioeconomic status in the application of environmental laws such that no single group should ever be exposed to harmful environmental conditions more than another.  Many advocates and experts that have been working on EJ issues point to rural Warren County, North Carolina, as being the birthplace of the movement.  In 1982, hundreds of black residents and environmentalists staged a non-violent sit in for six weeks to protest the construction of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill that was to be built in direct proximity to homes and schools.  Unfortunately, in this case the protesters were not successful in preventing the landfill development, but this event was the first time the issue of environmental justice and racially disparate impacts from pollution received widespread attention.  Since that time, environmental justice has existed as a mostly grass-roots effort, but one that has resulted in numerous victories related to limiting exposure to harmful chemicals, pollution, and waste.  The EJ movement has also led to regulatory policies in many states that require the evaluation of potential adverse environmental justice impacts as part of project permitting.  Inequity still exists, however, especially as it relates to air quality, and Federal EPA and Health and Human Services statistics clearly show how much work is still to be done:

  • 71% of African Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards, as compared to 58% of non-Hispanic whites.[1]
  • African American women were 20 percent more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic whites, in 2015.[2]
  • In 2014, African Americans were almost three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than the white population.2
  • In 2015, African American children had a death rate ten times that of non-Hispanic white children.2
  • Black children are 4 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children.[3]
  • About 16% of black children and 7% of white children have asthma[4]

Diesel Emissions and Impacts on Health

Diesel exhaust contains several gaseous and solid constituents that adversely impact health including fine particulate matter (PM2.5) containing metals and other harmful substances, and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Particulate matter emissions are a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that contain soot made up of carbon, ash, metallic abrasion particles, and silicates; acids (such as nitrates and sulfates); and dozens of organic compounds that are known to be cancer causing, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein, and 1,3-butadiene[5].  Exposure to PM2.5 can cause serious cardiovascular (arrhythmias and heart attack) and respiratory (asthma attacks and bronchitis) effects, as well as increased hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and premature death, especially among at-risk populations with pre-existing conditions, older people, and children[6].

Nitrogen Oxides, most often nitrous and nitric acids, are another combustion product found in diesel exhaust.  NOx is a precursor to particulate matter, meaning it contributes to the formation of PM2.5, and combines with other airborne materials to form smog and acid rain.  From a health perspective, NOx also has a significant impact, causing airway inflammation, worsened cough and wheezing, reduced lung function, and increased frequency of asthma attacks.  Research has also shown that exposure to NOx can be a cause of asthma in children[7].

The California Air Resources Board, which has been studying the impacts of diesel exhaust for over a decade, lays out in stark terms the impact that diesel emissions have on California residents:

Diesel particulate matter increase statewide cancer risk by 520 cancers per million residents exposed over a lifetime[8].

Diesel PM contributes to approximately 1,400 premature deaths from cardiovascular disease annually in California[9].

Alternative Fuels – A Potential Solution, But Not All the Same

As policymakers, advocates, and innovators seek to address the serious inequities and negative health consequences found within environmental justice communities, a promising near-term solution has emerged: the use alternative fuels in place of traditional diesel.

“Alternative fuels” is an umbrella term used describe a range of options that can reduce or eliminate the use of traditional diesel and gasoline fuel.  In considering this option, it is critical to understand that not all alternative fuels offer the same level of air quality improvement.

For vehicle and fleet operators who are resistant to adopt alternative engine technology, bio- and renewable-diesel exists as an option but offer modest air quality benefits.  Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils, animal fats, or waste cooking oils through a chemical process that separates glycerin from the usable biodiesel. Biodiesel has 10 – 30% less particulate matter emissions, but up to 30% higher NOx emissions[10].  It cannot be used to fully replace traditional diesel and can only be blended with traditional diesel fuel, which limits its overall air quality benefits.  Renewable diesel is a highly processed biomass-derived fuel that is chemically identical to traditional diesel.  Renewable diesel is considered a “drop-in fuel,” meaning that it can be used to entirely replace traditional diesel.  Unfortunately, the supply of renewable diesel is low, with much of the US inventory being imported, and the cost for many customers is prohibitively high. Renewable diesel has 30% less PM2.5 emissions, and 10% less NOx emissions than traditional diesel.

Vehicle electrification is a promising diesel alternative.  Establishing a vibrant market for electric heavy-duty vehicles is the goal of several companies, notably Tesla, but also most major truck OEMs including Freightliner, Volvo, and Kenworth.  EVs have no tailpipe emissions and, therefore, no negative impact on local air quality.  Unfortunately, the electrification revolution hasn’t quite gotten off the ground, at least as it relates to the freight industry.  In the case of Tesla, their electric Semi is over two years behind schedule with first units now expected to reach customers sometime in 2021.  Mass production of batteries needed for the Semi is now not expected until 2022 or beyond.  The other OEMs developing electric class 8 trucks are all at the prototype phase.  None of these companies have rolled a fully commercial ready vehicle off their respective assembly lines.   Further complicating the prospects for electric trucks, of course, is the limited availability of charging infrastructure capable of quickly charging these vehicles, and doing so economically.  The charging technology exists to fast charge an electric class 8 tractor in approximately 30 minutes, but fleets must then contend with potentially sky-high demand charges as the maximum output of the chargers will soon approach 1 MW, enough output to power up to 500 homes.

Hydrogen, used to power fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV), is another alternative to diesel that has no negative impact on air quality as the emissions from a fuel cell only consist of water.  FCEVs though are challenged by many of the same issues as their battery-electric cousins. No FCEVs are currently commercially available in the heavy-duty vehicle segment and very little hydrogen fueling infrastructure exists.  The economics of the hydrogen fuel itself is also a challenge, with a gasoline gallon equivalent price nearly double that of diesel[11].  The good news for hydrogen is that, similar to other emerging clean energy technologies that have gained traction, e.g., compressed natural gas, light-duty electrification, etc., industry experts are predicting that some of the barriers impeding hydrogen will begin to be overcome in the next decade, perhaps sooner[12].

The Now Opportunity: Renewable Compressed Natural Gas

The remaining option that offers significant benefits is compressed natural gas (CNG).  Unlike electric and hydrogen, CNG has widespread commercial availability and economic viability for heavy-duty trucking  The use of CNG in place of diesel has immediate and substantial benefits from an air quality standpoint and represents a major environmental justice opportunity.  CNG produces only trace amounts of particulate matter, 99% less than diesel.  NOx emissions are also near zero, 90% less than the EPA NOx limit of 0.02 g/bhp-hr.  And, when the natural gas is sourced from renewable sources like landfills and dairy farms, there is the added benefit that the fuel has a low or negative carbon intensity.  With renewable CNG, there exists a widely understood and proven fuel and engine technology that can immediately replace diesel-fueled HDVs at fuel costs significantly lower than the alternatives.

Going Clean in EJ Communities with CNG

The reality as it exists today is that residents of numerous communities in the United States are being poisoned by vehicles that travel through their neighborhoods.  Diesel trucks are wreaking havoc from an air quality standpoint and so all efforts should be made to encourage adoption of non-diesel alternatives.  Bio- and renewable-diesel are an option, but offer little air quality benefits.  Battery electric and hydrogen could be a panacea from an air quality standpoint, but the technology is not technically or economically viable and will not be for some time.  Renewable compressed natural gas is widely available, has no technology risk, beats diesel on price[13], and offers air quality benefits that could if adopted widely, nearly eliminate the higher rates of illness, disease, and premature death associated with diesel exhaust.

Need evidence of renewable CNG’s viability? Look no further than the recent HoopBus tourTheir 3,500-mile coast to coast road trip, fueled with RNG, avoided 35 lbs of NOx, 1600 lbs of CO2e, and nearly 2 lbs of fine particulate matter[14], much of which would have been deposited in the very communities the HoopBus is supporting. 

In bringing their uniting message and positivity to communities across the country, the HoopBus is amplifying messages of equality, pushing for environmental justice, and demonstrating environmental leadership.  It’s time to sideline diesel and bring in RNG.  It’s a slam dunk.   



pingbacks / trackbacks

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search