In response to “Ethanol is a not long term solution,” I’ll begin by saying the author made some valid points. No, ethanol is not an environmental, economic and political cure-all, nor is it the sole solution to our nation’s fossil fuel addiction. However, the post did fail to address one key question that should be asked of all alternatives to traditional petroleum fuels: “are ethanol blend fuels better than traditional petroleum fuels?”
The American Lung Association in Minnesota believes the answer to that question is “yes.” Using E85 in a flex fuel vehicle significantly reduces tailpipe emissions as well as lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions; the 10 percent ethanol added as an oxygenate in our gasoline helps the fuel burn cleaner and reduces the amount of oil we need to import from other states and other countries.
Before we critique ethanol, let’s take a closer look at the traditional transportation fuels most of us still use every day. A large percent of the gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels consumed in Minnesota are derived from the Tar Sands region of Alberta, Canada. The partially degraded bitumen used to make our fuels is strip-mined or steamed out of the soil, using processes that require enormous amounts of water and fossil fuels. After the thick sludge arrives in Minnesota via pipeline or rail, more energy and water is used to refine the fuels that power our vehicles, boats and aircraft. This carbon and water intensive oil produces more greenhouse gases than sweet light crude, and unlike ethanol, it is not renewable or cleaner-burning.
Few people realize that gasoline actually has a negative energy balance. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that for every unit of energy expended in gasoline production, just 0.81 units of energy are delivered in the final product. On the other hand, for every unit of energy used to make ethanol and its co-products, 1.87 units of energy are yielded.
There are more than 300,000 flex fuel vehicles that can use E85 and other high-ethanol blend fuels registered in Minnesota. Minnesotans buy millions of gallons of E85 from more than 350 retail outlets statewide each year. This cleaner-burning fuel is not mandated, but is the fuel of choice for many Minnesotans drivers who want a fuel that is made close to home, reduces air pollution and (almost always) costs less than regular unleaded.
It is true that E85 contains less energy per volume than gasoline. However, the current price of E85 more than offsets any reduction in miles per gallon, plus E85 is largely renewable, gasoline is not. The closer you compare E85 to gasoline, the better the homegrown fuel looks.
Slowly but surely, we are breaking our addiction to oil. For the first time in decades, our consumption of gasoline has declined. We’re driving less, driving smarter, and conserving more. Here in Minnesota, walking and biking are booming, our mass transit options are growing, and we have seen steady growth in E85, biodiesel, electric, natural gas and propane powered vehicles.
As the MN 2020 post concluded, we still have a ways to go before we reach the full potential of many renewable energy sources available to us. Vehicle emissions are still the single largest source of air pollution in Minnesota, and we should not allow the search for a “perfect solution” get in the way of some of the better choices we have available to us right now. Research on promising new fuels and technologies must move forward. In the meanwhile, the American Lung Association in Minnesota will continue to fight for cleaner air, cleaner vehicles, and cleaner fuels, like E85 and biodiesel.
Robert Moffitt is the communication director of the American Lung Association in Minnesota
Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.