Bioethanol, a cheaper alternative but not organic

Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2022 at 11:23 pm

Faced with record inflation and in order to cut prices at the pump, US President Joe Biden this week announced the lifting of restrictions on E15, a fuel containing 15% ethanol, as well as investments in biofuels.

But these decisions are far from pleased experts who have studied ethanol’s impact on the environment.

– What is ethanol? –

Ethanol is present in all fuels in different proportions.

The most common gasoline sold in the United States today contains about 10% ethanol (E10).

There are two types of ethanol: synthetic, derived from petroleum, and bioethanol, and bioethanol, which is made from wheat, sugar beets, or even corn, as is primarily the case in the United States.

The US government says cars built since 2001 can use E15.

But E15 is far from being widely available. It is distributed only in 30 of the 50 states, by 2,300 stations.

What did Biden announce? –

Joe Biden of rural Iowa announced Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will urgently lift restrictions banning the sale of E15 in the summer (between June 1 and September 15). A limitation initially put in place in the face of concerns about air pollution, which can be particularly problematic in summer.

In 2018, former President Donald Trump also wanted this restriction lifted, in order to appease farmers in the midst of a trade war with China. But a court ruling finally reversed this measure.

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

– Cultural implications –

Assessing the environmental impact of bioethanol requires including the greenhouse gas emissions related to the crops needed to produce it.

“The carbon footprint of ethanol compared to gasoline is not as good as it was originally thought,” Tyler Lark, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told AFP.

In 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard established that an increasingly large amount of biofuels intended for transportation were being sold in the United States. The law was extended again in 2007.

The result: An additional 2.8 million hectares of maize grew between 2008 and 2016, according to a study published in February in the journal PNAS.

But according to Mr. Lark, its lead author, the consequences of converting the land to growing corn were underestimated at the time.

“By doing this, you are plowing up the land that can trap carbon dioxide,” he explains, and thus release into the atmosphere.

Additionally, some fertilizers used to grow corn emit nitrous oxide (N2O), an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

Thus, greenhouse gas emissions related to gasoline or ethanol are ultimately comparable, the study concluded.

Other results reported by experts for the development of these cultures: water contamination with fertilizers, or the destruction of wild habitats.

– Consequences in the exhaust pipe –

Once in the tank, bioethanol emits less carbon dioxide per liter than conventional fuels, but more is needed.

In addition, it “produces acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, which are two carcinogens, and two of the five largest producers of ozone during photochemical haze,” and it occurs mainly in the city in the summer, explains Marc Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University.

“Ozone is a major health hazard, causing problems in the airways, respiratory diseases, and asthma,” he lists. According to him, both gasoline and bioethanol are “horrible”.

Marc Jacobson concludes that ethanol is “bad for the climate and air pollution, and spending money on it takes away from real solutions,” like the electric car.

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