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.