Is Ethanol Gas Bad For Your Car – When I first looked at the environmental impact of corn ethanol, I thought it was simple: plant an acre of corn for fuel, which means you have to plant another acre elsewhere for food, which ultimately means deforestation and lots of emissions. carbon to the environment. Plus, even the EPA says it’s worse than oil. Then I dug deeper and realized that it may not be as simple as it seems and that the EPA estimates are rough and outdated. I promised to look into the matter and report back.
Now I’m here to say that I have to eat my words about corn ethanol being worse than gasoline. However, this does not mean that ethanol is better than gasoline. Rather, this broad question (is corn ethanol always better than oil?) is impossible to answer with complete certainty.
Is Ethanol Gas Bad For Your Car
When I presented my first accusation about ethanol to Dan Kammen, a respected renewable energy researcher, he told me, “You can hardly be wrong, but you can hardly be right.” That’s because it’s all indirect cause and effect, related only to the invisible hand of the market: a farmer in Iowa decides to plant corn two seasons in a row instead of rotating corn and soybeans; at the same time, a farmer in Brazil’s Cerrado was plowing a new field for soybeans. Has one caused the other? The scientists I call “high counters” say yes, probably. The “low counters” say probably not. And as the authors of this article say, “Unfortunately, neither of these views can be proven wrong.”
The Problem With Ethanol In Gasoline
However, I want to assure you that this is not a Schrödinger’s cat situation where the truth will never be known. Reading this post will leave you no less than when you started. The question “is ethanol always scary/good?” is too broad to answer definitively, but we can narrow it down. If we ask about the massive expansion of biofuel production to replace fossil fuels, then the high counters are clearly right: it will cause deforestation and climate catastrophe. If, on the other hand, we’re just asking about maintaining current corn ethanol production, that’s probably a good thing, because it produces about 20 percent less emissions than switching back to oil.
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This is the conclusion reached by Jeremy Martin, a senior researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in his new report on transport fuels. Martin is careful to point out that there are other problems with corn production that carbon measurement doesn’t capture — algae blooms from nutrient runoff, erosion and habitat loss. However, the U.S. consumed 13 billion gallons of ethanol in 2014. Reducing the GHG intensity of all this fuel by 20 percent is significant.
Scientists and politicians have been telling each other they are wrong about ethanol for over a decade. Kammen started out on the pro-ethanol side: His lab published a paper in 2006 suggesting that corn ethanol is more efficient than fossil fuels. But then, in 2008, a couple of papers pointed out that any assessment of ethanol needs to take indirect land-use change into account. If growing corn for ethanol in Iowa meant farmers had to convert more land to farmland, that would completely negate the benefit of ethanol. In 2010, a group of researchers, including Kammen, did another calculation—this time on the effects of land-use change—and they concluded that ethanol’s carbon footprint is equal to or greater than that of gasoline.
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Researchers are still throwing arguments and counter-arguments back and forth. Kammen told me it wasn’t because someone was blind to the truth or corrupt; they simply differ greatly in the way they model emissions and land-use change. It’s like discussing different atomic models, he said. New evidence helps refine these models or suggests new ones, but we still don’t have a perfect model.
Witness, for example, the chain reaction that began when the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab responded. in one of those important papers in 2008: This prompted a follow-up from Princeton’s Tim Searchinger, to which Argonne responded, prompting Searchinger’s rebuttal. It may sound like an academic cage match, but it’s all in the interest of science: Criticism allows scientists to improve their models.
Today, Martin told me, “Most life-cycle analyzes of biofuels include this concept of indirect land-use change,” and researchers have improved techniques to capture all the greenhouse gases released in the gasoline-making process. He was impressed with the California Air Resource Board’s assessment of ethanol. Defining California’s low-carbon fuel standard was a five-year process that involved listening to researchers from across the spectrum, convening expert task forces, and finally combining that information with the latest science. “It’s a fair representation of how things are today,” he said. This presentation suggests that even when we include the effect of indirect land-use change, corn ethanol blended into gasoline today has 20 percent less greenhouse gas impacts than oil.
The argument that first sold me on the idea that corn ethanol is an automatic loser was this: If you set aside land to grow fuel, you’ll have to grow food somewhere else, and you’ll displace plants that are already taking up carbon.
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First, the crop: If you plant a crop of corn that replaces identical crops of corn, there’s clearly no benefit – everyone absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide from the air. But if you take land that produces hay, for example, and replace it with corn in the summer and then wheat in the winter of the same year, it produces more plants that absorb more carbon dioxide. All of this is happening against the backdrop of an underlying trend of rising yields as farmers develop new techniques and better technology.
Second, meat production: It’s crazy to say that people eat less when biofuel production requires more land… unless you know that most of the land is used to produce food for animals. As ethanol production increases, it raises the price of feed, which raises the price of meat, and — although there may be other reasons — Americans are eating less livestock.
If you look at the big picture, farmers have increased the amount of corn they grow, but the amount of other crops has decreased over the long term and across the United States. the total value of farmland did not change much.
Of course, this is happening in different places – the ethanol boom has caused farmers in the Midwest to plow a lot of environmentally sensitive land, while in the Northeast and South, the land has completely abandoned agricultural production.
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It’s just in the US – but we also have to ask if other countries are plowing more land to grow cotton and wheat, while we’re using less land to grow crops here. While places like Indonesia and tropical West Africa have seen tragic deforestation for agriculture, other areas are reforesting, and the total amount of farmland around the world is nearly flat.
If we tried to grow more ethanol right away, farmers would convert the land to agriculture – no doubt about it. But it’s another thing to ask what would happen if we stopped growing ethanol corn. Are Iowa farmers turning their fields into tallgrass prairie? Maybe some, but they seem more likely to grow animal feed. Continuing ethanol production – rather than increasing it – should not cause more land to be converted to agricultural use.
Whether you’re a high-calculator who thinks corn ethanol is terrible or a low-calculator who thinks it’s great, it’s here to stay. Right now, 10 percent of the gas that goes into our cars is ethanol, and even though lawmakers repealed the renewable fuel standard — which mandates mixing that 10 percent with our gas — the percentage isn’t going down. This is because refiners rely on ethanol to raise the octane rating of gasoline. As NPR reporter Dan Charles explains:
The octane number is a measure of the fuel’s tendency to ignite under pressure. If it is too low, the fuel-air mixture in the engine’s cylinders will burn too quickly, causing harmful “knock”. The industry standard for gasoline is 87. But getting gasoline octane to that standard costs money. This means adding oil or using high-octane compounds in the fuel formula, such as – you guessed it – ethanol. So fuel companies don’t use ethanol as energy – they buy it for its high octane rating.
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You can also use lead to increase the octane number, but we decided against it when we learned that it is a serious poison. You can use methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), but we abandoned it in the 1990s because it seemed to contaminate groundwater. Finally, you can build more complex refineries to process oil to higher octane without ethanol. But that would be expensive, Martin told me, and unlikely to happen anytime soon
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