Changes to the cars we drive make headlines every day, but changes to the fuels we use to power them are hidden from view, behind the gas pump.
My new report, Fueling a Clean Transportation Future, released today, takes a broad view of how transportation fuels are changing. I delve deep into the changing sources of oil used to make gasoline and the growing negative consequences for the climate; the way ethanol is made today, and the prospects to make it cleaner in future; and the growing importance of electricity as a transportation fuel, and what it will take to realize the full climate benefits of this important technology.
Here are a few key findings about gasoline that may surprise you. Read the whole report to learn more.
- Cars are getting cleaner, but oil is getting dirtier. Cars are becoming more efficient, about 20% in the last decade, which means emissions from driving a mile are falling. But emissions from producing a gallon of gasoline are rising. Emissions from extraction and refining a gallon of gasoline in 2014 are up about 30% compared to what they were in 2005.
- Oil is changing, and so is its climate impact. The hydrocarbons loosely called oil that are made into gasoline, diesel and other products are changing dramatically, and vary from light tight oils that resemble nail polish remover, to tar sands that are thick as vegetable shortening. The global warming pollution associated with extracting these oils and refining them into fuels and other products vary as well, from less than 50 kg CO2e/barrel to more than 250 kg CO2e/barrel.
- Producing gasoline adds about 35% to the tailpipe emissions. Tailpipe emissions from driving make up the majority of pollution from gasoline, but extraction and refining can add another 35%. For the dirtiest oils, emissions from extraction and refining can be almost as high as tailpipe emissions.
- What you don’t know can hurt you. We know a lot more about the 10% ethanol in your gas tank than the 90% of gasoline that is coming from oil. We need to shine a light in the dark recesses of the global oil industry, where most of the emissions responsible for climate change originate.
- Using less oil is the place to start. They say when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing is to stop digging. Since oil is the largest source of global warming pollution in the U.S., it’s critical that we cut oil use as fast as we can. We have a plan to cut projected oil use in half by 2035 across the country; the West Coast is poised to cut oil use in half even more quickly.
- Even half the oil is a lot, so it better not get any dirtier. Even with rapid improvements in efficiency, rapid deployment of electric vehicles, and scaled up production of advanced non-food based biofuels, we are still on track to use about 100 billion barrels of oil between 2015 and 2035, more if we are slow to deploy oil saving solutions. Even modest increases in emissions from oil extraction and refining add up; a rise of 1 kg CO2e per barrel per year (well under the recent rate of change) would add an additional billion tons of CO2e emissions. That’s roughly the same as the tailpipe emissions of all the gasoline powered cars in the US in 2014.
- All our fuels are changing. How transportation fuels are produced makes a big difference. In my new report I describe the opportunities to make electricity and biofuels much cleaner, and how to prevent oil from getting any dirtier. This is based on lifecycle analysis, but I focus on changes and opportunities in the real world and avoid too much focus on methodology. I hope you find it useful!
Featured photo: Richard Masoner