The damage done by “renewable” fuel to classics … and the planet

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Unsplash | Demian Tejeda-Benitez

(This opinion piece from our valued author David C. Holzman does not necessarily reflect the position of Hagerty or Hagerty Media. Please enjoy it with an open mind — jb)

“Cars often arrive at the shop leaking fuel from everywhere,” said Greg Pellegrino, proprietor of Vintage Motorsports Garage, a car service and restoration company in Holliston, Massachusetts. Buyers often fail to anticipate the damage the ethanol in today’s gasoline inflicts upon the classics.

Ethanol desiccates the original rubber diaphragms, causing fuel pumps to leak, said Pellegrino. “We have to change around 80 percent of the fuel soft-lines on the cars that come in here, and any corresponding fuel pumps, to ensure safety.”

Additionally, vintage cars run too lean on alcohol-adulterated gasoline. The solution, said Pellegrino: Enlarge the main jet.

These problems are trivial compared to those created by the mandate for the gasoline/ethanol mixture. Signed into law in 2005, and expanded in 2007, the renewable fuel standard was supposed to reduce fuel prices and global warming emissions. But it increases the latter, by at least 24 percent over those from ethanol-free gasoline. These findings were recently published in the nation’s premier scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The mandate boosted corn prices by 30 percent. Farmers planted more corn—sometimes clearing virgin land in the process. Virgin land stores copious carbon, both within the soil, and in the resident flora and fauna. Once cleared, land loses the carbon to the atmosphere, where as CO2, it turns up the heat on Mother Earth. Planet-wide, soil holds more than three times the carbon in the atmosphere.

To prevent clearance of virgin land, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the fuel standard, had required land for growing biofuel crops to have been cleared prior to December of 2007 or to have been farmed prior to that date.

But rather than requiring biofuel producers to show they hadn’t cleared virgin territory, the EPA established a baseline of the area of cropland that existed in the U.S. at the time of the mandate. Its size: roughly twice Texas, plus Colorado.

That baseline was to be compared annually to existing farmland, under the assumption that if it hadn’t been breached, virgin land hadn’t been cleared.

The “aggregate compliance approach” frees EPA from having to verify sources of ethanol as “eligible to be blended with gasoline under the renewable fuel standard,” said David DeGennaro, senior specialist, Climate and Energy, National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Carbon debt

When virgin land is cleared to farm biofuels, the carbon that escapes from the soil represents the “carbon debt”. That’s the quantity of carbon emissions that renewable fuels must obviate before their use can begin to reduce atmospheric CO2.

Depending on the carbon content of the virgin land, and the fuel crops to be cultivated, repayment of carbon debt can take from several decades to eight centuries. Given the urgency to zero out greenhouse emissions—the consensus that we need to reach carbon neutral by 2050—there isn’t time to repay debt.

Ecosystem services

Virgin land provides benefits beyond carbon storage that are also lost when humans disrupt ecosystems. Carbon storage is just one of many services furnished by intact ecosystems. Pollination, clean air and water, and soil fertility are among many others.

From 2009 to 2015, the renewable fuel standard incentivized conversion to corn of an area of mostly virgin territory roughly the size of Idaho—the 11th largest state—as described in NWF’s Fueling Destruction: The Unintended Consequences of the Renewable Fuel Standard on Land, Water, and Wildlife.

Virgin grasslands—including native prairie, pasture and rangeland, and former farmland then in the Conservation Reserve Program—saw the greatest conversion, but significant wetlands and forests—also mostly virgin land—were also co-opted for corn.

Much of this conversion usurped wildlife habitat, notably for waterfowl, monarch butterflies, bees and other pollinators, and grassland nesting birds.

General environmental destruction

Industrial agriculture is highly polluting. Among much else, fertilizer-laden runoff kills aquatic life, and promotes toxic algae blooms that render water undrinkable and threaten human health. The PNAS study noted “a 5.3 percent increase in nitrate leached annually from agricultural land due to the [renewable fuel standard],” losses “that have been implicated in widespread groundwater contamination throughout the United States with major public health consequences.”

Ethanol refineries, often placed amidst cornfields, consume “very large volumes of water, adding additional stress to areas already burdened with declining aquifers and water storage” according to Fueling Destruction.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), the trade association of the ethanol fuel industry, went into high dudgeon over the PNAS paper, accusing the authors of “having str[u]ng together a series of worst-case assumptions, cherry-picked data, and disparate results from previously debunked studies to create a completely fictional and erroneous account of the environmental impacts of the renewable fuel standard.” One study RFA cited in its “Preliminary Rebuttal to PNAS Report” credited corn ethanol with reducing greenhouse emissions by 46 percent over gasoline.

“The studies promoted by the Renewable Fuels Association suggest that plowing up perennial grasslands to plant annually cultivated cropland results in nearly negligible [CO2] emissions due to land use change,” responded PNAS first author Tyler Lark, of the University of Wisconsin. “That’s contrary to the well accepted ecological theory concerning carbon debt, as well as to massive quantities of empirical evidence.”

“The standard biofuel lifecycle cost analysis, by not counting the emissions released by burning or otherwise oxidizing biomass itself, treats land as carbon-free,” said Timothy D. Searchinger, coauthor of one of two papers that introduced the concept of carbon debt in Science, in 2008, and a Senior Research Scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment.

The study implies that “we could remove Iowa from the world, and there would be virtually no need to clear any land to replace the food that would have been grown in Iowa,” said Searchinger.

Alluding to the legislative prohibition on growing alcohol-fuel crops on land cleared for that purpose after 2007, the Renewable Fuels Association asserted that “EPA’s annual assessment [of the area of farmland] shows that US cropland has receded [by 5-6 percent] since [passage of the 2007 renewable fuel standard legislation],” implying that the fuel standard couldn’t be causing clearing of more land for crops.

“Regardless of whether corn or total cropland acreage has increased, decreased, or stayed constant in recent years, without the renewable fuel standard those [farmland] acreages would have been lower than what was observed, by [an area roughly equivalent to Maryland plus Rhode Island],” said Lark.

A fuel standard falls short

Fourteen years into the mandate, the renewable fuel standard has fallen far short of its 36 billion gallon production goal for this year. Along with 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 5 billion gallons of “advanced biofuels” being produced, the fuel standard had called for production of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol. That would have enabled “a transition away from crop-based fuels to the more environmentally benign perennial grasses or fast-growing woody biomass,” said DeGennaro. But the difficulty of cost-effectively fermenting the abundance of sugars sequestered in cellulose remains a problem yet to be solved—and not for lack of trying.

This year is pivotal for the fuel standard. The Administration must reset the statutes that mandate the amount of blending by year’s end. In light of gasoline price inflation, Scott H. Irwin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois, expects the Administration to de-emphasize crop-based ethanol, motivated by the desire not to “give ammunition to those arguing that biofuels increase fuel costs.”

Further, “if any renewable fuels are emphasized it will be advanced biofuels,” said Irwin. Advanced biofuels include any fuel derived from cellulosic or other advanced feedstocks, and must reduce emissions by at least 50 percent. (Corn ethanol must achieve a 20 percent reduction.)

Emphasizing certain advanced biofuels could further raise the planetary temperature. Oil palms are a particularly attractive crop for producing biodiesel. They are grown on tropical plantations, often atop peat. Peatlands store around 30 percent of the carbon in the world’s soil, despite comprising just three percent of the land area. When peatlands are converted to palm plantations, the carbon is lost. Debt repayment could take eight centuries.

This isn’t great

I have my own biases on these issues. I’d love to keep driving internal combustion sans cognitive dissonance. For despite the Model S’ neck-snapping acceleration, and the new meaning it gave to “corners as if on rails,” electric power lacks soul.

In contrast, internal combustion has character, whether it’s the buzzy, chirpy clatter of an old Beetle, the throaty burble of a Jetta TDI that accompanies a powerful push, leaving the driver laughing with delight, or the Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing, a car so special, yet so soon to disappear from showrooms as to whisper into the ears of true gearheads that we’re living in automotive Brigadoon.

To put it differently, which would you rather drive: a Tesla—any Tesla—or a Boxster?

Ironically, the renewable fuel standard is promoting the past and ignoring the future. As Searchinger points out, by modern standards, photosynthesis, which evolved 3.5 billion years ago, is absurdly inefficient at collecting photon energy. Just fifteen thousandths (0.015 percent) of the solar energy that falls upon growing corn becomes embodied in the molecular bonds of the resulting ethanol. In contrast, 20 percent of solar energy incident on photovoltaic cells is transformed into electricity.

And in case you think solar electricity remains costly, be advised that world has changed. While in most states the cost of electricity exceeds 10 cents per kilowatt hour, often running into, and even well over the high teens, solar electricity has plummeted to 6.5-8 cents/kwh in much of the country, and to less than 6 cents, including battery storage, in the western US, said Scott Sklar, sustainable energy director of the Environment & Energy Management Institute and director of the GWU Solar Institute at The George Washington University. (Lazard has even lower numbers for solar.)

Furthermore, electric cars have a substantial edge over internal combustion in driving range per stored energy unit, even if the details are messy. The top rated car for efficiency according to energysage.com, the Tesla Model 3, maxes out at 134 mpg equivalent (mpge).

Of course, averaged over seasons hot, comfortable, and cold, and driven enthusiastically, you’ll likely get closer to the 83 mpge average that one enthusiast publication saw over 40,000 miles. But that’s still more than double a competitive ICE car.

Maxing out at an unimpressive by EV standards 79 mpge (highway), even the portly, powerful Porsche Taycan—all 5000 pounds of it—blows away the ~3000-pound Prius Eco, with its zenith of 58/city.

The shortcomings of renewable fuels for ICE may be lost on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Renewable Fuels Association, but they are not lost on the world, which is switching, at an accelerating pace, to electrifying cars. Those shortcomings are also not lost on me, despite my continued, likely vain hope for deus ex (ICE) machina.

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