New Report Shows Oil Getting Dirtier, Alternatives Cleaner

Published Feb 8, 2016

WASHINGTON (February 9, 2016)— American motorists are driving more efficient cars than ever, but when they fill up their tanks, the gas they pump into their cars and trucks is 30 percent dirtier to extract and refine than it was just ten years ago, according to an analysis released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“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.

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.

“Because we use so much oil, even small changes in emissions really add up,” said Martin. “We’ve made progress in cutting oil use and tailpipe emissions, but 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.”

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.

UCS has released a practical plan to cut our oil use in half over the next 20 years.