By Tim Rudnicki, Esq.
Race horses can’t remove their blinders, but thoughtful, engaged people can remove their metaphorical blinders to understand energy issues and ideas that surround them. When it comes to fueling our motor vehicles, big oil would like for us to keep the blinders on so we see oil as the only way to supply the energy we need to maintain a high quality of life. What are the big oil blinders preventing us from seeing?
With big oil blinders on, we might overlook some critical issues. For instance, the $31 billion in combined profits reported by several oil companies through the second quarter overlooks how these companies drill deeper into the fragile Gulf of Mexico, frack for oil and use huge amounts of water and energy to tear up the Boreal Forest for tar sands oil. Those blinders also make it difficult to see the effects of oil spills and pipeline releases around the globe including in the pristine waters of British Columbia and on popular beaches in Thailand.
Energy does, and will indeed continue to, play a role in helping us live a high quality of life. But the rate at which our life sustaining planet is being drilled and fracked for oil is not sustainable. Whether drilled or fracked, fossil fuel hydrocarbons are finite, and perpetuating the addition to them is hazardous to the planet and our health.
So how did we get stuck on finite fossil fuels as our primary energy supply? Daniel Yergin, in “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” examines this question in some detail. Yergin explores more than 100 years of energy history and details the struggle for access to oil, the consequences of its use, the impact oil has on the global economy and the complex geopolitics surrounding oil. Through this examination we learn how various public policies and taxes tamped down renewable biofuels, such as ethanol, and supported the oil industry.
Despite the policies that favored oil, in the early years of the 20th century, Henry Ford envisioned a different energy future. It was Ford who built and introduced the Model T, the first flex-fuel vehicle that could operate on either ethanol or gasoline. Later, Ford introduced the “Fordson” tractors which could also run on ethanol or gasoline. Ford was not alone in his understanding about the role biofuels could have played decades ago. Yergin also writes about a scientist from General Motors who warned that oil is finite and found the solution to be alcohol fuel: “...the most direct route which we know for converting energy from its source, the sun, into a material that is suitable for use as fuel.” The Quest at 647.
What can we see when we pull off the big oil blinders? According to Yergin and other experts, a high quality of life based in large part on renewable biofuels such as ethanol. But the future is here in some measure because Minnesota’s biofuel industry is already producing enough clean, renewable fuel to displace approximately 50% of all the gasoline purchased by Minnesota drivers. That’s only the beginning. Based on biomass processing research being done by energy and agricultural experts like Prof. Bruce Dale (Professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan State University), cropland can be used even more efficiently and sustainably to provide more food, feed and fuel while further reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Let’s pull off those big oil blinders and get the full picture about today’s renewable biofuels. Right here, right now, ethanol produced in Minnesota uses a small amount of water to make each gallon of fuel. Ethanol is a premium motor fuel that has 57% fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline. The men and women who run biofuel plants in Minnesota support 12,600 jobs. The Minnesota biofuel producers inject $5 billion into the economy. Ethanol actually holds down the price at the pump.
What else will you see when you pull of the big oil blinders? Coming very soon to Minnesota: E15! E15 is 85% gasoline added to 15% ethanol (that’s only 5% more ethanol than is currently found in most “regular” gasoline sold in Minnesota, but that 5% will make a big difference in lowering greenhouse gas emissions). Will your favorite fueling station be leading the way with E15? Find out by asking the next time you stop for fuel.