On Earth Day 2011: Clean-Burning U.S. Ethanol Protects the Environment and Creates Jobs

04/26/2011 02:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2011
  • Bob Dinneen President and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA)

On the first Earth Day in 1970, some misguided young people actually smashed cars in an overzealous attempt to make a statement against air pollution.

Now, as the nation celebrates the 41st annual Earth Day and marks the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it's time to face the facts about motor fuels and environmental challenges of all kinds. Quite simply, no other renewable fuel technologies can match the ability of American biofuels such as ethanol to replace oil in our motor vehicles.

Yes, wind, solar, and other renewable energies are also essential for America's energy future. But their role is to replace the fossil fuels from which we generate power and electricity. America uses very little oil to generate electricity, but we consume nearly 20 million barrels of oil a day. More than half is imported, and some 70 percent fuels our cars, trucks and other vehicles at great cost to our environment, our economy, and our energy security.

When it comes to combating air pollution, conserving natural resources, countering climate change, and keeping America free from energy blackmail, ethanol is one of the best tools we have available to us today. No other fuel is available in large quantities to replace gasoline while depositing fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Because ethanol contains 35% oxygen -- and adding oxygen to fuel results in more complete fuel combustion -- the biofuel reduces harmful tailpipe emissions. Moreover, ethanol also displaces the use of toxic gasoline components such as the carcinogen benzene, as well as being non-toxic, water soluble and quickly biodegradable.

That is why it is so important that ethanol is blended into gasoline, roughly 90 percent gasoline to 10 percent ethanol. Last year, by producing and using more than 13 billion gallons of ethanol, the U.S. reduced greenhouse gas emissions from on-road vehicles by 21.9 million tons. That's equivalent to removing 3.5 million cars and pickup trucks entirely from the road.

All in all, according to the US Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and a similar study by the University of Nebraska, ethanol reduces greenhouse emissions by up to 50 percent, compared to gasoline.

In fact, compared to gasoline, it is more environmentally sustainable to produce ethanol, as well as to use the clean-burning biofuel. According to an analysis released in June 2010 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, producing 2.3 units of energy in the form of ethanol requires only one unit of fossil energy. But researchers at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory found that it takes 1.23 units of fossil energy to produce only one unit of energy in the form of gasoline.

Meanwhile, ethanol production keeps improving its efficiency, consuming fewer resources to produce more energy. According to May 2010 research by the University of Illinois at Chicago on the biofuel's resource requirements from 2001 through 2008, ethanol production uses 28 percent less energy and 32 percent less electricity, while water use is down to 2.72 gallons per gallon of ethanol production.

What about the claim that ethanol production causes climate change by encouraging land use changes around the world? This unsubstantiated argument contends that, if an acre of corn in the American Midwest is used for ethanol production, then, somewhere else in the world, an additional acre must be used to grow corn. This theory disregards increased agricultural productivity: Since 1980, American farmers have produced twice as much corn on only 3 percent more land.

Moving beyond these old debates and evolving from the first generation of ethanol, the US biofuels industry is developing new feedstocks, including wood wastes, algae, and municipal garbage. As Congress and the country debate energy policy, the nation needs to continue to encourage the replacement of imported oil with clean-burning, American-made biofuels.

Proving that jobs-versus-the-environment is a false choice, the US ethanol industry supports some 400,000 good-paying green jobs that can't be shipped overseas. And private and public investments in American biofuels stay right here in the USA, instead of subsidizing hostile governments in Iran and Venezuela.

On Earth Day 2011, no one needs to smash their windshield. We just need to keep putting more clean-burning American-made ethanol in the fuel tank.