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

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.

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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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/02/2020 - 09:59 am.

    Absolute nonsense. Corn ethanol and all of its products (including E85) are far worse for the environment than gasoline. No reputable environmental groupd support the use of corn ethanol. Its just trade groups masquerading as environmentalists. Putting aside that gasoline without corn ethanol is actually cleaner, the real tragedy of this kind of piece is that it presents a false choice that distracts from meaningful emission reductions.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Blazek on 01/02/2020 - 01:51 pm.

    My experience with “Environmentalists” is that they have an agenda to get rid of “Oil!”

    Consequently, anything that makes “Oil better” is not in their general interest, and is NOT Supported. Surprised? I can assure you I was!

    To say that ethanol does not clean up gasoline emissions is misinformed at best, outright lying at worst. See

    Clean Burning, High Octane Ethanol, can replace significant amounts of the Dangerous Benzene Based Components used in gasoline for Octane, such as Benzene, Toluene and Xylene. These hydrocarbon compounds used in gasoline for Octane are bad actors regarding Air Pollution, and Health Problems such as Asma and Cancer.

    As ethanol has increased to around 10% of each gallon of gasoline, the percentage of the Benzene Based Hydrocarbon Compounds found in gasoline has been reduced from around 30% to 21% of each gallon of gasoline sold in the US.

    Ethanol is a tremendous success story for reducing harmful compounds in gasoline and our atmosphere, improving public health for everyone.

    In the US we use about 143 Billion Gallons of gasoline each year. Ethanol usage at 10% has reduced the harmful Benzene based compounds in our gasoline by approximately 13 Billion Gallons per year.

    That’s Very Significant!

    If your “Environmentalists” Don’t Agree, well than, they are not very good “Environmentalists.”

    Perhaps they have their own agenda.

    Cleaner Air Today Begins with Cleaner Fuels Today!

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/02/2020 - 04:56 pm.

      One might think the Urban Air Initiative is an environmental group based on its name, but its actually just a biofuels trade group masquerading as environmentalists.

      What you have cited is a blurb from the trade group’s website, which also talks about how all the studies showing ethanol’s worthlessness are wrong. Its those studies that the actual environmentalists rely upon.

      Ethanol is just welfare. A destructive handout to the corn industry.

      • Submitted by Thomas Blazek on 01/03/2020 - 10:36 am.

        Real emission testing, of true ethanol blended fuels, that consumers purchase at the gas pump, show significant emission reductions over typical non-ethanol gasoline fuels.

        EPA’s “Match Blending” testing of ethanol blended fuels, used “specially formulated gasoline samples” made with HIGHER concentrations of Heavy Aromatic Hydrocarbons used for octane in gasoline. (These are the expensive components in gasoline that contribute the most to auto emissions and air pollution.) The Oil Companies that helped EPA develop the “testing protocol” knew exactly what they were doing to make emissions increase in the ethanol testing program. EPA’s ethanol testing formulations had nothing to do with reality or the fuels consumers purchase at the pump! They were not blended for an octane level as typical gasoline is.

        So, ask yourself, why does EPA REFUSE to use real world testing of ethanol blended fuels purchased at the pump, which actually have LOWER Concentrations of Aromatic Hydrocarbons than found in ethanol free gasoline?

        They Refuse to do “real world testing” of actual consumer gasoline samples because that would support more ethanol blending, something EPA has fought for 20 years to support the Oil Industry.

        If you care to accept it, EPA’s Match Blending Testing of Ethanol “proves” that if you add clean water to a dirty water sample, the dirty water sample gets dirtier!

        If you believe that ethanol increases auto emissions, then you have succumbed to the EPA / Oil Company Illusion.

        I would think that every third grader in America knows that’s simply not true, but not our High Paid EPA.

        So why does the Federal Government Agency, that is supposed to be concerned with the Environment, REFUSE to Do or ACCEPT REAL WORD TESTING OF ETHANOL BLENDED FUELS?

        The answer is simple, EPA consistently supports the Oil Industry, to the determent of air quality for all Americans.

        Say it isn’t so!

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/05/2020 - 05:58 pm.

          Mr. Blazek, tail pipe measurements don’t equal lower emissions or decreased pollution in the real world. If they did, you’d be pointing to air quality measurements instead of tail-pipe studies. Almost all of the gas sold in MN has contained Ethanol for over a decade, and E85 has been around for how long?

      • Submitted by Steve VanderGriend on 01/03/2020 - 12:42 pm.

        Mr. Terry,
        We at Urban Air Initiative do focus on what makes a better fuel and we certainly rely of technical studies, which are peer reviewed. The problem you have is that you are basing your opinion by just reading a few articles. I know from all our research that you can find both positive and negative studies related to ethanol as a fuel. The key difference between negative and positive vehicle studies comes down to how the test fuels are blended.

        If you want to talk about a cleaner fuel, we should not be talking about ethanol versus gasoline but instead, ethanol versus aromatics in our fuel since one of the greatest benefits of ethanol is octane, and better yet clean octane.

        UAI is focused on technical research and currently have our 10th vehicle study in peer review. To say UAI is just a front for ethanol is wrong and obviously, you have not done your research.

        Steve Vander Griend
        Urban Air Initiative

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/05/2020 - 09:20 pm.

          No I’d say the debate is about the fact that current ethanol production requires large inputs of fossil fuel derived energy to produce, encourages monoculture that is harmful to future agricultural uses and the landscape as a whole, and as such doesn’t really dona great deal to mitigate the problems it claims to on even a local biome scale basis, much less a global one. It makes certain stakeholders money, which they’d otherwise have a difficult time making, which sure, great if one happens to be member of that subset, but not that big a deal for the rest of us. (Hopefully eschewing the jargon in favor of distilling the point to something normal people can understand doesn’t undermine your marketing TOO much)

      • Submitted by Tom Crain on 01/03/2020 - 10:44 pm.

        I think you’re right Terry, UAI appears to be the very definition of a front for at least one company in the biofuels industry

        According to ethanol backers have launched a campaign to steer attention away from the corn-based fuel’s potential impact on food prices and toward air quality and public health.

        Calling itself the Urban Air Initiative, the ethanol coalition aims to tie its foes in the petroleum industry to air pollution from automobile tailpipes. Ethanol, the initiative says, can clean up dirty air and help automakers achieve climate change goals.

        UAI was started by brothers Dave and Steve Vander Griend of the Kansas-based biofuel company ICM Inc. ICM formed the nonprofit Urban Air Initiative in 2012 to promote ethanol as a cleaner-than-hydrocarbon-aromatics power boost for car engines.

        According to ICM’s 2019 990 (non profit tax filing) it’s entire board and officers is ICM employees

  3. Submitted by John Evans on 01/03/2020 - 01:20 pm.

    Lots of discussion about technical stuff that most of us know nothing about. Maybe some enterprising journalist could gather comment on the record from actual experts. Or maybe this isn’t the appropriate forum.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/03/2020 - 06:48 pm.

    How does burning ethanol not introduce more carbon dioxide into the air?

    • Submitted by Thomas Blazek on 01/04/2020 - 12:18 pm.

      Various studies give ethanol a lower carbon score than typical hydrocarbon gasoline.

      Carbon scores are developed considering the carbon emissions generated producing the fuel and the carbon the fuel emits into the atmosphere when burned. In general ethanol has a carbon score of around 70% or less than that of hydrocarbon gasoline.

      While ethanol has a lower carbon score than gasoline, for me, ethanol’s real advantage is reducing various types of air pollution for our Children and Grandchildren. They are what ethanol is really all about for me.

      Ethanol promotes improved engine combustion and reduces hydrocarbon tail pipe emissions, that are related to a host of health problems. Ethanol has a very high-Octane Value of around 113. Adding ethanol to gasoline allows Oil Companies to reduce the amount of harmful Benzene Based Heavy Hydrocarbon Compounds used in gasoline to provide necessary Octane values. Ethanol provides a source of Clean, Economical Octane for Oil Companies to use to meet fuel octane requirements.

      Using ethanol in gasoline reduces the carbon score for the final gasoline fuel and also reduces the amount of harmful compounds in the gasoline.

      Ethanol is a very big win for the consumer, for the jogger you pass by on the road and for your children riding in your car.

      At the end of the day, it’s not about lawnmowers, snowblowers or motor boats, it’s about the air your children breath. Do you want the car ahead of you burning straight gasoline with all its polluting, heavy Benzene based hydrocarbons, or something cleaned up with ethanol?

      For my family, I what the cleanest fuels we can use, how about you? What do you want your children to breathe, emissions from Benzene, Toluene and Xylene, or clean air?

      The choice is up to you. You get to breathe the emissions from the car in front of you, and what it’s burning in its engine.

  5. Submitted by John Evans on 01/03/2020 - 08:36 pm.

    Here’s a less technical comment: Bernie Sanders proposes to use federal money to replace all of our diesel school buses with electric buses. I have no comment on Sanders’ candidacy, and I don’t know how you would implement this, but it seems like an effective way to sharply reduce the amount of air pollution that our children breathe.

    It seems so obvious! Urban school buses don’t need a huge range, and they work a split shift, so they have time to recharge before school’s out. I would like to see other candidates talk about this.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Blazek on 01/04/2020 - 02:37 pm.

    My thoughts on electrics are a little less transforming.

    China has been producing and using electric city buses for some time. This has been a big program in China and has supposedly even reduced diesel demand in China. But China and the US are not the same.

    As battery technology improves, electrics will come of age and gain more market applications.

    Personally, I would like to see the Post Office start to use electric delivery vehicles, as they replace worn out gasoline delivery vehicles. Seems to me, to be a great application for electrics. Charge them at night and use them in the day.

    At something like 24 Trillion Dollars in Debt, perhaps we should be careful how we spend Federal Money we don’t have, to replace things that are not warn out. (Wake Up Burnie!) Who wants to vote for higher taxes?

    Existing Bio Diesel and Renewable Diesel can help us with school bus emissions as we wait for electrics to come of age, and become the preferred replacement choice for all kinds of vehicles as they wear out. As economics tilt in favor of the electrics, we will start to see them everywhere.

    I took one ride in a friends Tesla, and I was Very Impressed! It’s a “Game Changer.”

    It’s just a matter of time.

    We may be singing the “City of New Orleans Train Song” about the gasoline car someday.

    Time and change are relentless…

    “Don’t ya know me, I’m your native son.”

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/05/2020 - 06:34 pm.

      Yes, and with despite our big deficit and huge federal budget it still makes more sense to subsidize ethanol than electric school buses. Bernie gets my vote on this one.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/05/2020 - 05:13 pm.

    This entire article is nonsense. If you want to measure air quality and pollution you measure air quality and pollution. You can’t claim that ethanol is cleaning up the air quality simply by point to more ethanol, you need air quality data which is notably absent from this article.

    Frankly, I expect more substance and better data from the Lung Association. Ethanol isn’t the only nor is it necessarily the best way to reduce vehicle emissions and unless you can point to some correlation between an increase in E85 and a decrease in pollution or lung disease What’s the point beyond promoting E85?

    Yes the ethanol industry has been making claims for decades now, but as Mr. Terry has pointed out the claims made by the industry and it’s lobbyists have not prevailed. In fact air quality in the metro area has continued to degrade. Ethanol is NOT the solution it’s champions claimed it to be for a variety of reasons.

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