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In Gasolinegate, the True Cost of Gasoline Far Exceeds What We See at the Pump


March 22, 2024

For nearly a century, gasoline has powered America’s vehicles, rising to prominence with the advent of the internal combustion engine and providing the world with unprecedented levels of mobility. Even today, gasoline as a fuel dominates the transportation sector, despite attempts to increase the market share of electric and alternative-fuel vehicles. In Gasolinegate, authors Burl Haigwood (advisor to the Clean Fuels Development Coalition) and Doug Durante (executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition) argue that gasoline impacts individuals and society as a whole much more than we realize, and it is past time for stronger policy responses to encourage other options that might do less damage to human health and the environment.

Most Americans keep up-to-date with the cost of a gallon of gasoline. When prices climb, political uproar ensues, and politicians struggle to lower prices. However, according to Haigwood and Durante, the price consumers pay at the pump remains far lower than the true cost paid per gallon of gasoline. Gasolinegate applies the concept of Total Societal Impact (TSI)—a measure of all the benefits and costs associated with a product over its lifetime—to gasoline, and cites the Center for Investigative Reporting’s conclusion that the true cost of gasoline is actually $15 per gallon. Few drivers would be willing to pay that price upfront. But taxpayer dollars subsidize fossil fuel production, military operations to defend oil supplies, and efforts toward climate mitigation and adaptation, all of which add up to the TSI of gasoline. In the end, taxpayers are left with the bill whether they realize it or not.

According to the authors, gasoline is responsible for an estimated $1.7 trillion in healthcare spending. Gasolinegate points out that, based on a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 53,000 Americans per year die prematurely due to air pollution caused specifically by gasoline-powered cars.

Haigwood and Durante explain that producers combine gasoline with other substances to increase its octane, or fuel stability. Many of the products currently blended in to improve gasoline’s octane—known as aromatics—create health and safety problems. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (benzene compounds collectively referred to as BTEX), for example, are carcinogenic when inhaled. Burning these compounds as part of every gallon of gasoline causes danger to everyone who breathes. The Clean Air Act of 1970 (17 U.S.C. 7609) authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit this form of air pollution. But the authors contend that the fossil fuel industry has been allowed to gain too much power over the enforcement process, leaving regulation limited and ineffective.

Gasolinegate’s authors believe that using ethanol in gasoline as an alternative to benzene compounds would solve all of these problems, especially in the United States. Ethanol, which has a high octane value, can be blended with gasoline to increase its octane. Ethanol is generally produced from corn, meaning that it could be produced domestically, protecting U.S. energy security. Its greenhouse gas emissions when burned are lower than those of gasoline, and it causes less air pollution than aromatics. 

Increased use of ethanol, which is cheaper than gasoline, could help lower gas prices by decreasing the amount of actual gasoline in a gallon purchased at the pump while maintaining or increasing fuel efficiency. Most gasoline sold in the United States is E10, which includes up to 10% ethanol. However, current regulations limit the amount of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline. E15, gasoline that contains up to 15% ethanol, has historically been available only in the winter months due to smog concerns in the summer. Recently, the EPA permitted E15 to be sold year-round in the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Gasolinegate points out that E10 and E15 are just as effective as ethanol-free “premium” gasoline, and cost less while requiring a lower amount of gasoline to be burned. Haigwood and Durante argue that ethanol blending lowers fuel prices and boosts the economy, but existing regulations limit the industry needlessly, denying the United States those benefits.

The authors contend that ethanol has not received a fair assessment, much less a fair chance on the market. When making decisions on alternative fuels, regulators generally consider the TSI of ethanol, but only consider some of the impacts of gasoline. If the lifetime emissions of one fuel, from production to end use, are being compared to only the emissions from burning the other, an unbalanced outcome is inevitable. This evaluation discrepancy, they argue, has made ethanol seem far more problematic as a fuel than it really is, creating an environmental stigma around it.

A 2022 study claimed that even when gasoline’s entire lifecycle emissions are considered, ethanol, at least as it is currently produced, might still do more harm than good. The researchers concluded that ethanol produced after the implementation of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58), was actually 24% more carbon intensive than gasoline. The standard requires the blending of biofuels like ethanol with conventional fuels to meet emission targets, and so dramatically increased U.S. production of ethanol. That meant more corn was needed, which led to uncultivated land being put under cultivation, releasing the carbon stored in those areas. Corn growing also expanded in already cultivated lands, which altered the amount of carbon stored in their soils—usually for the worse. 

Gasolinegate recognizes that many people object to the idea of cropland being used to produce energy rather than food. The authors believe these concerns are unfounded, arguing that most corn ethanol is produced using livestock feed corn rather than corn suitable for human consumption. Haigwood and Durante also state that new processes are making it possible to use the same crop of corn for both animal feed and ethanol. However, the objections remain salient. Those opposed to ethanol on these grounds generally support the use of electric vehicles (EV) to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, or improved public transit to decrease the need for individual vehicles in the first place. Such solutions would also help address the authors’ worries about the health effects of air pollution. These solutions have weaknesses of their own, however, and ethanol supporters like Haigwood and Durante argue that the EV transition cannot happen fast enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F). Ethanol can serve as a critical transition fuel to reduce gasoline consumption much more rapidly.

Air pollution in cities costs tens of thousands of lives each year, as Gasolinegate reminds readers, and a disproportionate number of those lives are concentrated among the most vulnerable members of society: underserved communities, communities of color, people with health conditions, and the elderly. Acting to decrease air pollution by changing how vehicles are fueled could prevent these needless deaths from occurring. The EPA permitted eight states to sell E15 gasoline year-round, and the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act (H.R.1608S.785), currently in committee, would expand summer E15 sales to all 50 states, but its future remains unclear. The Next Generation Fuels Act (H.R.2434S.944), also in committee, would provide even further-reaching support for ethanol if passed.

In a year when American energy security has become increasingly pressing due to conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East, Gasolinegate suggests that ethanol could decrease reliance on foreign oil, a major priority for many. As the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2030 deadline for 50% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions approaches, it is time to reconsider how the United States fuels its vehicles. Gasolinegate demonstrates that our current dependence on gasoline is too dangerous to continue.

Author: Emily Phillips