The False Narrative on Clean Vehicles

  • Thursday, 27 July 2023 13:03

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One of the most overwrought narratives in energy and transportation policy today is the idea that liquid biofuels and Electric Vehicles (EVs) are battling “American Gladiator-style” in a zero-sum game over the future of the domestic automobile market.

Predictably, this narrative is fueled - energy pun intended - in large part by partisan politics and special interest groups that either have a personal stake in securing total victory for their preferred transportation option or want to use the issue as a wedge in the next campaign. 

As with most public policy problems, the solution to decarbonizing our transportation sector isn’t quite as black-and-white as this worn-out narrative suggests. The reality is we need a strategy that utilizes an all-of-the-above approach to level the playing field for proven technologies and fuels that have a track record of quickly lowering emissions. To successfully reach our carbon reduction goals, this strategy must also carefully consider current market and supply chain trends. 

False Narrative #1: An All-Electric Future

Shortly after his election, President Biden issued an executive order outlining a goal that by 2030 50 percent of all light-duty vehicle sales would be zero-tailpipe emissions vehicles (ZEVs). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently doubled down on this goal by releasing a proposed regulation for tailpipe emissions that would guarantee that 67 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales are EVs by 2032. 

As I wrote in our comments to the EPA on the proposed rule earlier this month, the rule effectively compels automakers to produce battery electric vehicles to the detriment of similar technologies that can achieve the same or better environmental performance. Utilizing low-carbon liquid fuels in existing vehicles can achieve greenhouse gas reductions faster than new EVs can displace the existing fleet.

There are currently 278 million registered cars, vans, SUVs, pickups, and motorcycles in the U.S., of which about 1.2 percent are battery or plug-in hybrid EVs. EVs accounted for 5.8 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales in 2022. That means, under the proposed rule, a gap of 61.2 percent in EV sales needs to be filled in less than 10 years. 

Such a rapid build-out of EV sales ignores the challenges associated with charging infrastructure availability, tax credit eligibility, consumer preference, critical mineral supply and demand, and battery range and performance. 

False Narrative #2: War on Electric Vehicles

A recent campaign video from former President Trump referred to EV mandates as “a ridiculous Green New Deal crusade [that] is causing car prices to skyrocket while setting the stage for the destruction of American auto production.” 

While we may agree that a top-down approach that picks winners and losers among zero-emissions technologies is the wrong approach, over-the-top political rhetoric like this feeds the narrative that the existence of EVs in the marketplace means that liquid biofuels will somehow become obsolete. 

According to data from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the average age of vehicles on the road is approximately 15 years, and 16 percent of passenger cars and 32 percent of light-duty trucks remain on the road for more than 20 years. We need to seek carbon reduction solutions for the hundreds of millions of cars operating on liquid fuels today. 

For some consumers, that may mean trading in their internal-combustion engine vehicles in favor of an EV for short-range and urban-only travel. For many others, that may mean utilizing higher blends of ethanol, which reduce GHG emissions by 47 percent as compared to gasoline. 

We cannot ignore that there has been significant government investment in the manufacture of EVs, batteries, and EV chargers, and many auto companies have announced similar investment in domestic EV manufacturing.

Instead of fighting to roll back or disincentivize these public and private investments, we should be pushing for a level playing field for all technologies and fuels moving forward, which will be the key to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. EVs and liquid biofuels can and should be working in tandem to provide consumers with low-carbon transportation options. 

Solution: Teaming Up on Clean Vehicles

The ethanol industry is working to break down these false narratives. 

Our partners at the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) recently debuted the first-ever Plug-in Hybrid Electric Flex Fuel Vehicle, which offers the best of both worlds. The vehicle has a range of 430 miles given a full tank of E85 and a full battery charge. Additionally, it has been shown to reduce emissions by about 80 percent compared to a vehicle running on gasoline. 

This doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game whereby EVs win only if ethanol loses, and vice-versa. This innovative technological solution that marries ethanol and electricity shows that the two can work together to offer consumers an environmentally friendly option that maintains flexibility and reliability. 

The Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association will continue working to ensure that Minnesota-grown, Minnesota-made biofuels are in a position to bring about meaningful and achievable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.