Affordable fuel is an important part of ensuring access to opportunities. Biofuels help fill that gap for low- and moderate-income families.
Justin Pfeiffer of Sioux Falls uses biofuels. While he understands that there are a number of good reasons to do so, at the end of the day, it comes down to one issue.
“It costs less,” he says.
Of the many benefits of biofuels, saving money may feel like it should rank below issues such as the rural economy, national security, climate change and more.
But it’s more than just pocket change. For many, the cost of fuel strikes at the heart of basic human rights. Affordable transportation provides access to things such as jobs, health care, education, food and more. Without transportation, problems for the most vulnerable people in society begin to compound.
Is fuel a right?
Affordable fuel is an important part of ensuring access to opportunities. Transportation is not a luxury. It is critical to reaching services.
During a drastic spike in fuel prices in 2012, Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute asserted “rising gas prices do affect both consumers and the economy adversely, and they are especially harmful to lower- and moderate-income households.”
Sawhill wrote that in households with an annual income below $50,000, 80% own cars, and many own more than one car.
“Since low- and moderate-income families’ spend most of their income on average, in the very short run, they can only choose between spending less on other items and going further into debt,” she wrote.
Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor says this is where biofuels play a role.
“We believe that giving all Americans, regardless of income or location, access to a more affordable and cleaner fuel choice for their family is important,” she says.
More options improve access
Biofuels save consumers anywhere from $0.50 to $1.50 per gallon for two reasons. First, it is a lower-cost fuel, and that is not just in comparison to regular gasoline. Biofuels are the primary octane component in gasoline, and when compared to the petroleum-based alternatives the savings are enormous.
“Ethanol is about 300% less expensive than other octane sources,” says Mike O’Brien, Vice President of Market Development at Growth Energy.
Second, biofuels expand the existing supply of fuel, shifting the supply-demand equation in favor of consumers.
More options at the pump can mean more flexibility for families facing tough financial decisions. The biofuel industry’s newest product, E15, aims to provide that. O’Brien says consumers save 3-10 cents per gallon with E15, and access is growing. With more than 2,000 sites across the country offering E15, the industry is already above its projections for 2019.
Skor says this hits the human rights concept in more than one way.
“Not only are consumers saving up to 10 cents per gallon at the pump when they choose a higher ethanol blend, but biofuels also burn cleaner than conventional gasoline, meaning it’s better for your engine and the air we breathe,” she says.
The right to breathe
Clean air is another significant human rights issue that biofuels address.
“Poor and disadvantaged communities often bear a disproportionate burden of transportation emissions because many of the facilities like highways and railyards, freight depots, ports are located in and near the neighborhoods where these people live,” says Robert Moffitt, Director of Clean Air for the American Lung Association of Minnesota.
Biofuels decrease many of the toxic and cancer-causing agents in gasoline, including particulate matter.
“Air pollution affects everyone, healthy or otherwise, but it particularly has impact on people with preexisting lung conditions,” Moffitt says. “People with asthma, people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). For those people, pollution can be a risk to their lives.”
Add to that the increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, outlined by the European Society of Cardiology earlier this year. Lung and cardiovascular problems from air pollution combine to cause 8.8 million deaths each year worldwide, more than deaths caused by smoking.
States like Minnesota support strong biofuels use for many reasons, and health ranks high among those reasons, Moffitt says.
“Here in Minnesota, exhaust from vehicles is the single largest source of air pollution, and it’s also the single largest source of greenhouse gasses,” he says. “So it just makes sense that the American Lung Association would want to take on the largest sources of air pollution in the state to help keep the air healthy for all of us.”
The public sees it
The general consumer is often focused on their own budget, but they do understand the broader implications of affordable, clean fuel.
“I feel this is a big issue for lower income families because they already struggle to make ends meet regardless of higher fuel costs,” says Donald Benkendorf of Logan, Utah. “Higher fuel costs only add stress to an already tight budget for most people.”
Benkendorf says he uses biofuels to the extent that it is already in his fuel at the standard E10 blend. More options are attractive, though.
“I think more fuel options at the pump would be better if the options are more sustainable than regular petroleum gasoline. If the other options turned out to be cheaper too, all the better,” he says. “Perhaps another advantage of having other fuel options would be more price stability, so that cheaper options exist when oil prices skyrocket.”
For Pfeiffer of Sioux Falls, a good product at a lower cost is a no-brainer.
“It’s cheaper, and it works just as well as gas,” he says. “I think that’s why most people use it.”