Ethanol is Not a Bridge— We Are a Main Road

Source: By Dave VanderGriend, Urban Air Initiative • Posted: Sunday, November 29, 2020

With 250 million cars on the road, and 15 million or more being sold annually, the internal combustion engine will remain predominant for decades to come. High-octane, low-carbon ethanol makes liquid transportation fuels clean and efficient today.

For the next Congress and state legislatures across the country, reducing carbon is likely to be a primary focus in 2021. In addition to power plants, singling out gasoline powered vehicles seems to be an easy target. The most recent example is California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order requiring all new passenger vehicles be zero emission by 2035. Obviously, this force-feeds electric vehicles (EVs) in the name of carbon reduction. But this executive order is also assuming that conventional vehicles and fuels cannot do the job.

The basic premise of this approach is wrong, not to mention impractical. With more than 250 million cars in the U.S. today, and 15 million or more being sold annually, the internal combustion engine (ICE) will remain the predominant form of transportation for decades to come. Two million cars are sold every year in California alone. During that time, liquid fuels, in the form of gasoline and ethanol, will be needed.

This is not an exercise to beat up on EVs. There is a role and a place for them in the big picture. But with just 1 million EVs on the road today, they cannot reduce carbon emissions alone. Liquid fuels, powering those hundreds of millions of ICE vehicles on the road and being produced every year, can achieve significant efficiency gains and carbon reductions and need to work together to tell that story. In some circles, biofuels are at best referred to as a “bridge” to EVs, and at worst dismissed altogether.

We are no bridge. We are a main road. High-octane, low-carbon ethanol is an input to refiners to allow their product to meet the efficiency and emission requirements of future transportation programs. The auto industry confirms how higher octane coupled with compression increases can provide measurable benefits, quickly, economically and in vehicles that meet consumer needs and retain personal choices. When that octane is derived from low-carbon ethanol, drastic measures like we are seeing in states like California are unnecessary. And low carbon it is. Study after study proves that corn ethanol reduces carbon by as much as 50% compared to gasoline, which is on par with advanced biofuels. At UAI, we have also studied this issue and, working with other industry partners, have hounded the U.S. EPA to update its models to reflect the best available science that is recognized in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model as well as U.S. Department of Agriculture studies on the true carbon footprint of corn ethanol. Lower energy and fertilizer inputs, higher corn yields, higher yield of ethanol per bushel and many other advances have not been incorporated into EPA’s life cycle analyses.

Failure to make this case that liquid fuels must remain part of the carbon strategy not only concedes the future to EVs but has the potential to devastate the economy. The auto, refining, ethanol, agriculture, retail, transport and related industries represent millions of jobs. Let’s not allow uninformed policy makers to create a false choice of either living with the negative impacts of climate change or eliminating conventional vehicles.

The potential impact of California’s action cannot be overstated. The Golden State has unique authority under the Clean Air Act to establish requirements more stringent than the federal government. Other states can adopt California standards and many states follow California’s lead on air quality issues. Sixteen states, as an example, joined California in suing the federal government to be able to establish their own mileage standards, and California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate could wind up in court as well. If they prevail, any state would be able to institute similar ICE bans.

The entire liquid fuel chain needs to work together, starting with ethanol and oil. In doing so, we can make fuel cleaner, less expensive and easily accessible today and into the future.