U. of Minnesota’s ethanol study falls flat

Every so often, a new “study” is published that shows why many of oil’s competitors are “bad” in one form or another. Such “studies” are usually widely circulated in the media without much fact-checking. When other experts start looking into the “study,” they usually find that it is anything but scientific (remember all those “studies” that said that smoking is good for you.)

The question each American should ask is, Why are they trying to tell us which fuel we should use? All these studies basically don’t want Americans to be exposed to other fuels (in order to maintain the oil monopoly). Americans are smart enough to decide which fuel is best for them, but that’s what scares the oil monopoly. They don’t want competition at the pump. Take a look at the most recent “study.”

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have stirred up a hornet’s nest by supposedly proving that ethanol is no better than gasoline for air emissions, and electric cars don’t fare much better either, especially if they get their electricity from coal. The study compared the air pollution level of gasoline with 10 alternative fuels and came up with a winner – what they called “renewed methane” — methane captured from landfills, which have no link to fossil fuels.

Air-pollution groups and the ethanol industry pointed out that the study was deeply flawed and based on outdated assumptions.

“On a full lifecycle basis, the study’s results are contradictory to the results from the Department of Energy’s latest GREET model,” the Renewable Fuels Association wrote in a response published the next day. (GREET stands for “Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation,” a recent standard set by the Department of Energy that attempts to measure all energy use for the different fuels through the entire life cycle. GREET shows ethanol doing fairly well, while the Minnesota study used an older model that is not as favorable to ethanol.)

“There is a substantial body of evidence proving that ethanol reduces both exhaust hydrocarbons and CO emissions, and thus can help reduce the formation of ground-level ozone,” the RFA said. The study “… excludes NOx and SOx emissions associated with crude oil extraction, a decision that grossly under-represents the actual lifecycle emissions impacts of gasoline. Omitting key emissions sources from the lifecycle assessment of EVs and crude oil inappropriately skews the paper’s results for the overall emissions impacts of these fuels and vehicles.”

The study included the entire lifecycle components of ethanol but excluded the lifecycle components of gasoline (like tar sands extraction). This is not a minor omission. It essentially means that the entire report is materially incorrect.

The Urban Air Initiative was also highly critical of the Minnesota report. “The study utterly failed to consider a vast body of research by auto industry and health experts that conclusively show gasoline aromatic hydrocarbons are the primary source of the most dangerous urban pollutants,” said David VanderGriend, president of the Initiative. “The aromatics — which comprise 25–30 percent of U.S. gasoline — are responsible for a wide range of serious health effects, including autism, cancer and heart disease.”

“Urban air pollution, and specifically summertime smog or ozone, is a mix of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, particulates, NOx, and countless other factors. Gasoline itself is a toxic soup of chemicals, but as we add ethanol we clean up that gasoline and protect public health,” added VanderGriend, whose group keeps track of pollutants in cities.

VanderGriend pointed out that ethanol is a source of clean, low carbon octane that is used in federal reformulated gasoline in major U.S. cities. Although it is not required, refiners choose ethanol for its clean-burning properties and its ability to help them meet emission standards. “Excess carbon monoxide has essentially been eliminated in the U.S. due to the presence of ethanol, and ozone violations are at the lowest levels in the history of the automobile,” said the RFA response. According to the EPA, the amount of ozone in the air has decreased 18 percent from 2000 to 2013.

What the Minnesota study completely misses is the role that ethanol is playing in reducing our dependence on foreign oil. People have jumped to the conclusion that because our imports have fallen and because the price of oil has nosedived, we don’t have to rely on oil from countries that oppose our policies at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. We still import about 40 percent of our oil and spend $300 billion in the process. This figure is likely to remain high as oil bounces back from its recent lows. The major chunk of our trade deficit is made up of imported oil.

We still have a lot way to go in freeing ourselves from these responsibilities. All these strategies – ethanol, methanol, compressed natural gas, electric vehicles and others – can play a part. The important thing is to give consumers a choice – as Fuel Freedom Foundation has long recommended. The last thing we want to do is be influenced by studies that are heavily biased against ethanol or any of the other alternatives that threaten the monopoly of gasoline.