‘Pink Out’ Ethanol Charity a Mixed Brew

gas cap with warningNext Monday marks the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), during which many companies have pledged to donate a portion of profits for breast-cancer research. Among these organizations is Growth Energy, the advocacy group behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 decision to allow more ethanol into fuel sold at pumps across America. Growth Energy has partnered with Sheetz, Minnoco, Protec and Murphy USA for its annual Pink Out campaign, which covers nozzles for E15, gasoline with 15% ethanol, in pink to indicate they would donate 2 cents for every gallon sold.

The BCAM campaign generates billions overall for this vital cause. And if you’re fueling up a car of the year 2001 or later, Growth Energy’s program sounds reasonable. You might already be fueling up with E15 now and then, and you probably won’t notice the slight reduction in mileage from using a higher percentage of biofuel. But in its pitch for the Pink Out program, Growth Energy isn’t giving you the whole story. The organization claims that burning gasoline harms the environment and releases harmful gases, though the main selling point for ethanol, reduced carbon-dioxide emissions, has not stood up to scrutiny.

Outdoor gear at risk
Gassing up your vehicle is one thing; the latest fuel systems should be able to handle it. For anyone filling up a gas can for use in outdoor power equipment, however, it’s another matter. Gasoline in general can cause engine trouble if left sitting for long periods. Yet the ethanol mixed in makes engines run hotter, stiffens rubber and plastic parts, and attracts water, which at the very least hinders starting.

Manufacturers accept that their customers will use gas with 10% ethanol, E10, which is found across the country. If you use E15 in outdoor power equipment and hit trouble, though, any repairs won’t be covered by your products’ warranties—which is why you’ll see plentiful warnings to use gasoline with no more than 10% ethanol. (You’ll need them; the EPA’s pump label is not prominent.) Turning a gas nozzle pink doesn’t make it a win-win on your end, but you won’t hear that from Growth Energy or other groups running similar campaigns.

Purchases that truly help cancer research are unassailable. But if you’re going to fuel up outdoor gear, your boat or anything else with an engine smaller than an car’s, steer clear of E15 fuel. Use a list like this one from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to “shop pink” every October. Or donate year-round, no strings attached.

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Ethanol in Gas Delivering Reverse of Intended Effect

ethanol image / Credit: Cornell UniversityThe ethanol mixed with the gasoline you buy has few proponents for a number of reasons. It reduces mileage in motor vehicles. It attracts water, an enemy of fuel tanks. And it corrodes rubber, plastic and some metal parts, particularly in small engines like those in outdoor power equipment.

On the other side are big players: corn growers, for whom ethanol is a cash cow, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which says it reduces greenhouse gases. But what if research proved that biofuels like ethanol actually increase greenhouse gases—even more than gasoline by itself? That’s the conclusion of a revolutionary study from the University of Michigan.

The study, headed by research professor John DeCicco and co-authors at the U-M Energy Institute (published in the August 25 issue of Climatic Change), used U.S. Department of Agriculture crop-production data to address the underlying assumption of biofuels’ value. This assumption involves two processes. The first is that the corn, soybeans and other plants used to manufacture biofuels remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to grow. Second, the biofuels made from these plants emit carbon dioxide as they’re burned for fuel. The accepted truth is that the two processes, in terms of carbon-dioxide exchange, cancel one another out. Descriptions of biofuels, as a result, use terms such as “inherently carbon-neutral.”

Steps on carbon-footprint models

This is what the study challenges, and it used actual crop data rather than carbon-footprint models like those underlying the federal Renewable Fuel Standard. In fact, the researchers’ analysis shows that during the recent ramp-up of U.S. biofuel production, the increased carbon-dioxide uptake by the crops offset just 37% of the CO2 emissions attributed to biofuel combustion.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” said DeCicco. “So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

DeCicco voiced his hope that policymakers reconsider their support for biofuels. “What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”

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