Climate Change and Ethanol: Get the Facts Right

FROM THE MARCH ISSUE: Myths and misinformation about ethanol and its effect on health and the environment need to be corrected to expand higher blends.
By Andrea Kent | February 18, 2020

A few short months ago, the world watched as a series of massive bushfires tore across Australia. Since the fire season began in July, record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought have fueled the worst wildfires the country has seen in decades, with large swaths of the country devastated. The fires were another stark and threatening reminder that our environment, and the impacts of climate change, cannot be ignored.

But in 2020, just as in the decades before, there is no single, perfect solution to climate change and the politics are anything but pristine.

In Canada, the need to balance environmental urgency with economic pragmatism is accepted. We want action but we recognize that action will be difficult. Further complicating matters, we also seem to be too often forgetting the few, effective solutions we have already put in place. Perhaps it’s because climate change is, by its very nature, so vast and complex. Maybe part of it is our inherent fascination with finding a new and exciting technology to solve all of our problems. But there is another phenomenon impeding our progress and jeopardizing our success—misinformation. And this is especially true when it comes to the blending of ethanol into gasoline.

Millions of Canadian drivers already fill up their tanks with fuel that is a blend of gasoline and ethanol, the latter of which generates much less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Federal blending mandates—in place since 2007—require our gasoline to contain an average 5 percent ethanol. In addition, several Canadian provinces are currently considering proposals to increase ethanol content. Ontario, for example, is examining the merits of moving to 15 percent ethanol and Quebec is considering a move to 10 percent in mid-2021 and 15 percent in mid-2025.

Despite the reality of widespread, and growing, ethanol use, most Canadians still don’t think about how it helps the environment. With every fill-up containing a blend of ethanol and gasoline, drivers are doing their part to reduce GHG emissions. Best of all, since ethanol costs less than gasoline—by about 20 cents per liter—this benefit has come at no additional cost.

If policy is half of the equation, the other is public awareness and education. To move forward, we have to break down the myths of ethanol, especially those being propelled by either old or biased information.

First and foremost, ethanol is good for the economy, period. Today, Canada’s ethanol industry generates approximately $2.5 billion in economic activity. This is projected to grow to up to $8 billion per year with a well-designed Clean Fuel Standard, currently being drafted by the federal government. If Ontario implements an E15 blending mandate, the domestic ethanol industry would have up to a $3.7 billion annual economic impact. Since the first biofuels mandates came into effect in 2007, Canada’s domestic ethanol industry continues to be on an impressive business trajectory—free of subsidies—that provides some of the highest-paying jobs in rural communities.

Ethanol is friendly on engines and wallets. Ethanol is a high-octane fuel, and E15 is compatible with modern car engines. The U.S. EPA has approved the use of E15 in vehicles year 2001 and newer, and drivers in America have already driven over 10 billion miles on E15 (without incident). And, because ethanol costs less than gasoline, increased blending will lead to drivers saving money at the fuel pump.

Last, but certainly not least, cleaner fuel means cleaner air. The science is clear: Canadian ethanol made from local corn reduces GHG emissions by up to 62 percent compared to gasoline. Across Canada, blending biofuels has reduced GHG emissions by a remarkable 4.2 megatonnes annually, the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road. Ethanol also reduces toxic tailpipe emissions linked to disease.

Understanding is the key to progress. To date, nothing has been as effective at reducing transportation sector GHGs as the federal and provincial regulations that require the use of cleaner, renewable fuels, like ethanol. And, unlike more complex and costlier environmental policies, we know ethanol works. Ethanol is not a new, untested technology. It has not been proven only theoretically, in academic papers, or just by scientists in a lab. We know ethanol works from over a decade of real-life experience.

The facts are clear—but not well enough known. If we are to achieve the maximum social, economic and environmental benefits of higher ethanol blends, we all have to do our bit to raise awareness and to keep pushing for expanded use. After all, we have never had more to gain or more at stake.


Author: Andrea Kent
Vice President of
Government and Public Relations,
Greenfield Global
Board Member,
Renewable Industries Canada