Environmental advocates should take another look at biofuels
The question of how best to address environmental challenges has increasingly become a partisan flashpoint. So, when there is a green solution on which many Republicans and Democrats see eye-to-eye, as we do, it’s worth paying attention.
It’s time to take another look at biofuels.
The economic benefits to a hard-pressed farm economy are plain as day. Renewable energy – not just biofuels, but also wind and solar – are helping farmers and the rural economy survive in a year when the weather has been unkind, to say the least.
There is a lot of talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but what’s needed are practical strategies to get there. Transportation is now the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, making it critical to any carbon reduction strategy. But public policy to date has put almost the entire burden of the sector’s transformation on the nation’s vehicles. Shouldn’t the fuels they burn get equal attention?
Look at the numbers: Even a rapid transition to electric vehicles will leave hundreds of millions of conventional cars and trucks on U.S. roads for the next 30 years. According to a review of the relevant studies by USDA, Ethanol reduces carbon emissions by 40 percent or more compared to gasoline. Increasing ethanol blends from the 10 percent used today by most vehicles to 15 percent, now approved by the EPA, is an important start – but we can do more.
There are also major public health benefits. Today, the octane in your gasoline is supplied by a class of toxic chemicals called aromatics, which make up roughly 25 percent of every gallon of gasoline. Breathing in these toxins from car exhaust can cause cancer. Moreover, Frederica Perera, head of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, has shown through more than a decade of research that the worst emissions from those chemicals – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs – have effects on pregnant women and small children comparable to airborne lead: low birth weight, diminished IQ and cognitive and behavioral disorders. In addition, fine particle pollution from aromatics causes thousands of premature deaths each year.
Higher ethanol blends reduce the need for aromatics in gasoline. The reason is that ethanol has higher octane than gasoline and improves engine performance – with lower emissions. NASCAR vehicles run on 15 percent ethanol. Those blends should become standard nationwide.
We should also give more attention to the potential of higher blends of ethanol for engine performance. With wider availability, automakers could tune their engines to perform even better than they do today. Research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has shown that mid-level blends of 25-40 percent, despite the lower energy content of ethanol, can match the vehicle fuel efficiency of cars running on today’s blends. Indeed, a multiyear study by the Department of Energy points to such blends as the best way to optimize vehicle and fuel performance. Blends of 30 percent are being used by the city fleet in Watertown, S.D,, with great success, and Nebraska is testing them in its state fleet. In Brazil today, every vehicle on the road (along with motorcycles and off-road equipment like boats) runs on a minimum of 27 percent ethanol.
It’s still true today that America’s national, energy and economic security is tied to our economic and consumer dependence on oil imported from volatile regions of the world. Using our farm commodities and agricultural by-products – such as corn, soybeans, switchgrass and livestock waste – and capturing natural resources – such as wind – to produce homegrown renewable energy is a winning solution to address the nation’s energy and climate challenges. Despite relentless misinformation campaigns by the oil industry and its allies, ethanol should again be seen and valued for what it is – a cleaner, healthier renewable fuel produced in the USA.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has served in the U.S. Senate since 1981 and Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) served in the U.S. Senate from 1987 to 1993.