Asking the Right Questions

By Bob Dinneen | June 26, 2013

The numbers don’t lie. When directly compared with gasoline, ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40 to 50 percent. Ethanol also reduces all criteria pollutants: carbon monoxide, exhaust hydrocarbons that form ozone, particulates and toxics. 

Recently, the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee decided to take a deeper look at the impact of the renewable fuel standard (RFS) on GHG emissions and the environment. 

I began answering the questions posed by the committee regarding the RFS and GHG emissions, and what became evident was that they were asking the wrong questions. The committee was delving into ethanol’s impact on GHG emissions, without discussing the negative and harmful impact of its replacement. Their questions fail to compare today’s environmental landscape to a world with no RFS, a world that would be entirely dominated by petroleum, increasingly supplied by Canadian oil sands and tight oils in this country from fracking. 

Consequently, I decided to pose 10 questions of my own that should have been asked in order to gain a full understanding of the environmental impact of the RFS. They include: 

1. What are the environmental effects of oil exploration, including seismic surveys, drilling and well logging, deployment of marine platforms, and infrastructure development?

2. What are the environmental effects of oil extraction, including fracturing, pumping, and additional infrastructure establishment?

3. What are the environmental effects of crude oil distribution, including transportation (ocean tanker, rail and/or truck) and pipeline?

4. What are the environmental effects of gasoline production at the refinery?

5. What are the environmental effects resulting from gasoline distribution, including transportation, pipeline shipment and storage?

6. What are the environmental and public health effects of gasoline use, including fuel blending, fuel dispensing and driving?

7. What are the GHG emissions impacts of increased unconventional oil production from Canadian oil sands, tight oil from fracking, thermally enhanced oil recovery, and gasoline production, distribution and use?

8. How has the composition of gasoline and resulting emissions changed since 2005?

9. What are the GHG and other environmental impacts of our dependence on imported oil and the national security implications of that dependence?

10. Do current lifecycle analysis tools and models fully capture the environmental and carbon effects of oil exploration, extraction, processing, transportation and combustion?

Context is important. As Congress assesses the merits of ethanol and the RFS, a clear understanding of the fossil fuels being displaced by ethanol and other renewable fuels is imperative. Changes to the RFS would undoubtedly lead to increased use of marginal petroleum, fuels that have their own distinct environmental, public health and carbon effects.

Moving forward, I hope the Committee realizes the necessity of the RFS and takes a fair and objective look at all aspects of GHG emissions, without omitting the negative effects of petroleum on the environment. 

Author: Bob Dinneen
President and CEO
,Renewable Fuels Association