How do Your Fuel Decisions Impact our Environment?

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, February 4, 2019

EESI Policy Associate Jessie Stolark spoke on a roundtable panel about the health and environmental considerations of fuel choices, at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on January 29.  Below is an abbreviated version of her remarks at that presentation, which highlighted the benefits of ethanol blends for helping with air quality and greenhouse gases.

1. Describe what you feel would be the perfect liquid fuel for today’s engines that would provide the performance people expect and minimize health risks for Americans.

There isn’t a perfect fuel, but we can get much cleaner, lower-carbon, lower emissions fuels today by using higher ethanol blends in the gasoline supply. Looking forward, zero fossil, sustainably sourced biofuels in highly efficient internal combustion engines or in hybrid electric vehicles – would provide the highest fuel efficiency combined with the lowest emitting fuel.  For example, back of the envelope calculations show that a plug-in hybrid flex-fuel vehicle could achieve a miles per gallon (mpg) rating of around 500 mpg.  There’s no reason we can’t co-deploy these technologies together – plug-in electric, hybrid, mid-level blends of biofuels, and other efficiency measures.

2. In what areas have the goals of the Clean Air Act been met? And, what areas have fallen short that are still risking our environment?

In many ways, the Clean Air Act has been a tremendous success in cleaning up air pollutants and making the air we breathe cleaner.  The United States enjoys some of the cleanest air in the world, largely due to regulations set forward by the EPA. One example is the phase-out of lead from the gasoline supply, which was used to provide octane.  Lead is highly toxic and, prior to the phase-out, more than 200,000 pounds of lead were used per year in the U.S. gasoline supply. However, we still have a lot of work to be done.  At EESI, we are particularly concerned with the complex, toxic aromatic combustion products coming out of the tailpipe.  While we have made tremendous gains with the efficiency of engines, our fuel quality has really not been addressed.

3. All the car manufacturers are investing in electric vehicles, and we heard earlier today that sales are growing.  Should we expect electric vehicles to gain enough traction to impact ethanol demand long term?

It shouldn’t be an and/or discussion between biofuels and electric vehicles.  There will be a place for liquid fuels in light-duty vehicles for decades, whether in the legacy fleet, in hybrid electric vehicles, or in other sectors, such as aviation and shipping.  Biofuels can and should position themselves to be the low-carbon fuel that will complement and indeed enable an electric future.

Another segment of the biofuels industry we’re watching closely is biogas.  Currently, biogas makes up about 95 percent of the cellulosic fuel volumes under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).  EPA is also considering a proposal to allow biogas that is used to generate electricity to be counted as an electronic-RIN, or “e-RIN”. Allowing this pathway to go forward would create another estimated 200 million gasoline gallon equivalents of low carbon cellulosic biofuels.

4. There has been controversy over the test fuels used in certifying fuel emissions because often these test fuels are not commercially available so the results don’t reflect real-world conditions. Shouldn’t real world fuels be used for comparison and if so, how would this affect the data relative to ethanol blends?  

Yes, absolutely, this issue needs to be addressed. Real-world fuels must be used for the test fuels that are used to certify emissions. This is a major problem in moving to higher blends and needs to be addressed in the near term. A consulting group just did a review of nearly 100 peer-reviewed studies of the impacts of ethanol-blended fuels on air quality, and found there was no consensus in these studies, despite the fact that ethanol is overall, a much cleaner burning fuel.  These studies are used by the EPA and other regulators to set fuels policy. This problem is causing confusion and reluctance to embrace ethanol as a safer alternative by policymakers and the public. If real-world fuels were used in testing procedures, the benefits of ethanol would be much clearer to the public.

5. Gasoline contains more than 200 compounds, several of which pose a cancer risk.  Which of these toxic compounds could be eliminated by changing the fuel mixture to include a higher percentage of ethanol blends?

At EESI, we’ve done some work looking at the so-called “gasoline aromatics.”  These are the compounds that currently provide needed octane to gasoline.  Throughout the 100 or so years that we’ve been using automobiles, we have had octane in one form or another, and the octane providers have all proven to be highly toxic. First was lead, then MTBE, and today, gasoline aromatics — benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene. We’ve called these the new lead, because of their risk to human health. Just moving to ten percent ethanol (E10) has allowed refiners to reduce aromatic content from gasoline by 25 percent.  If we move to higher blends such as E25 or E30, we can reduce the content of aromatics in gasoline even further—and that would be good news for public health.

6. There is so much misinformation circulating – much of it by the petroleum industry – what is the key point you want our audience to be armed with to defend these accusations?

I tell people that we have two choices when it comes to octane – ethanol, and aromatics.  We don’t really have other options today. One is clean burning, renewable, and cheaper.  The other is dirtier, highly toxic, and expensive.  When you put it like that – it makes it easier for people to understand that there are these two options before us today, and one is clearly better than the other.