Perhaps the EPA’s proposal to modify the Renewable Fuel Standard led advocates on both sides of the dialogue to intellectually and emotionally wrestle with each other. Perhaps the apparent, albeit modest, growth of E85 stations and sales in the nation brought the supporters of E85 – corn growers, some environmentalists, and the detractors (primarily the oil industry and, again, some environmentalists) – out of the proverbial closet. Perhaps recent studies concerning the impact of E85 on GHG emissions – studies that, for the most part, suggest that using E85, when compared to gasoline or on its own, is a net plus in terms of reducing GHG emissions and several other pollutants – provided fodder for both proponents and opponents to take off the gloves.
Here’s what we know, or what we think we know: On balance, most government agencies that have been assigned to, or have assumed, the responsibility for measuring the overall impact of E85 on GHG emissions and pollutants, in addition to many independent think tanks (including universities), grant E85 positive marks, either on its own or as a fuel or when compared to gasoline. But the conclusions, to some doubters, are not conclusive. Ideologues or special interests aside, a handful of independent analysts working for reputable groups challenge the high marks granted to E85. The repartee is, at most times, more gentle and academically correct than that between intense E85 advocates and detractors. But the differences of views, while suggesting a clear tilt toward increasing the use of E85, should be discussed and responded to if consumers are to be easily convinced to make the switch from gasoline.
Let’s begin with the Argonne National Laboratory, a highly respected national research lab. It indicated late last year that its GREET (Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation) Model estimated that the life cycle of GHG emissions from E10 (regular gasoline) was 439 grams per mile, and from corn-based E85, 341 grams per mile. Quite a difference! At relatively the same time, the Department of Energy indicated: “As with conventional fuels, the use and storage of ethanol blends can result in emissions of regulated pollutants, toxic chemicals, and greenhouse gases. However, when compared to gasoline, the use of high-level ethanol blends, such as E85, generally result in lower emissions levels. … Using ethanol as a vehicle fuel has measurable GHG emissions benefits compared with using gasoline. Carbon dioxide released when ethanol is used in vehicles is offset by the CO2 captured when crops used to make the ethanol are grown. As a result, FFVs [flex-fuel vehicles] running on ethanol produce less net CO2 than conventional vehicles per mile traveled.”
That’s a pretty strong statement!
The Congressional Budget Office’s recent estimates are a bit less enthusiastic. They are hedged with the institution’s usual and understandable caution, given its primary role in estimating alternate budgetary impacts of alternative policies. CBO’s June 2014 report on the RFS states: “Available evidence suggests that using corn ethanol in place of gasoline has only limited potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and some researchers estimate that it could actually increase emissions).” A NASA sensor used by the Goddard Space Flight Center to test air quality above one ethanol refinery led to an obviously tentative and preliminary conclusion that ethanol refineries in the nation “could be releasing much larger amounts of ozone-forming compounds into the atmosphere than current assessments suggest.”
So what’s a guy to do (“guy” being a euphemism for both men and women)? First, understand that the enemy of the good is, indeed, often the perfect. Two, borrow and slightly amend Ambassador Abba Eban’s comments concerning securing peace in the Middle East: Let’s never miss an opportunity and subsequently miss an opportunity. After reviewing the non-advocacy literature, it seems clear that E85 has become a reasonable alternative to gasoline at the present time. It is not perfect. But it is perfectible to be sure and, indeed, it is being perfected both in the laboratory and from the production process through distribution to use in automobiles. Clearly, with respect to tailpipe emissions, E85 is now much better than gasoline.
Further, solid studies, like those from the Argonne National Laboratory, show that ethanol’s life cycle emission benefits are improving and are superior to gasoline. In this context, farmers are learning to better manage and increase efficiency in the growing of corn, thus reducing emissions related to land use. Several states, led by Colorado, now impose regulations that cut methane leakage in the supply chain. Alternative feedstocks (e.g., corn stover, cellulosic, natural gas, etc.) are on the horizon and offer the promise of an E85 that will be cheaper and result in significantly less emissions. Consumers will likely soon have choices among E85 feedstocks. This is good for the country. It will take place while electric and hydrogen vehicles improve their readiness for prime time and reach out to a larger share of the American market.
So visit your local, accessible, less-expensive, generally nice E85 fuel station and get rid of your addiction to oil and gasoline. Try E85! You will like it! While your humanity is being redeemed, urge key research agencies and think tanks to get together and work out their differences, something like the Manhattan Project. Agreeing on the value of alternative fuels in reducing emissions could well be as important in light of the specter of global warming and the increase of pollution as the invention of the atomic bomb.
An idea is gathering momentum among several governments: Reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.
As AP reports from the United Nations climate talks going on in Lima, Peru, this week:
… in a historic first, dozens of governments now embrace her prescription. The global climate pact set for adoption in Paris next year should phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, says the London-based environmental lawyer.
“In your lifetime, emissions have to go to zero. That’s a message people understand,” said the Pakistani-born [Farhana] Yamin, who has been instrumental in getting that ambitious, some say crucial, goal into drafts being discussed at U.N. talks in Lima this week.
As The Guardian notes, the ambitious goal is spelled out in a policy document titled “ADP 2-7 agenda item 3 Elements for a draft negotiating text.”
The guidelines being hashed out in Lima could make their way onto the agenda for the next big U.N. climate conference, in Paris next year. The Guardian writes:
While a year seems like a long time, it’s not in the world of UN climate talks.
As one Australian observer pointed out, there are only six weeks of negotiating time on the UN’s schedule between now and Paris.
But if language such as “full decarbonization by 2050” were to become a reality, it basically defines an end point for the fossil fuel energy industry as we know it.
The nation is lucky to have Gina McCarthy as the head of the EPA. Her background is exquisite, her intellect is superior and her sensitivity to and understanding of the environmental issues facing America is second to none. She has been a fine EPA Administrator.
Then why am I worried when we have such a surfeit of riches in one individual leader? Long before McCarthy became Administrator, the EPA began working on a new set of guidelines governing the amount and use of ethanol in gasoline sold at the pump. The guidelines, more than likely, were ready in draft form simultaneously with Gina McCarthy’s appointment and the pressure to release them was intense, given earlier promises.
Because the positives and negatives of an increase or decrease in the RFS concerning ethanol use are imprecise, no real precise judgment can be made as to the final numbers, except the admonition, similar to the Hippocratic Oath: they do no harm and, do what the EPA suggests they probably will do, improve the economy, the environment and open fuel choices to the consumer. Sounds simple, but it isn’t! The EPA is considering modification of relatively recently determined RFS.
I understand the position of the oil companies to reduce what are effectively ethanol set asides. They have a financial stake in selling less corn-based ethanol with each gallon of gas, particularly when the content of ethanol rises to E85. Declining gas sales and prices make them eager to secure lower total annual ethanol requirements. Although the data is mixed, I also commiserate with the cattle growers who indicate they have had to pay, at times, higher prices for corn because of ethanol’s reliance on corn. Similarly, I am sensitive to environmentalists who worry that the acreage for corn-based ethanol is eating (excuse the pun) into conservation land and that total greenhouse gas emissions from production to use in vehicles of corn-based ethanol is not, generally, a good deal for the environment. I am not trying to be all things to all groups, but I am trying to weave my way through an intellectual and practical thicket.
The corn farmer’s advocacy of ethanol appears rational from an opportunity-cost standpoint. Corn-based ethanol seems, to them, to support higher prices for corn. They have done well in most recent years. While the facts remain unclear (credible researchers, such as those in the World Bank, have wavered over time on their position), the arguments made by groups and individuals concerned with what they believe is the relationship between corn-based ethanol and food supply should be debated fully. I, also, am inclined to believe those in the security business who feel that increased use of ethanol will reduce our dependency on important oil and lessen the nation’s need to fight wars in part to assure the world and the U.S. a share of global oil supply. Weaning ourselves from oil dependency is national need and priority.
It is tough to judge the efficacy of projections of ethanol sales, because of uncertain economic factors and the constraints put on consumer fuel choices by the oil industry’s almost-monopolistic restrictions at gas stations (just try buying safe, less costly alternative fuels at most gas stations) and federal regulations governing alternative fuel use as well as the sale of conversion kits. There is no free market for fuel.
Responding clearly to the conflicts over the value of corn-based ethanol and the annual total requirements for ethanol is not easy and should suggest the complexity of the involved issues and their presumed relationship to one another. Maybe increased use of corn stover and certainly natural gas-based ethanol for E85 would reduce food for fuel conflicts and lessen possible environmental problems. Nothing is perfect, but the production of ethanol using alternative feedstocks, such as stover and, hopefully soon, natural gas, could make a difference in providing better replacement fuels than just the use of corn based ethanol. Like a Talmudic scholar, I frequently, instead of counting sheep, find myself saying “on one hand, on the other hand” while trying to fall sleep. (I haven’t slept more than three full hours a night since Eisenhower was president.) I end up agreeing with the King in the King and I — “It’s a puzzlement!”
The EPA’s job is a tough one. Its lowering of the total amount of ethanol required to be used with gasoline may or may not have been the right decision. I know the EPA is considering modifying its initial estimates upward. We will have to wait and see what the Agency produces and then take part in a reasonable dialogue as to benefits and costs.
I am a somewhat more concerned about the basis used by the EPA to decide to lower ethanol requirements, at this point in time, than the new rules themselves. The rationale for the amended guidelines will become embedded in rulemaking and decisions could well generate unnecessary policy and constituent conflicts.
The Agency explained its recent decisions, in part, in terms of the absence of infrastructure and the possible harm that higher ethanol blends can do to vehicle engines. “EPA is proposing to adjust the applicable volumes of advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel to address projected availability of qualifying renewable fuels and limitations on the volume of ethanol that can be consumed in gasoline given practical constraints on the supply of higher ethanol blends to the vehicles that can use them and other limits on ethanol blend levels in gasoline (the ethanol blend wall).” Note that for the most part, the EPA does not dwell on environmental, economic or security issues in its basic rationale.
The EPA seems to mix supply and demand in a rather imprecise way. Ethanol is ethanol. Traditional infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) is not readily available now to transport ethanol from corn-based ethanol producers to blenders of gasoline and ethanol. But trains and heavy-duty vehicles are accessible and have provided reasonably efficient pipeline alternatives. Indeed, their availability, assuming modifications for safety concerns, particularly concerning trains, extends strategic options regarding the location of refineries/blenders and storage capacity to lessen leakage of environmentally harmful emissions.
The EPA’s argument for lowering ethanol requirements appears to rest, to a large degree, on a somewhat unconventional definition of supply. As one observer put it, the EPA’s regulations “muddle” the definition of supply with demand. There is an ample supply of ethanol now, indeed, a surplus. The EPA’s decision will likely increase the surplus or reduce the suppliers.
Demand for higher ethanol blends really has not been fairly tested in the analytical prelude to the recently changed regulations. Detroit and its dealers seem unwilling to clearly inform consumers of the government-approved use of blends higher than E15 in the flex-fuel cars that they are now producing and or are committed to producing in the future. Oil company franchise agreements limit replacement fuel pumps at their stations, often to off-center locations…somewhere near the men or women’s bathrooms, if at all. Correspondingly, the EPA’s regulations appear to mute the Agency’s own (and others) positive engine testing on E15 and its approval of E15 and E85 blends, within certain restrictions. Earlier, EPA studies were a bulwark against recent sustained attacks by the oil and, sometimes, the auto industry, as well as their friends on ethanol and its supposed negative affect on engines.
The EPA’s analysis of demand seems further blurred by the fact that if the Agency increased the supply of approved conversion kits, increased numbers of owners of existing vehicles would likely convert from gasoline to less-expensive ethanol-based fuels.
The EPA’s background rationale for the new RFS regulations understandably does not reflect the ability to produce ethanol from natural gas, a fuel in plentiful supply, and a natural gas to ethanol conversion process that may relatively soon be available. To do so would likely require an amendment to the RFS because natural gas is not a renewable fuel. The benefits include lower costs to the consumer, reduced import dependency and likely a decrease in pollutants and emissions. It appears a reasonable approach and provides a reasonable replacement fuel until renewable fuels are ready to compete for prime market time. Natural gas-based ethanol, as well as, as noted earlier, possible use of corn stover, would lessen the intensity of the food vs. fuel debate and the environmentalist concerns.
The EPA has tried hard to develop regulations that secure the public interest and appeal to varied constituencies. I respect its efforts. It’s a complicated task. I remember being asked by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop a report on simplifying its regulations for diverse programs. If I remember correctly, my report was over 600 pages long. Sufficiently said!