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Why we still need alternative fuels when gas is cheap

One thing is certain: Alternative fuels are driving change in Minnesota. Change for the better.

There is still a strong case for using alternative fuels, even as gasoline prices drop.
REUTERS/Whitney Curtis

Retail gasoline prices in Minnesota are at their lowest in five years, and for the vast majority of Minnesota motorists, that’s very good news. Now that we are paying less at pump, some are beginning to suggest that we no longer need cleaner alternatives to petroleum, or that Americans will soon return to driving more and purchasing big, inefficient vehicles. But there is still a strong case for using alternative fuels, even as gasoline prices drop. 

Here are five reasons Minnesota should stick to alternatives to petroleum:

Robert Moffitt

1. The cost of alternative fuels have dropped, too. The price of all fuels varies widely by location and retailer, but generally speaking biofuels such as E85 and E30 have been priced less than regular unleaded in Minnesota. The owners of flex fuel vehicles have responded to these lower prices, keeping sales strong throughout 2014. In November 2014, more than 1.3 million gallons of cleaner-burning E85 were sold in the state, an increase over the same period in 2013. As the price of gasoline has dropped, so has the price of B5 biodiesel in Minnesota. Virtually all diesel sold in Minnesota is B5, which contains a 5 percent biodiesel blend. During the warm weather months, we switch to B10 biodiesel, a 10 percent blend.

2. We care about our air. Minnesotans are justifiably proud of their clean water and clean air. With more and more drivers and vehicles on our roads, it’s becoming more difficult to keep our air clean and healthy. Many people still don’t realize that the single largest source of air pollution in our state is vehicle exhaust, not smokestack emissions. As federal outdoor air quality standards tighten, we are on the cusp of exceeding new standards for ozone pollution. Fortunately there are some solutions, and Minnesota has already taken some important steps forward. We lead the nation in the number of E85 outlets, and were the first state to require biodiesel blends statewide. We have been building our mass transit and cycling infrastructure, as well as facilities for electric vehicles, and vehicles that run on propane or natural gas. To help keep our air clean and our lungs healthy, we need to continue this progress toward less polluting alternatives to petroleum.

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3. We support local businesses and farms. Much has been written lately about the movement to “buy local” in restaurants and shops. These efforts not only help the local economy, they help to better connect consumers to the people and companies that make them. From beer made in a neighborhood microbrewery to locally made clothing and food items, more and more Minnesotans want to buy local. Because Minnesota has no oil wells, we can’t buy our fuels locally – or can we? In the past 20 years, Minnesota has quietly become a major biofuels producer, with the capacity to make more than 1 billion gallons of fuel every year from renewable sources, grown on Minnesota farms. There is a high demand for these cleaner-burning fuels, both at home and abroad. Some plants in Minnesota are now making new types of biofuels – a Navy jet was recently test flown on a type of biofuel fuel blend made from Minnesota corn. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture estimates the industry’s impact on the state’s economy to be $5.03 billion per year.

4. We embrace change — and choices. For most American motorists, they have only one choice of fuel they can use in their vehicles, and it is almost always made from petroleum. For the first time in generations, Americans have more choices. Gasoline or diesel? Hybrid or electric vehicle? Compressed natural gas or propane fuel? Not all of the fuel choices are mutually exclusive. Drivers who choose a flex fuel vehicle can choose E85 or gasoline at the pump. Plug-in hybrids have both gasoline and electric engines. Bi-fuel vehicles can start on gasoline or diesel, then switch to cheaper and cleaner fuels like CNG (compressed natural gas). Those who have diesel vehicles can run on a biodiesel blend in Minnesota, or regular diesel fuel when biodiesel blends are not available. There are more choices than ever, and many are cleaner and more renewable than traditional petroleum fuels.

5. We won’t be fooled again. As a nation, we have seen fuel prices rise and fall. While we are all enjoying low prices today, few of us expect them to last forever. Like an investment portfolio, it makes good sense to diversify our transportation fuels, so we don’t become too dependent – or addicted – to a single type of fuel. America has been successfully reducing the percentage of oil it imports from outside of North America; we can do even better by producing alternative fuels and vehicles in the United States. Minnesota-based Polaris is investing in electric vehicles; Schwan’s has been delivering its products to Minnesota doorsteps in propane-powered vehicles for years. That truck that picks up the garbage may just be powered by CNG, and the postal truck that delivers our mail is running on E85. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go, but one thing is certain: Alternative fuels are driving change in Minnesota. Change for the better.

Robert Moffitt is the communications director for the American Lung Association in Minnesota.

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