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Earth Day: A Teachable Moment

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. April 22 was designated as a day to raise environmental awareness through education and events throughout the country. If you produce feedstocks for biofuels, it’s also a day to discuss with others the environmental benefits of biofuels. As a native Wisconsinite, I am proud to say Earth Day was the brainchild of the late Senator Gaylord Nelson from the Badger State.

Interestingly, Nelson came up with the idea of Earth Day in the aftermath of an oil spill off Santa Barbara, CA in 1969. This oil spill, which spread into an 800-square mile area, killed an estimated 3,600 birds as well as numerous seals and dolphins.

The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies ( reports that Nelson also had observed how college students in the late 1960s were staging teach-ins to educate campuses about the Vietnam War and understood that a similar forum could be used to raise environmental awareness.

Earth Day was launched in 1970. That April, speaking to an audience in Denver, CO, Nelson said, "Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures."

On this day, it’s important to remember the environmental aspects of biofuels. First, and I’ve mentioned this before, it takes less fossil energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than it does to produce a gallon of gasoline. The Argonne National Lab has found that the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is .78 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each one million Btu delivered while it takes 1.23 million Btu to produce the same amount of gasoline delivered.

Using ethanol in place of gasoline also helps to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by up to 29 percent given today's technology, reports the Renewable Fuel Association. RFA points to University of Nebraska research that has found ethanol reduces direct GHG emissions between 48-59 percent compared to gasoline.

Last year, the production and use of 10.6 billion gallons of ethanol reduced CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 16.5 million metric tons. This was like removing more than 2.7 million cars from America's highways, reported RFA, citing the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) 1.8 Model.

And then there’s biodiesel---an EPA study found that B20 (20 percent biodiesel blended with 80 percent conventional diesel fuel) reduced total hydrocarbons by up to 30 percent, carbon monoxide up to 20 percent and total particulate matter up to 15 percent, the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) has reported.

While emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from biodiesel are either slightly reduced or slightly increased depending on the duty cycle of the engine and testing methods used, they can be eliminated with catalysts or timing changes, NBB says.

The NBB also points to a DOE study that found biodiesel production and use produces 78.5 percent fewer CO2 emissions than petroleum, adding that CO2 is taken up by crop production and then released when vegetable oil-based biodiesel is combusted.

These are just a few environmental benefits of biofuels. Please take some time today to reflect on how you, as a producer, are helping to improve the environment and share the environmental positives with someone who might not know about them. Earth Day is a perfect day for a “teachable moment.”

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