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Tailpipe dreams: progress and promise in our quest for cleaner air

Like the movement of a glacier, Minnesota’s progress toward cleaner fuels and away from oil dependency may appear slow, but it is happening, and some real accomplishments were made in 2019.

Traffic under the Plymouth Avenue bridge.
Traffic under the Plymouth Avenue bridge.
As one year ends and another begins, there is always some reflection on what we have accomplished in the past 12 months. One place that records our accomplishments is the Alternative Fuels Data Center, an online resource maintained by the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s an interactive website that provides a wealth of information on alternatives to traditional petroleum fuels. Here in Minnesota, those alternatives include ethanol, biodiesel, electricity, propane, and compressed natural gas. All of these alternatives produce fewer tailpipe emissions than petroleum fuels.

Reducing emissions from vehicles, both on-road and off-road, is an enormous challenge to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and others concerned with our air quality and climate. There are so many vehicles of all sizes and types in service throughout the state. Some are old diesels, which lack the pollution control devices required in newer diesel vehicles. Others are vehicles used by commuters, businesses, schools, construction, mass transportation and all the other purposes that we depend on.

These vehicles have one thing in common: Each year, they require vast amounts of petroleum, imported from outside of Minnesota. The tailpipe emissions from these vehicles represent the single largest source of both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Total of 1,505 alternative fuel stations

There is always hope in each New Year that things will be better, and that was also the case in 2019, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center. A review of our state profile showed that 334 new or newly reported alternative fuel stations opened in Minnesota during 2019, raising the total number of public and private stations to 1,505.

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The American Lung Association has long tracked the growth of the biofuels industry in the state, including the number of retail stations offering ethanol blend fuels. One of these fuels is E85, a cleaner-burning alternative that can be used in flex fuel vehicles, which are designed to run on either ethanol blends or gasoline. Seventeen new E85 stations opened in Minnesota in 2019, bringing the total number to 422, the most in any state.

Robert Moffitt
Robert Moffitt
The relatively new ethanol blend approved by the U.S. EPA for use in vehicles 2001 or newer, 88 octane gasoline, also saw growth as 28 stations began selling the fuel in 2019. Also known as E15, this fuel is now sold in 340 stations in Minnesota, usually for less than regular unleaded.

Using biodiesel can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and particle pollution, and Minnesota used a lot of it in 2019. Each year, biodiesel, a largely renewable and locally produced fuel, displaces roughly 130 million gallons of petroleum diesel. This is important, especially for those older diesels without pollution control devices.

Electric vehicles top 10,000

There has been much said in MinnPost and in other news outlets about the rise of electric vehicles in Minnesota, and Gov. Tim Walz’s Clean Cars Minnesota proposal to move the state to new emissions standards that are already in place in 13 other states. The number of electric vehicles on the roads in Minnesota has topped 10,000, and in 2019 year nearly 90 new public charging stations were installed statewide. Many more charging stations are planned, and funding from state’s $47 million share of the VW cheating settlement is now becoming available.

Like the movement of a glacier, Minnesota’s progress toward cleaner fuels and away from oil dependency may appear slow, but it is happening, and some real accomplishments were made in 2019. Let’s work to ensure that movement continues in the right direction.

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

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