Walk and Chew Gum – Keeping Biofuels at the Table

  John Eichberger |  June 16, 2022

There are a lot of articles, statements, projections, pledges and policies being promoted based upon the assumption that future vehicles are critical tools to reduce carbon emissions – and they are absolutely right! New technology will go a long way to helping us on a path towards carbon neutrality in the transportation sector. Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm to promote and even mandate these new vehicles, it seems we have lost sight of something very important – the 1.4 billion vehicles in operation throughout the world (approximately 300 million of which are in the United States) that will never benefit from this new technology and will continue to release carbon into the atmosphere for decades to come.

For more than 100 years, internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) and liquid fuels enabled society to thrive, improving our standard of living and providing opportunities previously unfathomable – and they remain the dominant source of mobility in the world. Yet, in the exuberance to usher in new battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (again, great technologies that are needed and can be a great benefit to society and the environment), we have irresponsibly stifled – and in some cases canceled out - discussions about these vehicles and the fuels that power them. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time – we can and have a responsibility to embrace new technologies while simultaneously improving upon existing ones.

It is with this backdrop and understanding that the Fuels Institute this week released our latest report, "Assessment of Biofuels Policy: Effectiveness of Emissions Reductions," focusing on the ability of biofuels to reduce the carbon intensity of the liquid fuel supply. According to our January 2022 report, “Life Cycle Analysis Comparison: Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles,” we found that 73% of carbon emitted during the life of an ICEV comes from the tailpipe during the vehicle’s operating cycle when fuel is being consumed. So, if you want to reduce carbon from ICEVs, guess where you should be looking?  That’s right – the fuel.


Our Latest Insights

What did we learn about biofuels from our latest report?  Here are a few key facts: 

  • Corn-based fuel ethanol’s carbon intensity (CI) is typically around 45% lower compared to gasoline and has reduced CO2 emissions by about 67 million metric tons (MMT) in 2019 at its current blend rate of about 10% by volume. 
  • Biodiesel and renewable diesel (RD) contributed about 23 MMT of emissions reductions in 2019, and RD’s use is expected to increase substantially, owing to its ease of adoption in existing infrastructure and engines. 
  • Corn ethanol has seen its CI reduced through technology and efficiency, and this trend is expected to continue through more sustainable farming practices as well as through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) incentives such as Internal Revenue Code Section 45Q (IRC 45Q). Application of CCS to corn fuel ethanol production would address roughly one-third of the emissions associated with this biofuel, whereas the reduced application of fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide can further reduce U.S. corn ethanol CI by 15% to 20%. 
  • While there are many other alternative fuel options, practicality, timeline, and costs should be considered when evaluating the best options to avert carbon emissions and their negative impact on the environment. Within this framework, fuel ethanol stands out as a promising means to achieve further emission reductions in the U.S. transportation sector. 
  • Assuming a 2022 U.S. gasoline pool of about 144 billion gallons (17,023,445 TJ), E10 blended gasoline is expected to save over 75.5 MMT of CO2 emissions, and E15 blended gasoline would save over 111 MMT of CO 2 emissions. 
  • The U.S. diesel pool was about 63 billion gallons (8,503,585 TJ) in 2019, and biodiesel and RD comprised about a 4% market share combined, reducing emissions by about 23 MMT of CO2e. 

Does this get us as far as we need to go?  Maybe not, but progress should not be discounted and dismissed because it does not achieve 100%.  When was the last time a “solution” provided 100% of an objective without “fuzzy math” or manipulation of the data?  We must be pushing forward to reduce carbon where we can, and biofuels represent a major opportunity. But of course, with opportunities come challenges.

Identifying to Overcome Challenges

We must not lead ourselves into thinking falsely that the market and regulatory regime are set up to immediately produce and accommodate a massive increase in biofuels. We cannot convert every station to sell E15 tomorrow due to the equipment compatibility and regulatory constraints. (For more insights, see our 2019 report, “Retailing Biofuels: A Guide to Reading Applicable Federal Regulations”)  We currently have about 3,000 stores selling E15 – but the industry installs 2,000 -3,000 new tank systems every year. Why not start there, and is there a reason to stop at 15%?

There are some legitimate reasons why we might not be able to go much further than that, including the fact that not all vehicles are manufactured to run on this fuel and the misfuelling mitigation requirements to protect legacy vehicles would be significant. But we published a paper in 2019 that examined how we might move the country to a higher octane gasoline and boost vehicle efficiency by up to 7.5%. That study found that E20 and E30 might be feasible options for achieving that objective at a lower cost than with E10, even when considering equipment required upgrades.

And we know from our recent report, “The Easiest and Hardest Commercial Vehicles to Decarbonize,” that medium and heavy-duty vehicles (most frequently powered by diesel engines) are critical to the decarbonization effort, yet we have not taken full advantage of our fuel options. Biodiesel is already approved by most large vehicles in blends up to 20%, yet we are blending it into our fuel supply at less than 5% on average. Meanwhile, renewable diesel is benefiting greatly from federal and state programs that have diverted much of its supply to the low carbon fuel standard-states on the west coast.  How might that product, which has no blend level restrictions and is deemed compatible with all equipment and vehicles, get a broader geographic distribution? We evaluated these markets extensively in our 2020 study, “Biomass-Based Diesel: A Market and Performance Analysis.”

And I recognize that even if we resolve compatibility and regulatory constraints, there is still the issue of feedstock availability. With the increased attention on sustainable aviation fuel, there is growing competition for feedstocks that could in the near future begin to impair our ability to increase biofuels production. With that understanding, why not work with the Environmental Protection Agency to expedite review and approval of alternative pathways and feedstocks to amplify the opportunity for biofuels to reduce the carbon intensity of the transportation market?  Yes, easier said than done – but why not collaborate towards such an objective?

No Silver Bullet

Yes, the challenges are real and significant – but so is the challenge represented by reducing carbon from 1.4 billion vehicles worldwide. Biofuels are not the silver bullet solution, but then again neither are any of the other options being promoted by governments in the developed world.

This latest report is not the first time the Fuels Institute has taken a close look at the biofuels market, and it won’t be the last. It is our sincere hope that this latest contribution helps spur additional discussions and evaluations of the opportunities and challenges facing us today. If reducing carbon is truly our global objective, how in the world can we consistently ignore the elephant in the room? (And by the way, I bet there is way to leverage elephant dung to supplement our fuel supply – just saying.)

It is time to stuff our mouth full of Big League Chew and start running, not just walking, to find decarbonization options that make a difference and work in today’s transportation sector while we usher in new technologies for tomorrow.