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Cleaner Biofuels: Displacing Conventional Gasoline

Cellulosic biofuels carry enormous potential for reducing U.S. oil use, benefiting our health, economy, and environment.

We can use less oil by filling up our cars with fuels other than gasoline, including electricity, biofuels, and natural gas. But not all of these substitutes are equally promising. The gas at your local station already contains 10 percent corn ethanol on average — but neither oil nor corn ethanol is the fuel of the future.

Cleaner cellulosic biofuels, like clean electricity used to power advanced vehicles, offer enormous potential to sustainably reduce U.S. oil consumption, curb global warming emissions, and help put America on a path to cut projected oil use in half in 20 years.

The potential of biofuels

Biofuels can be produced from organic matter like corn, grasses, vegetable oil, agricultural waste, and even garbage. They hold great potential as an oil and climate solution, but their environmental benefits vary depending on the source material and the methods used to produce them. 

Corn-based ethanol is the largest source of biofuel in the United States and the world, but the environmental and food supply problems caused by expanding corn cultivation to produce fuel make it ineffective as a strategy to reduce global warming emissions or create additional oil savings.

Advanced biofuels made from non-food sources such as perennial grasses, garbage, and waste materials from agriculture and forestry (known as cellulosic biofuels) offer the greatest potential for oil savings and significant global warming emissions reductions with minimal environmental impacts.

The United States has the potential to dramatically expand the production of these better biofuels and take a significant step toward cutting U.S. oil consumption in half over the next 20 years. By 2030, the United States could sustainably produce enough non-food biomass resources to generate as much as 54 billion gallons of ethanol each year—four times as much corn ethanol as the United States produced in 2010.

But to get there we need smart government policy, funding, and support to develop the required technology. The Billion Gallon Challenge is a UCS effort to build the support and policies needed to bring promising cellulosic biofuels to market.

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Land, water, and biofuels

Biofuels have the potential to produce fewer global warming emissions than conventional gasoline, but their total carbon footprint includes more than just what comes out of the tailpipe. It also includes emissions from farms, factories, and any land use changes required to grow the necessary source material.

When crop-based biofuels contribute to deforestation or other damaging land conversions, the overall emissions benefits can be compromised or even eliminated. Biofuel production also has impacts on water supplies, which can affect both the quality and availability of freshwater resources.

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 Cleaner diesel

Diesel powers most of America’s freight transportation and contributes a disproportionate share of air pollution. Cleaner forms of diesel can help reduce its pollution impacts.

Additionally, fuel efficiency improvements can reduce diesel use in heavy duty vehicles.

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What about natural gas?

Natural gas can play a role in reducing global warming pollution, but using it for transportation fuel does not represent one of the best climate solutions. For example, a natural gas-powered Honda Civic delivers about a 15 percent reduction in global warming pollution compared with a conventional gasoline-powered Civic, but a gasoline-electric Civic hybrid costs less and delivers a 30 percent reduction in emissions. 

A better use for natural gas in the transportation sector would be as a resource to generate electricity for plug-in vehicles or hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles, which can provide global warming emissions savings on the order of 40 percent.

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