Let’s not miss an opportunity and miss an opportunity – The decision between E85 and gasoline

both_ways2Over the last month or two, the debate over the merits of environmental benefits (including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions) of E85 has become relatively intense, by media standards.

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.

Fake and real news: Links between GHG reduction and alternative fuels

FT-emissions-graphicTurn on your local news every night and you’ll need a sleeping pill to get some rest. The format and content is the same around the country: a lot of tragic crime — ranging from sexual harassment, robbery and shootings — for about ten minutes; local sports for about 5 minutes; what seems like ten minutes of intermittent advertising; silly banter between two or more anchors for two minutes; and a human-interest story to supposedly lighten up your day at the very end of the show — likely about a dog and cat who have learned to dance together or a two-year-old child who already knows how to play Mozart. You get the picture!

Local news, as presently structured, is not about to send you to sleep feeling good about humanity, never mind your community or nation. National news is really only marginally better. Again, the first ten minutes, more often than not, are about environmental disasters in the nation or the world — hurricanes, volcanoes, cyclones and tornadoes. The second ten minutes includes maybe one or two tragically laced stories, more often than not, about fleeing refugees, suicide bombings, dope and dopes and conflict. Finally, at the end of the program, for less than a minute or two, there is generally a positive portrayal of a 95-year-old marathon runner or a self-made millionaire who is now single-handedly funding vaccinations for kids in Transylvania after inventing a three-wheeled car that will never need refueling and can seat twenty-five people.

Maybe this is how the world is! We certainly need to think about the problems and dangers faced by our communities, the nation and its citizens. Every now and then, Americans complain about the media’s emphasis on bad news. But their complaints are rarely recorded precisely in surveys of viewership. We criticize the primary emphasis on bad news, but seem to watch it more than good news. Somewhat like football, we know it causes emotional and physical injuries to players, but support it with the highest TV ratings and attendance numbers.

Jimmy Fallon, responding to the visible (but likely surface) cry for more good news, has added a section to The Tonight Show. He delivers fake, humorous news, which is, at times, an antidote to typical TV or cable news shows. Perhaps John Oliver, a rising comedian on HBO, does it even better. He takes real, serious news about human and institutional behavior that hurts the commonweal and makes us laugh. In the process, we gain insight.

This week’s news about carbon dioxide emissions “stalling” in 2014 for the first time in 40 years appeared in most newspapers (I am a newspaper junkie) led by The New York Times and the Financial Times. It seemed like good news! Heck, while the numbers don’t reflect a decline in carbon emissions, neither do they illustrate an increase. Let’s be thankful for what we got over a two-year period (in the words of scientists — stability, or 32.3bn tons a year).

But don’t submit the carbon stability numbers to Jimmy Fallon just yet. It’s much too early for a proposed new segment on The Tonight Show called “Real as Opposed to Fake, Good News.” Too much hype could convince supporters of efforts to slow down climate change that real progress is being made. We don’t know yet. Recent numbers only reflect no carbon growth from the previous year over a 12-month period. The numbers might be only temporary. They shouldnt lessen the pressure to define a meaningful fair and efficient strategy to lower GHG. If this occurs, yesterday’s good news will become a real policy and environmental problem for the U.S. and the world for many, many tomorrows.

I am concerned that the stability shown in the carbon figures may be related to factors that might be short lived. Economists and the media have attributed the 2014 plateau to decreases in the rate of growth of China’s energy consumption and new government policies, as well as regulations on economic growth in many nations (e.g., requirements for more energy-efficient buildings and the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles), the growth of the renewable energy sector and a shift to natural gas by utilities.

Truth be told, no one appears to have completed a solid factor analysis just yet. We don’t really know whether what occurred is the beginning of a continuous GHG emission slowdown and a possible important annual decrease.

Many expert commentators hailed the IEA’s finding, including its soon-to-be new director, Dr. Fatih Birol. He indicated that this is “a very welcome surprise…for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

Yet, most expert commentators suggest we should be careful. They noted that the data, while positive, is insufficient to put all our money on a bet concerning future trends. For example, Hal Harvey, head of Energy Innovation, indicated, “one year does not a trend make.”

Many articles responding to the publication of the “carbon stall” story, either implicitly or explicitly, suggested that to sustain stability and move toward a significant downward trend requires a national, comprehensive strategy that includes the transportation sector. It accounts for approximately 17 percent of all emissions, probably higher, since other categories such as energy use, agriculture and land use have murky boundaries with respect to content. Indeed, a growing number of respected environmental leaders and policy analysts now include vehicle emissions as well as emissions from gasoline production and distribution as a “must lower” part of a needed comprehensive national, state and local set of emission reduction initiatives, particularly,if the nation is to meet temperature targets. Further, there is an admission that is becoming almost pervasive: that renewable fuels and renewable fuel powered vehicles, while supported by most of us, are not yet ready for prime time.

While ethanol, methanol and biofuels are not without criticism as fuels, they and other alternative fuels are better than gasoline with respect to emissions. For example, the GREET Model used by the federal government indicates that ethanol (E85) emits 22.4 percent less GHG emissions (grams per mile) when compared to gasoline (E10). The calculation is based on life-cycle data. Other independent studies show similar results, some a higher, others a lower percent in reductions. But the important point is that there is increased awareness that alternative fuels can play a role in the effort to tamp down GHG.

So why, at times, are some environmentalists and advocates of alternative fuels at loggerheads. I suspect that it relates to the difference between perfectibility and perfection. Apart from those in the oil industry who have a profit at stake in oil and welcome their almost-monopoly status concerning retail sales of gasoline, those who fear alternatives fuels point to the fact that they still generate GHG emissions and the assumption, that, if they become competitive, there will be less investment in research and development of renewables. Yes! Alternative fuels are not 100 percent free of emissions. No! Investment in renewables will remain significant, assuming that the American history of innovation and investment in transportation is a precursor of the future.

Putting America on the path to significant emission reduction demands a strong coalition between environmentalists and alternative fuel advocates. Commitments need to be made by public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together to implement a realistic comprehensive fuel policy; one that views alternative fuels as a transitional and replacement fuel for vehicles and that encompasses both alternative fuels and renewables. Two side of the same policy and behavior coin. President Franklin Roosevelt, speaking about the travails of the depression, once said, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” His words fit supporters of both alternative fuels and renewables. Let’s make love, not war!