Energy Experts, Environmental Advocates Urge Pumping Brakes On Ethanol

A gas pump near Omaha offers E85, E15 and ethanol-free fuel. (Christina Stella, NET News)
Omaha resident Andy Hinton shows reporter Becca Costello the changes he made so his Subaru could run on E85. (Christina Stella, NET News)
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August 14, 2019 - 6:45am

Nebraska ranks second in the nation for ethanol production. But Nebraskans disagree on whether ethanol is an environmentally-friendly option at the gas pump.  


Andy Hinton points to his car at a gas station outside Omaha, showing the modifications he’s made to his Subaru.

"The fuel injectors, it's connected to this clip right here," he says, pointing down at his car. "It doesn't look any different from a normal fuel injector." 

Read about the economic impact of the ethanol industry: How Will Year-Round E15 Impact Nebraska's Economy?

Hinton made these changes so he could use E85, gasoline blended with up to 85 percent ethanol. He says it’s better for his engine, but that’s not his only consideration.

"I've got little kids at home so I think about the environment and the future for them and everything," he says. "And the fact that it does burn cleaner and helps that is good."

But not everyone agrees that ethanol is the best environmental option.

"There's a lot of contention, whether ethanol is good for the environment, and there's a lot of argument in both the public sector but also in the academic and scientific sector." says F. John Hay, a renewable energy extension educator at the University of Nebraska. "And there's actually good research studies on both sides of that argument." 

Some of that research is funded by the petroleum industry; in fact, a refining industry association is suing to block the Trump administration's expansion of E15 sales. 

The answer to the question depends on what part of the environment you’re asking about.

It’s true that ethanol releases fewer toxics from the tailpipe – that means the air we breathe is cleaner. Those emissions tend to get stronger on hot days, so until recently you couldn’t buy the 15 percent ethanol blend in the summer.   

"Renewable fuels contain oxygen, so when they burn they're going to have more oxygen to help them burn more completely," says Loren Isom, assistant director at the Industrial Agricultural Product Center at the University of Nebraska. "And then that reduces the tailpipe emissions." 

But there’s only a small difference in emissions between E15 and E10 – that’s the most commonly used gas in the U.S. And some say E15 is actually better than E10.

"So there was arbitrarily a waiver put in for 10% ethanol,"Isom says. "But the reid vapor pressure for 15% ethanol is actually lower than the vapor pressure for E10. So academically or science based, it didn't make any sense.

Trump’s EPA lifted the restriction starting this year, drawing praise from the two states that produce the most ethanol: Iowa and Nebraska.

The lifting of the restrictions means ethanol fuel in general is more accessible and that’s what concerns local environmental groups like the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club.

A gas station in Gothenburg, Nebraska advertises ethanol blend fuels. (Becca Costello, NET News)


The real dispute isn’t about air quality, but the impact on global warming: which fuel sources contribute the most greenhouse gasses? 

Ethanol blends DO release less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels alone by as much as 34%.

But Sierra Club of Nebraska conservation chair George Cunningham says you can’t just look at what comes out of the engine – you have to consider what it took to make that ethanol.

"If you've ever been by an ethanol plant, you will notice that there's usually a big substation right outside that plant. That is the electricity coming to it from a coal fire facility that's located here in Nebraska, other parts of the country, they have gas fire facilities," Cunningham says. "So when you add these up, you're actually get no net benefit from a carbon standpoint."

The U.S. Government Accountability Office shares that conclusion in a report released in May. The group analyzed the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard of 2007, which contributed to the significant increase in ethanol production over the past decade.  

The report says the ethanol boom has had little, if any, impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

GAO Director of Energy Issues Frank Rusco says part of the blame is with land conversion. Since 2008, 10 million acres of U.S grassland, shrubland, wetland, and forestland were converted to crop production. 

"Land actually captures a lot of carbon, and when you dig it up and plant something in it you release a lot of carbon," Rusco says. "So that initial release of carbon adds a lot to the lifecycle emissions of biofuels." 

(Credit: Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab)


And Cunningham says land conversion has other serious consequences as well.

"From a native prairie perspective, the native prairies are home to thousands of species that use them, either permanently or during migration events," Cunningham says. "So it's a wholesale slaughter on the native species that occupy these areas."

Other unintended consequences of increased row crop farming include contaminating groundwater and an increase in toxic algae blooms, caused by nutrient runoff that eventually ends up in lakes, rivers, and along the Gulf Coast. 

"It affects the water you drink, the air that you breathe, your human health," Cunningham says. "And if you engage in any sort of outdoor recreational activity around water, it's going to affect you." 

Groups like the National Wildlife Federation see any increase in ethanol availability as a step in the wrong direction.

Agriculture Policy Specialist David DeGennaro says corn ethanol hasn’t lived up to expectations:

"We’re increasingly questioning whether we should bother investing in biofuels at all," he says. "The environmental costs have just been too large."

A new report from the United Nations panel on climate change warns agriculture, deforestation and other land use generate about a third of human greenhouse gas emissions. Looking at the agriculture industry as a whole, DeGennaro sees a lot of room for improvement. 

"There really needs to be an emphasis on helping encourage farmers to do better in their production of corn and other crops," he says. "You can't grow your way out of all problems. You can't feed a growing world and power all of our cars with crops and generate electricity with crops. That's just not sustainable and it's not possible and will just make a lot of our problems worse." 

Regardless of the climate impact, ethanol was never intended to replace petroleum altogether. We couldn’t possibly grow enough corn for that, plus pure ethanol doesn’t work in our cars when the weather gets too cold.

At Bridgeport Ethanol in western Nebraska, ethanol is pumped into a train for transportation to be blended with petroleum. (Becca Costello, NET News)


Most energy experts looking into the future see electric transportation as the solution.

"Strangely, if I want to do something about the environment and I want wind and solar, most people in this camp look at biofuels and think, 'this is not the answer,'" says Carey King, research scientist and assistant director of the Energy Institute at the University of Austin

But widespread use of electric vehicle transportation is a long way off. 

"I mean, are we gonna see electric cars tomorrow, and all be driving electric cars?" F. John Hay asks. "We have an infrastructure to build up of charging, we have an infrastructure to build up of battery technology and battery manufacture." 

Regardless of what our future vehicles look like, for car enthusiast Andy Hinton, there will always be a place for his beloved Subaru running on E85. 

"I think there's room for both electric and fuel powered vehicles. I don't, I don't think gas powered or fuel powered vehicles will ever fully go away," Hinton says. "I mean, people will still have their 60s muscle cars even 100 years from now that they'll figure out how to maintain and everything." 

And until — or if — electric vehicle infrastructure becomes commonplace, drivers will have to weigh all the environmental factors when deciding which button to push at the gas pump.

"Someone who is deeply involved in the climate change movement will have a difficult time picking that nozzle up when they know [where] it's all coming from," Cunningham says. "If someone is deeply committed to doing something about this, the best thing they can do is take advantage of the tax credits out there and go buy yourself an electric vehicle." 

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