Home » Biofuels, a Solution to High Prices but What Exactly Do They Cost Us in the Long Run?

Biofuels, a Solution to High Prices but What Exactly Do They Cost Us in the Long Run?

by Coffee Table Science

Image: A biofuel production plant in Iowa

President Joe Biden said that his government will relax limitations on the sale of E15—gasoline that contains 15% ethanol—as well as additional investments in biofuels as an effort to alleviate Americans’ agony at the gas pump. However, scientists who research the environmental impact of ethanol are dissatisfied with the choice.

What is ethanol in fuel?

Fuel ethanol is the same sort of alcohol found in drinks, but with “denaturant” additives that prevent it from being consumed. The use of ethanol in gasoline reduces the need for crude oil. 

E10 is presently the most common gas marketed in the United States. Ethanol is typically made in the United States by fermenting sugar from corn starch. Sugar cane is used in other nations, such as Brazil.

Following a study on E15’s pollution  impact, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved its usage in 2011. According to authorities, it is now available at 2,300 petrol stations across the country.

Biden’s announcement

Biden said Tuesday at a bioethanol production plant in Iowa that the EPA will eliminate a limitation preventing the sale of E15 between June 1 and September 15—a restriction intended to reduce air pollution. 

This is because ethanol evaporates more quickly and rapidly converts to smog, which is especially problematic during the intense heat and sunshine during summer months. 

In the middle of a trade battle with China in 2018, the then-President Donald Trump wanted to abolish this limitation as a concession to farmers. Trump’s decision was subsequently reversed by a judicial ruling. 

According to the White House, E15 can save an average of 10 cents per gallon of gasoline at today’s pricing (4.5 liters).

But the real question is whether biofuels are safe for the environment.

Environmental threats

Despite the fact that biofuels have been promoted for their capacity to cut greenhouse gas emissions, evaluating the environmental effect of bioethanol necessitates taking into account greenhouse gas emissions connected to the crops used in its production.

“The carbon balance of ethanol relative to gasoline isn’t as good as it was originally anticipated,” says Tyler Lark, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 2005, Congress approved the “Renewable Gasoline Standard,” which mandated transportation fuel to contain a growing amount of biofuel.

In 2007, the legislation was broadened even more. According to a research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in February, 2.8 million more hectares of corn were planted between 2008 and 2016.

The repercussions of turning land to corn farming, according to Lark, the study’s primary author, were underestimated at the time. “When you do that, you plow up other types of land that may have been sequestering carbon and you apply extra nitrogen fertilizer to grow that corn,” he said. 

Furthermore, some fertiliser used to cultivate corn produces nitrous oxide (N2O), a powerful greenhouse gas. The study shows that greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline and ethanol are eventually equivalent. Other negative implications include fertiliser leaking into groundwater  and the loss of animal habitats to make place for corn crops.

Health issues

Bioethanol produces less CO2 per litre than regular fuels once in the tank, but it has less energy per volume, thus more is required.

In addition, “it produces acetaldehyde which is a carcinogen, formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen and both of those are two of the five most potent ozone producers in photochemical smog,” explained Mark Jacobson, a professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University. “It’s bad for both climate and air pollution, and spending money on it is taking money away from real solutions” such as electric vehicles, he concluded.

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