What Is the Carbon Footprint of Gasoline? Here Are the Facts

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Gasoline? Here Are the Facts

Grace Smoot

Read Time:13 Minutes


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Gasoline is the most common fuel source used to power over 1 billion passenger cars globally. At the same time, the transportation industry is responsible for emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of gasoline?

On a life-cycle basis, gasoline has a very high carbon footprint. One gallon of gasoline emits 19.59 pounds (8,857 grams) of CO2 when combusted, and driving one mile on average emits 404 grams of CO2. Gasoline is considered a dirty fuel source that directly contributes to climate change.

Gasoline still is one of the most important transportation fuels in the world and has various environmental implications. Keep reading to learn about the overall carbon footprint of gasoline and its carbon footprint throughout its life-cycle. 

Here’s What the Carbon Footprint of Gasoline 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).

Gasoline is a fuel used mainly in engines that are made from crude oil and other petroleum liquids. 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. 

Petroleum refineries produce unfinished gasoline which is then blended with other liquids to produce the finished motor gasoline that is used in today’s vehicles. The three main grades of gasoline are regular, midgrade, and premium which refer to the octane rating, a measure of fuel stability. Basically, the higher the octane rating, the more stable the fuel. Regular, midgrade, and premium have octane ratings of 87, 89-90, and 91-94, respectively. 

Gasoline: a liquid obtained from petroleum, used as fuel in car engines, etc.”

Oxford Dictionary

One gallon of gasoline weighs 6.3 pounds, but when combusted it produces approximately 20 pounds of CO2. When gasoline 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. Gasoline combustion is especially detrimental to the environment because, for every pound of gasoline that is burned, more than 3 times that amount is released as CO2.

Burning of GasolineCarbon footprint
Burning one gallon8,887 grams of CO2 emitted
Driving one mile (on average)404 grams of CO2 emitted
Per million British thermal units (Btu)155.77 pounds of CO2 emitted

Gasoline is a dirty fuel because it is produced from a fossil fuel (i.e. oil), and it releases significant amounts of CO2 when burned. Fossil fuel consumption began with the Industrial Revolution, and consumption has increased exponentially over the past 70 years. Oil consumption in 2019 was over 53,000 terawatt-hours, the highest out of the three main fossil fuels.

Illustration of global fossil fuel consumption
Our World in Data: Global Fossil Fuel Consumption

The top 5 gasoline-consuming countries (amount consumed per day) in the world in 2020 were:

  1. United States (US) – 8,033 thousands of barrels/day (tb/d)
  2. Japan – 756 tb/d
  3. Canada – 753 tb/d
  4. Mexico – 546 tb/d
  5. Germany – 452 tb/d

Oil is the world’s primary fuel source for transportation, and gasoline represented 44% of total petroleum consumption in the US alone in 2019. Because gasoline is a major global fuel source, 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 gasoline, 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 gasoline!

The life-cycle stages of gasolineEach stage’s carbon footprint
Building of petroleum refineriesCO2 emissions from building the components of the petroleum refinery
Extraction and refinement of gasolineCO2 emissions from drilling/fracking, reforming, treating, and blending crude oil 
Transportation of gasolineCO2 emissions from transporting gasoline by barges, tankers, pipelines, trucks, and railroads across distances
Building back of petroleum refineriesCO2 emissions from plugging wells and decommissioning power plantsCH4 seepage from unplugged wells

The total carbon footprint of gasoline 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 gasoline. 

Gasoline 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 and Refining Gasoline

Extracting oil, to later make gasoline, involves seven main steps:

  1. Preparing the rig site
  2. Drilling
  3. Cementing and testing
  4. Well completion
  5. Fracking
  6. Production and fracking fluid recycling
  7. Well abandonment and land restoration

Oil and natural gas (NG) are often found within the same reservoir, so they are often extracted in the same manner. Drilling or fracking exposes oil reservoirs for extraction. 

Once the oil is extracted, it is transported via pipeline to refineries where it is broken down into various components and reconfigured into new products. One of these new products includes gasoline.

Refining oil into gasoline occurs via the following 5 steps:

  1. Distilling: 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.
  1. Cracking: Because there is a demand for lighter distilled products like gasoline, refineries convert heavy liquids into lighter liquids via cracking. Cracking breaks up long hydrocarbon chains into smaller ones, converting heavy oil into gasoline. Cat cracking, catalyst-driven cracking, is the most common form of cracking. 
  1. Reforming: Refineries again use a catalyst to increase the quality and volume of gasoline. Reforming increases the octane number by rearranging the naphtha hydrocarbons to create gas molecules. A high octane number is more beneficial because it can withstand more compression before detonating. And the higher the octane number, the more stable the fuel. 
  1. Treating: Crude oil contains pollutants including sulfur, nitrogen, and heavy metals that must be removed. The treating process removes these pollutants either by binding them to hydrogen, absorbing them in columns, or adding acid to them.  
  1. Blending: Finished petroleum products are a blend of various streams of hydrocarbons that are then mixed into motor fuels. Refineries can also mix additives such as octane enhancers, metal deactivators, anti-oxidants, anti-knock agents, rust inhibitors, or detergents. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transportation of Gasoline

Crude oil is transported from extraction wells to 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 gasoline 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:

  1. United States – 20%
  2. Saudi Arabia – 11%
  3. Russia – 11%
  4. Canada – 6%
  5. China – 5%

Calculating the carbon footprint of gasoline transportation involves knowing where the oil is produced, where it is being consumed, and the distance between the two. For example, transporting oil from Saudi Arabia to the United States is an approximately  7,525 mile transportation distance. Saudi Arabia has approximately 17% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and is the largest Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) exporter. The carbon footprint of transportation would be high because it is a long distance that would require multiple modes of transportation. 

On the other hand, if gasoline is produced in the United States and is also being consumed in the United States, the transportation distance is much shorter and would require less 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 Gasoline

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 Gasoline Play in Contributing to Climate Change

Gasoline 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 gasoline reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2 which warms the earth by acting as a heating blanket.

CO2 emissions from gasoline combustion contribute to climate change in the following ways:

  • 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 Gasoline

Gasoline is our primary energy source for transportation, but its combustion contributes significantly to global climate change.

Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Gasoline is not environmentally friendly. It is considered a dirty fuel source because of its high rate of CO2 emissions, toxic heavy metals, and 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 Gasoline

Understanding gasoline’s various environmental drawbacks is important to protect the environment. Because gasoline is a product of 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. When oil enters the environment it is difficult and expensive to remediate. 
  • Air pollution: Gasoline combustion releases carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides, 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). 
  • 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. 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 easiest way to mitigate the environmental impact of gasoline is to simply not rely on it in the first place. Gasoline combustion releases CO, toxic chemicals, and CO2, and contributes directly to global warming. 

What Are Ways to Make Gasoline Less Environmentally Detrimental 

To minimize the negative environmental impacts of gasoline, 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. 

Following certain protocols and environmental mitigation practices for oil can help reduce negative environmental effects of gasoline. But the most effective way to reduce negative environmental effects is to use an alternative fuel source. These include:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  1. 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 gasoline and diesel vehicles can be retrofitted for CNG.
  1. Propane: Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is used in fleet operations including buses, shuttles, and police vehicles. 
  1. 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.
  1. Vegetable and waste-derived oils: Vegetable oils, yellow grease, used cooking oils, or animal fats are converted into biodiesel via the process of transesterification.

Final Thoughts

Gasoline is a dirty fuel source because of its high carbon footprint across its building, extraction/refinement, transportation, and building back stages. It emits 3 times its weight in CO2 when burned which contributes directly to global climate change.

Because it is a dirty fuel source it does not have environmental benefits. The best way to mitigate environmental drawbacks is to reduce gasoline consumption because oil spills, air pollution, and fracking can cause significant environmental degradation. Our health and our planet’s health would benefit if we used less gasoline.

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