What Is the Carbon Footprint of Diesel Fuel? A Life-Cycle Assessment
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
The transportation industry is responsible for emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere each year, and diesel fuel is still one of the most important transportation fuels in the world. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of diesel fuel?
On a life-cycle basis, diesel fuel has a very high carbon footprint. One gallon of diesel fuel emits 22.44 pounds (10,180 grams) of CO2 when combusted, and driving one mile on average emits 404 grams of CO2. Diesel fuel is considered a dirty fuel source that directly contributes to climate change.
Keep reading to learn about the overall carbon footprint of diesel fuel and its carbon footprint throughout its life-cycle.
Here’s What the Carbon Footprint of Diesel Fuel Is
The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the GHG emissions associated with consumption, but also includes other emissions such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons.
“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”Merriam Webster
Basically, it is the amount of carbon emitted by an activity or an organization. This includes GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly (e.g., heating a home, driving a car) and GHG emissions from manufacturing the products that we use (e.g., power plants, factories, and landfills).
Diesel fuel (diesel), also known as diesel oil, is a combustible liquid used as fuel in diesel engines. It is made from crude oil and other petroleum liquids. Crude oil was formed millions of years ago when plant and animal remains gradually built up on the earth’s surface and the ocean floor, mixing with sand, silt, and calcium carbonate. Under immense heat and pressure, some of these remains were converted into oil depending on the combination of organic matter present, how long it was buried, and pressure conditions.
When compared to gasoline, diesel is combustible, meaning that it uses compressed air in a cylinder to ignite the fuel rather than a spark (flammable). It produces more energy upon combustion, has a better fuel economy, and has fewer refining steps; however, it also produces greater quantities of certain air pollutants (sulfur, solid carbon particulates) and emits more CO2 per unit than gasoline does.
“Diesel: a liquid obtained from petroleum, used as fuel in car engines, etc.”Oxford Dictionary
Trucks and automobiles with high-speed engines utilize “light-middle” and “middle” diesel distillates whereas trains, ships, and stationary engines with low and medium-speed engines utilize “heavy” distillates. High-grade diesel (most volatile) is used in high-speed engines, and low-grade diesel (least volatile) is used in low-speed engines. Low-grade diesel leaves the most carbon residue and usually has the highest sulfur content.
One gallon of diesel weighs approximately 7 pounds, but when combusted it produces 22.38 pounds of CO2. When diesel is burned, hydrogen and carbon separate. The hydrogen then combines with oxygen to form water (H2O), and carbon combines with oxygen in the air to form CO2. Diesel’s chemical makeup consists of 12 carbon and 23 hydrogen atoms. These extra atoms, when compared to gasoline (8 carbon and 18 hydrogen atoms), mean that diesel produces more greenhouse gas emissions upon combustion.
|Burning of diesel fuel||Carbon footprint|
|Burning one gallon||10,180 grams CO2/ gallon|
|Driving one mile (on average)||404 grams of CO2 emitted|
|Per million British thermal units (Btu)||163.36 pounds of CO2 emitted|
Diesel combustion is especially detrimental to the environment because, for every pound of diesel that is burned, over 3 times that amount is released as CO2.
Oil (including diesel) is the world’s primary fuel source for transportation. The transportation sector was valued at $5,938.6 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $7,500.8 billion in 2023. Because diesel is a major global fuel source for transportation, it is important to understand what its carbon footprint is and how its carbon emissions affect the global climate change process.
To understand the total carbon footprint of diesel fuel, we must assess its life-cycle and each stage’s carbon footprint. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of diesel fuel!
|The life-cycle stages of diesel fuel||Each stage’s carbon footprint|
|Building of petroleum refineries||CO2 emissions from building the components of the petroleum refinery|
|Extraction and refinement of diesel fuel||CO2 emissions from drilling/fracking, reforming, treating, and blending crude oil|
|Transportation of diesel fuel||CO2 emissions from transporting diesel by barges, tankers, pipelines, trucks, and railroads across distances|
|Building back of petroleum refineries||CO2 emissions from plugging wells and decommissioning power plantsCH4 seepage from unplugged wells|
The total carbon footprint of diesel would equal the carbon footprint from building + the carbon footprint from extracting and refining + the carbon footprint from transportation + the carbon footprint from building back.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Building Petroleum Refineries
Oil wells extract crude oil, which is then transported to petroleum refineries to produce diesel.
Diesel is one of many products manufactured in petroleum refineries. Refineries consist of machinery such as boilers, cooling towers, blowdown systems, compressor engines, and heaters, all of which must be manufactured and therefore also have a carbon footprint. Likewise, the construction equipment needed to physically construct the buildings emits CO2.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Extracting Diesel Fuel
Extracting oil, to later make diesel, involves seven main steps:
- Preparing the rig site
- Cementing and testing
- Well completion
- Production and fracking fluid recycling
- Well abandonment and land restoration
In order to produce diesel from crude oil, it must be distilled. In this process, crude oil is heated until it becomes a vapor. The vapor is lifted upwards in a distilling column and collects at different levels in trays, separating the liquids. Lighter products (butane) rise to the top of the column whereas gasoline, naphtha, kerosene, diesel, and heavy gas oil collect in trays going from top to bottom in the column. The heavier diesel at the bottom of the column will be refined in later processes.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transportation of Diesel Fuel
Crude oil is transported from extraction wells to petroleum refineries via barges, tankers, pipelines, trucks, and railroads. After refinement, the oil is then transported to power plants (oil-fired plants) or directly to consumers by tanker, truck, or railroad tank car. If the refined diesel is not being consumed locally, it must be transported. And sometimes over very long distances.
The top 5 oil-producing countries (share of total world oil production) in 2020 were:
- United States – 20%
- Saudi Arabia – 11%
- Russia – 11%
- Canada – 6%
- China – 5%
Calculating the carbon footprint of diesel transportation involves knowing where the crude oil is produced, where it is being consumed, and the distance between the two. Saudi Arabia has approximately 17% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and is the largest Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) exporter. Transporting crude oil from Saudi Arabia to the United States, for example, is an approximately 7,525 miles (12,110 kilometers) transportation distance. Saudi Arabia also exports oil to Japan, which would be an even longer 5,438 mile (8,751 kilometer) distance. The carbon footprint of transportation for these circumstances would be high because it is a long distance that would require multiple modes of transportation.
On the flip side, if diesel is produced in one country and is consumed in that same country, the transportation distance is much shorter and would require fewer modes of transportation, leading to a lower carbon footprint for this stage.
Essentially, the longer the transportation distance, the higher the carbon footprint. And the higher the carbon footprint for this, the worse effect it has on the environment.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Building Back Diesel Fuel
Oil wells can produce for anywhere from 20-40 years. When a well is done producing oil it is plugged to stop the flow of methane to the surface.
However, over 3 million abandoned oil and gas wells are unplugged in the US alone, and these wells leak millions of metric tons of methane into our atmosphere every year. Simply plugging these wells could reduce methane emissions by 99%, which would help mitigate global warming.
In some instances, the area surrounding the well can be restored. In offshore drilling, the program “Rigs-to-Reefs” topples old oil wells and leaves them on the seafloor, establishing an artificial reef that attracts barnacles, coral, clams, sponges, and other marine life. This method has virtually no carbon footprint because the existing well is not demolished.
The carbon footprint of building back petroleum refineries then involves decommissioning the refineries and removing miles of oil pipeline. Demolishing buildings, removing machinery, cleaning the inside of the pipeline, and deconstructing the pipeline all contribute to the carbon footprint of this stage.
What Role Does Diesel Fuel Play in Contributing to Climate Change
Diesel is considered a dirty fuel because of its high carbon footprint and carbon emissions. It comes with a host of negative environmental side effects, the most significant of which is global climate change.
“Climate Change: changes in the world’s weather, in particular the fact that it is believed to be getting warmer as a result of human activity increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere:”Cambridge Dictionary
Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term, global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 36 bt of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. 12 bt (34%) of this comes from oil. The carbon found in diesel reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2 which warms the earth by acting as a heating blanket.
CO2 emissions from diesel combustion contribute to climate change in the following ways:
- Increasing temperatures: Earth’s atmosphere has warmed 1.5℃ since 1880. This may not seem like a lot, but these degrees create regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reduce sea ice, intensify rainfall and drought severity, and change habitat ranges for plants and animals.
- Rising sea levels: Global sea levels have increased approximately 8-9 inches since 1880, displacing people living along coastlines and destroying coastal habitats. Roads, bridges, subways, water supplies, oil and gas wells, power plants, sewage treatment plants, and landfills remain at risk if sea level rise goes unchecked.
- Melting of sea ice: Since 1979 arctic sea ice has declined by 30%. Sea ice plays a major role in regulating the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing habitat for animal species. If all of the glaciers on Earth melted, sea levels would rise by approximately 70 feet, effectively flooding out every coastal city on the planet.
- Changing precipitation patterns: Extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts) are becoming more common and more intense. Storm-affected areas will experience increased precipitation and flooding whereas areas located further from storm tracks will experience decreased precipitation and droughts.
- Ocean acidification: The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. In the past 200 years, the pH of oceans has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which translates to a 30% increase in acidity. Aquatic life unable to adjust to this rapid acidification will die off. A prime example of this is coral bleaching, where coral expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues as a result of changes in temperature, light, or nutrients.
Experts claim that to avoid a future plagued by rising sea levels, acidified oceans, loss of biodiversity, more frequent and severe weather events, and other environmental disasters brought on by the hotter temperatures, we must limit global warming to 1.5C by 2040.
The more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we slow the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation.
How Environmentally Friendly Is Diesel Fuel
Diesel is an important energy source for transportation, but its combustion contributes significantly to global climate change.
“Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”Cambridge Dictionary
Diesel is not environmentally friendly. It is considered a dirty fuel source because of its high rate of CO2, SO2, and NOx emissions as well as other chemicals that contribute to global climate change. Although there are ways to minimize its environmental impact, there are still many environmental drawbacks.
What Are Environmental Drawbacks of Diesel Fuel
Understanding diesel’s various environmental drawbacks is important to protect the environment. Because diesel is a product of crude oil refinement, it comes with some of the same drawbacks as oil.
- Oil spills: Small oil spills occur when refueling a ship, and large oil spills occur when pipelines break, oil tankers sink, or drilling operations go wrong. Oil spills, in general, cause serious environmental harm by contaminating water and soil, causing explosions and fires, harming wildlife, and contaminating seafood. Because diesel does not evaporate as easily as gasoline, it is more difficult and expensive to remediate. Diesel oil slicks on roads or oil spills in the water can persist longer in the environment, causing extensive environmental harm.
- Air pollution: Diesel combustion releases sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), unburned hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and CO2 into the environment which can cause respiratory problems and even premature death. VOCs are a group of chemicals that lead to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog). SO2 and NOx combine in our atmosphere to form sulfuric and nitric acids. These then mix with water to form acid rain which can harm flora and fauna.
- Atmospheric CO2: Levels of CO2 in our atmosphere have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. Emissions increased steadily to 5 bt per year in the mid-20th century before increasing exponentially to more than 35 bt per year at the end of the 20th century. The global average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 but today registers at over 400 ppm. By the end of the 21st century, this number is expected to exceed 900 ppm. Burning fossil fuels adds to this total, which in turn amplifies the greenhouse effect and causes global warming.
- Global warming: This phenomenon occurs when CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years.
The easiest way to mitigate the environmental impact of diesel is to simply not rely on it in the first place. Diesel combustion releases CO, toxic chemicals, and CO2, and contributes directly to global warming.
What Are Ways to Make Diesel Fuel Less Environmentally Detrimental
To minimize the negative environmental impacts of diesel, technological advances in drilling, production, and transportation of oil as well as strict safety and environmental laws and regulations must be enforced.
- Improved technology: Satellites, GPS, and remote sensing technology can detect oil reserves underground which negates the need to drill multiple exploratory wells.
- Efficient drilling methods: Horizontal and directional drilling allows a single well to produce oil from a much larger area, reducing the overall number of wells needed.
- Controlling CH4 leaks: Detecting, fixing, and repairing CH4 leaks from well-pads, processing plants, compressor stations, and large distribution facilities is crucial. Doing this can reduce CH4 output by 1.70-1.80 million metric tons per year. Plugging abandoned oil wells also prevents the seepage of methane into the atmosphere.
- Recycle water and use efficient production practices: Fracking uses a large amount of water, so recycling water and avoiding utilizing freshwater sources can reduce water requirements. Constructing wells properly and maintaining them after drilling is complete is crucial for efficiency.
- Implement practices that reduce risk of induced seismicity: Fracking can cause seismic activity that leads to earthquakes. Avoiding water injection into active fault lines, limiting injection rates, installing seismic monitors, establishing a protocol for when seismic activity is induced, and abandoning wells with seismic activity are all ways to mitigate this threat.
- Reduce sulfur levels: In the past, diesel contained high levels of sulfur, which can combine with NOx in our atmosphere and cause acid rain. European and United States’ emission standards and taxes on petroleum refineries have forced them to reduce the amount of sulfur in diesel.
Following certain protocols and environmental mitigation practices for oil can help reduce negative environmental effects of diesel. But the most effective way to reduce negative environmental effects is to use an alternative fuel source. These include:
Electricity: Vehicles using electricity as fuel do not release CO2, but the power plants that produce the electricity may still be responsible for some emissions.
- Hydrogen: An electric motor is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, where hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell similar to that of a battery to produce electricity, water, and small amounts of heat
- Natural gas (NG): NG in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) can be used as fuel in cars. Large-scale manufacturing of NG vehicles is not currently available, but diesel vehicles can be retrofitted for CNG.
- Propane: Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is used in fleet operations including buses, shuttles, and police vehicles.
- Alcohols (ethanol, methanol, and butanol): Certain alcohols can be used as vehicle fuel because they have physical and combustion properties that are similar to gasoline.
- Vegetable and waste-derived oils: Vegetable oils, yellow grease, used cooking oils, or animal fats are converted into biodiesel via the process of transesterification.
Diesel fuel is a dirty fuel source with no environmental benefits. It has a high carbon footprint across its building, extraction/refinement, transportation, and building back stages, and it emits 3 times its weight in CO2 when burned. Oil spills and air pollution contribute directly to global climate change by adding to atmospheric CO2 levels and expediting global warming. The best way to mitigate these environmental drawbacks is to reduce diesel consumption. Our health and our planet’s health would benefit if we used less diesel.
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