Fuel for Thought

Our customers often ask the following questions about renewable fuels. Fuel for Thought highlights some of the discussions we have had around these topics.

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Isn’t ethanol bad for the environment?

While it often gets a bad rap in the media, ethanol is substantially better for our environment than petroleum. Life-cycle analysis of corn ethanol shows significant reductions in GHG when compared to gasoline, including a 21% reduction of CO2 (global warming) emissions.  As we transition to new biomass feedstocks, ethanol’s benefits will only increase, while gasoline will come from increasingly carbon-intensive sources such as the tar sands, coal and shale.

According to the US Department of Energy, today’s corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 19-52% compared to gasoline – and ethanol that is made from agricultural residues or cellulosic feedstocks, such as switchgrass, could help reduce GHG emissions by up to 85%. But that’s not all.

In 1996, the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory developed the “Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation” Model (also known as the GREET Model) – a regularly-updated analysis tool to evaluate the full energy and emissions impact of advanced vehicles and new transportation fuels. Overall, the GREET Model analysis for ethanol shows a net reduction of harmful pollutants. E85 use reduces:

  • CO2 emissions by an average of 21%
  • Carbon monoxide (a major contributor to smog) emissions by up to 30%
  • Cancer-causing particulate matter (PM) emissions by 50%

Furthermore, unlike gasoline, which is derived from limited sources of underground crude oil, ethanol comes from a source that is constantly replenished– biomass. Emissions from the tailpipe of a car running on gasoline release CO2 that has not been in the atmosphere for millions of years. Biomass, which uses carbon to grow, acts as annual carbon sink until it is harvested. Even when we calculate in emissions from fertilization, harvesting, production, and transportation of ethanol, we still find a net reduction of GHG as compared to gasoline.

Doesn’t it take more oil to produce ethanol than you yield?

No, a 2010 study by the USDA concluded that Ethanol is an energy positive fuel – and becoming more so every day. On average, ethanol yields up to 2.3 times the energy than the energy that is required to grow, produce and transport/distribute it (2.3 BTU of ethanol for 1 BTU of energy in inputs).

On the other hand, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory found that it takes 1.23 units of fossil energy to produce one unit of energy in the form of gasoline. In other words, it’s gasoline—not ethanol—that has the negative energy balance.

Additionally, ethanol production is becoming less and less dependent on the use of fossil fuels for production, thereby further reducing foreign fuel imports. In fact, according to the University of California at Berkeley, the production of 19 units of ethanol energy takes just one unit of petroleum energy. Increases in crop yield, the use of biomass power in the production of ethanol and energy-efficient production technologies will only continue to improve this ratio.

Why sell B5 – how much of a difference can it really make?

B5 is a great way to introduce US drivers to the unique benefits of clean biodiesel, such as increased lubricity – and even the small percentage of biodiesel present in B5 can help achieve the goals of the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standards program. Of course, we’re committed to responding to our customer, and we’re proud to offer even more impactful blends of biodiesel, ranging from B20-B99, at many of our locations. (To see which blends are available near you, visit our Station Locator). As we grow, we’ll continue to evaluate our customers’ preferences and will respond with biodiesel blends appropriate for each market.

We know that B5, or 5% biodiesel, is a conservative blend, but it’s also the most efficient and effective way to introduce US drivers to the benefits of clean biodiesel. And it can accomplish more than you might think. If a just fraction of the diesel consumed in the US each year (let’s say 16 billion gallons – about a quarter of the diesel consumed in America each year) were blended with 5% biodiesel, we would reach the EPA’s required 800 million gallons of biodiesel (in the US market) for 2011. We’re proud to play a role in that progression. And from a performance standpoint, B5 is no ordinary diesel. It offers the same fuel economy as petro-diesel while boasting 3x more lubricity, effectively reducing engine wear and eliminating the need for lubricity additives.

Is corn ethanol responsible for rising food prices?

In a report from February 2011, the USDA determined that the price of oil, not ethanol production, has the greatest impact on consumer food prices. The USDA estimated that 33% of every dollar spent on food goes to energy-related factors.

Other factors contributing to higher food prices were also identified in the 2011 USDA report. These factors – including labor costs, packaging and processing – contribute additionally to the price of food.

Production reports also demonstrate that corn can be used for both food and fuel without competition. In 2009, the USDA also reported that the US produced a record corn crop of 13.2 billion bushels – more than enough to cover food, feed and fuel market demands. Furthermore, because ethanol is produced from only the low-value, starch portion of the kernel, 40% of the remaining vitamins, minerals, proteins and fiber are still used for animal feed.

Will biodiesel mess up my diesel engine without a special conversion?

Independent studies have shown that biodiesel performs comparably to petro-diesel while offering additional environmental, health and performance benefits – all with no conversion required. Biodiesel also demonstrates similar fuel economy, horsepower, torque and haulage rates as conventional diesel fuel – and because blends of biodiesel have superior lubricity compared to petroleum diesel, its use allows you to omit costly lubricity additives from your fueling routine. Best yet, all vehicle manufacturers’ warranties cover the use of B5 (5% biodiesel), with many covering up to B20 (20% biodiesel). (See www.biodiesel.org/resources/oems for specific manufacturer statements.)

For peace of mind, Propel’s biodiesel is guaranteed and ASTM-certified, so you can be sure you’re filling up with consistently high-quality fuel. And, of course, because there’s no conversion required, you will still have the flexibility to run your vehicle on petro-diesel, or any blend of the two fuels, as needed.

Are biofuels increasing deforestation in the Rainforest?

According to the National Institute of Space Research, since 2004, the total number of square miles deforested in the Amazon has been cut in half, while the total number of gallons of American ethanol production has nearly tripled.  And 2010 data shows that deforestation in the Amazon is at the lowest rate ever recorded.

Are biofuels increasing the use of GMOs and fertilizers?

American farming is experiencing a green revolution. Modern day “precision agriculture” techniques have shown an overall decrease of fertilizer use (an average of 4% less between 1980 and 2010) despite increasing crop yields that are credited with reducing famine worldwide. Since ethanol production began, corn productivity in the US has doubled: the USDA reports that corn productivity increased from 75 bushels/acre to more than 150 bushels on that very same acre – showing the ingenuity of America’s farmers.

The USDA also reports that US commercial fertilizer use peaked in 1981 at over 23 million nutrient tons and, since then, has rarely exceeded 22 million nutrient tons. Technological advances like more robust hybrid seeds, GPS farming and proper crop rotation will further reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and they will continue to trend increasingly toward the sustainable production of foods and fuels. Measures are also being implemented to cease soil erosion worldwide.

What role do subsidies play in ethanol pricing?

In recent years, subsidies for ethanol have helped level the playing field with petroleum, the true price of which, many would argue, is not reflected at the pump. Up until last year, the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) gave the industry an opportunity to introduce American drivers to ethanol fuels – and perhaps most valuably, to high-blend, high-performance ethanol fuels, such as E85, at a price comparable to or below gasoline.

On January 1, 2012, Congress allowed VEETC to expire and added a 38¢ tax to every gallon of E85. With this tax, the price of E85 has risen, and we are unable to offer same value at the pump that our customers have appreciated for the past few years.

In response, the Coalition for E85 is undertaking an immediate and targeted effort to secure a tax credit for E85 fuel. Visit the Coalition online today to send your Representative a letter supporting the inclusion of E85 in the Alternative Fuel Credit tax code in just three clicks.

To understand the cost of ethanol at the pump, we have to take a look at the true cost of petroleum fuel. In today’s market, oil enjoys a huge advantage. In addition to controlling nearly all blend and fueling infrastructure (and thus securing nearly all the fuel market-share), oil is heavily subsidized. According to an Environmental Law Institute report that looked at foreign royalty tax breaks, credits for oil production from nonconventional sources, exploration expensing, and other direct income credits, fossil fuels received nearly four times as many subsidies as renewable fuels, reaching a total of over $70 billion from 2002 to 2008. And that number doesn’t even include the costs to American taxpayers for supporting our foreign oil imports.

According to the National Defense Council Foundation, the economic penalties of America’s oil dependence total $297.2 to $304.9 billion annually. If reflected at the gasoline pump, these “hidden costs” would raise the price of a gallon of gasoline to over $5.28. Comparably, when it existed, the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) cost Americans approximately $6 billion while contributing over $65 billion to the domestic economy.

Isn’t ethanol corrosive, and won’t it ruin my engine?

No, ethanol will not ruin your engine. Propel Flex Fuel E85 is completely safe for use in for all Flex Fuel vehicles and may be used interchangeably with standard gasoline without issue.

Recently, ethanol blends up to E15 (15% ethanol) have been approved for use in all 2001 model year and newer automobiles. This approval was a result of rigorous testing by the EPA, in which 19 cars and light-medium duty trucks were tested and automakers and fuel suppliers were consulted at every step.

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