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Editor's Note: The Facts Behind Your Fuel
by Kristin Brekke

A search for “Canadian oil sands” at www.nationalgeographic.com will bring up a photo gallery that everyone should see. The pictures speak a thousand words about the environmental toll of relying on the Canadian oil sands as an energy source for the 21st century. The photos of the open-pit mines were the most eye-opening to me.

Two photo captions from the National Geographic feature are worth repeating here: “Canada's oil sands are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen mixed with sand, clay, and water. Around a hundred feet of soil must be stripped off to reach many deposits.”

And a description of the process itself: “About two tons of bitumen-laden sand are required to produce a single barrel of oil, but it's no straight line from the mine to the gas tank. After being separated from its sandy matrix in a hot water wash, bitumen is transferred to upgrading facilities like Syncrude's, where it is heated and processed in order to break its long, heavy chain of hydrocarbon molecules. Carbon is removed, hydrogen is added, and the new, lighter product is transformed into synthetic crude oil.”

And this is even before the oil is finally refined into gasoline. It struck me as I read through our own cover story for the first time that the gasoline in my tank today could very well be from the Canadian oil sands. It’s an unsettling thought, but one very possible here in the Midwest where we produce very little of our own oil. At least we can purchase E10 with 10 percent of a much cleaner alternative, but with EPA holding the cards on whether the ethanol amount can be raised, we’re stuck, as they say, “over a barrel.”

Here in mid-April, with our skies blue and grass turning green after the long winter, those photos of the open-pit mining stand in stark contrast to the great care farmers give the land every day. They select just the right seed varieties to plant and rotate crops from year to year for maximum soil health. Minimum till and no-till practices leave the earth untouched as much as possible. And cost and waste are avoided by using only as much fertilizer and chemicals as is necessary.

If anyone believes that ethanol is not a vastly better alternative to oil, they don’t have the facts. I hope our magazine can help in some small way. Perhaps we should add each member of the California Air Resources Board to our mailing list.

 
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The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industryís hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanolís carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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