Gasoline is 30% dirtier than 10 years ago: new UCS report

February 10, 2016 |

BD-TS-021116-UCS-smIt’s not your Dad’s gasoline. In fact, it’s worse, says the Union of Concerned Scientists in a new report. But the good news is that alternatives, by contrast, are getting cleaner.

In Washington, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that the gas pumped by American motorists is 30 percent dirtier to extract and refine than it was just ten years ago, according to an analysis released by the Union of Concerned Scientists .

Oil accounts for the largest share of U.S. global warming emissions from fossil fuel use—2.2 billion metric tons of emissions in 2013 alone, mostly in transportation. The gasoline used to fuel a typical car emits the equivalent of 5.7 metric tons of carbon pollution every year. While much of this is tailpipe pollution, 1.5 metric tons of this pollution—about a quarter—is generated by extraction and refining, and that number is getting worse over time.

Meanwhile, today’s ethanol produces on average 20 percent lower global warming emissions than gasoline, and moving beyond corn to more advanced biofuels will reduce emissions even more. Based on the U.S. grid average, battery-electric vehicles produce half the global warming emissions of comparable gasoline vehicles, and in some regions electric vehicles are even cleaner.  Across the county EV’s will get cleaner as we move away from coal and get more of our energy from renewable power sources. As oil continues to get dirtier, the advantage of alternative power sources will only increase.

The report

The UCS report, “Fueling a Clean Transportation Future: Smart Fuel Choices for a Warming World,” is a comprehensive look at the global warming impact of how we fuel our cars and trucks. The report compares oil, biofuels and electricity, and finds a significant and growing gap between oil and other ways to fuel transportation. With more oil coming from depleted wells, tight oil and tar sands the climate impact of oil is rising—emissions from extracting and refining different sources of oil range by a factor of more than five. Electricity and biofuels, in contrast, are already cleaner than oil and have the potential to get even cleaner in years to come.

The key findings of the report

  • Depending on where oil comes from and how it is produced, the global warming pollution associated with extracting, producing, and refining different oils can vary by a factor of 5.
  • Emissions from oil extraction and refining are now, on average, 30% higher than they were a decade ago.
  • Expanded use of corn ethanol and other biofuels has cut oil use significantly and ethanol has lower global warming emissions than gasoline, but we can and must do better, with cleaner non-food based cellulosic ethanol.
  • Cellulosic fuels made from agricultural residues and perennial grasses have the potential to cut emissions 60% or more relative to gasoline.
  • A battery electric vehicle is, on average, about 50% lower in emissions than gasoline, and much cleaner in states with cleaner electric grids.
  • As the grid gets cleaner with more renewable energy, the advantage of electric vehicles grows.

Commentary from the authors

“Even as increased vehicle efficiency has cut global warming tailpipe emissions per mile, the search for tougher-to-extract sources of oil has increased the emissions that come from producing a gallon of gasoline by nearly a third over the past decade,” said Jeremy Martin, senior scientist for the UCS Clean Vehicles Program and lead author of the report.

“Because we use so much oil, even small changes in emissions really add up,” Martin added. “We need to do a lot more when it comes to extracting and refining oil. Oil companies need to be held accountable to disclose their emissions and take steps to reduce them.

Learn more

Our 8-Slide Guide to the report has the news you can use.

The report is here.

Learn more about the analysis that went into the report in a two part briefing:

February 23 Oil: Gasoline is getting dirtier, but it doesn’t have to

February 24 Clean fuels: Realizing the potential of cellulosic biofuels and renewable electricity


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