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diesel vs gasoline article with diesel performance and deisel vs gas power, fuel & air pollution

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Is Diesel Performance Superior Overall Compared to
Gasoline Power?

At one time, diesel cars were a relatively common sight in the United States. In Europe, they still are, accounting for about 40% of new cars sold each year. Diesel fuel has higher energy content than gasoline, and diesel performance is usually better in terms of engine output. These factors also mean that vehicles running on diesel put less global-warming pollution into the air. Thus, it might seem that in today's world of rising temperatures and fuel prices, diesel is ripe for a surge in popularity in North America.

Ah, ah, ah. Not so fast. Good diesel performance may mean better fuel economy and less carbon dioxide, but what about diesel's problems with other types of air pollution? What about the higher up-front cost of diesel technology? There's also a catch when it comes to comparing mileage estimates for diesel and gasoline vehicles.

picture of semi truck and car Today's article, adapted from materials made available by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), discusses the pros and cons of diesel vehicles and compares them to their gasoline counterparts.

~    ~    ~

Fuel for Thought
by By Patricia Monahan and David Friedman, UCS


If you or your parents owned a diesel car 20 years ago, you may have some bad memories of the experience. American drivers have steered clear of diesel since the early 1980s because many of the cars were unreliable, noisy, and polluting. Though today's diesel cars have overcome most of their past performance problems, they account for only a few percent of new automobile and truck sales in the US.

In Europe, on the other hand, about 40% of new cars sold are diesel, amounting to more than five million vehicles each year. The demand for diesel in Europe is fueled by the high cost of gasoline. (Unequal taxation of the two fuels results in diesel costing about one dollar less per gallon in most European countries.)

Over the past few years, diesel's popularity as an automotive fuel has grown significantly. Thanks to its higher energy content and its efficient combustion process, diesel performance enables cars to travel at least 30% farther on a gallon of fuel than comparable gasoline models.

The improved efficiency of diesel engines can also help reduce oil consumption. It should be noted, however, that it takes about 25% more oil to make a gallon of diesel fuel than a gallon of gasoline, so we should really look at how a vehicle does on fuel efficiency in terms of "oil equivalents." Thus, we need to adjust the mileage claims for diesel vehicles downward by about 20% when comparing them to gasoline-powered vehicles.


Americans continue to perceive diesel as a "dirty" fuel, though today that image is only partly deserved. Because of their lower per-mile fuel consumption, diesel engines generally release less carbon dioxide—the heat-tapping gas primarily responsible for global warming—from the tailpipe. So that's a check on the good side of the pollution chart. But when it comes to smog-forming pollutants and toxic particulate matter, also known as soot, today's diesels are still a lot dirtier than the average gasoline car.


US tailpipe standards for diesel cars, which have historically been weaker than those for gasoline cars, are being updated to force diesel and gasoline vehicles to meet the same set of emissions standards. The tiered structure of the new "Tier 2" standards, however, allows automakers to produce some cars that release two times more soot and smog-forming pollution than the average new vehicle and still meet their targets. Also, until the standards are fully implemented in 2009, existing loopholes allow some cars to pollute even more.

There are three size categories of soot particles:

  • Large soot particles (>10 microns) deposit from the air into your nose, throat, and lungs, causing coughing and irritating your throat, and are ejected from your body through sneezing, coughing, and nose blowing.
  • Coarse soot particles (~10 microns) are inhaled into your windpipe and settle there, causing more irritation and more coughing.
  • Fine and ultra-fine soot particles (less than 2.5 microns) are the most successful at invading your body—they're small enough to travel deep into your lungs. Once there, these soot particles can irritate and mutate the most sensitive tissues in your lungs, your alveoli. These air sacs exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air you breathe with blood in your capillaries, thus allowing your circulatory system to carry oxygen to the rest of your body. Soot particles, however, make this task more difficult because they cause inflammation and scarring of the alveoli. This also strains your heart because it must work harder to compensate for oxygen loss.

Soot also finds other ways to harm your body, including:

  • chronic bronchitis,
  • asthma,
  • reduced ability of respiratory system to fight infections and remove foreign particles, and
  • cancer.


Rating: 3 of 5 - Good, worth a listen Sea Change Radio

Smarter Cities — Many planners agree that a more centralized population is a good thing for long-term environmental responsibility. But as people all over the world continue to flock to urban centers, the challenge of creating sustainable cities becomes more pressing. How can cities be improved to ensure that their billions of residents have energy-efficient transportation, housing, waste-stream management, as well as clean air and water? Ecological urban planner Melanie Nutter walks us through some of the emerging policies and practices to promote smart, sustainable, resilient cities.
Go to page  |  Download/listen   29:00

GP comment:  Nutter has good ideas, and they seem to be fairly successful in San Francisco. But the success largely depends on the target city being highly prosperous in general and green-minded specifically. Many of these programs simply would not sell politically or economically in, say, Atlanta. I'm not saying Atlantans shouldn't get on board with such ideas; just that it's not likely to happen on nearly the same scale as it has in SF.

Original Show Pub Date: 13.Jan.2015


Rating: 3 of 5 - Good, worth a listen Living On Earth

Boosting Public Transit — Congestion and smog in Paris are bad enough that authorities are taking aggressive measures to deal with the problem. Can bold steps taken in an iconic city abroad make Americans more accepting of the actions necessary to solve transportation woes in US cities? Former Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci explains why public transit is a key to limiting congestion and reducing emissions from cars. in spite of this, many cities with public transit, including Boston, aren't keeping up with growing demand and infrastructure requirements.
Go to page  |  Download/listen   9:50

GP comment:  Mass transit is low-hanging fruit for almost all cities, yet investments always seem to lag. It doesn't make sense.

Original Show Pub Date: 21.Mar.2014


Rating: 3 of 5 - Good, worth a listen Living On Earth

Explosive Oil Trains — The past year has seen a marked increase in oil train derailments and explosions, including the deadly accident in Lac-Megantic in Quebec that killed 47 people. These events have raised questions about oil transport in North America. Canadian journalist Jacquie McNish discusses.
Go to page  |  Download/listen   15:06

GP comment:  You gotta love the desperation of industry when they use "it was a once-in-a-lifetime accident" because "there was a hill and the brakes failed." And, as with the ocean-based oil tanker industry, the oil-by-rail industry has mightily resisted the push to use shielded double-wall rail cars. And P.S. Also mentioned in passing is that the US is headed for "energy independence." That is a myth.

Original Show Pub Date: 24.Jan.2014


Get more audio clips on vehicles and transportation issues and many more topics in Grinning Planet's biweekly downloadable audio news feed.

All this means that diesel pollution can be deadly, causing premature mortality through cancer or heart and respiratory illnesses. The California Air Resources Board has concluded that diesel soot is responsible for 70% of the state's risk of cancer from airborne toxics. In the population as a whole, studies have shown a 26% increase in mortality in people living in soot-polluted cities.


To address diesel's emissions problems, tougher emissions rules are coming into effect. To meet the tougher pollution standards, high-tech diesel engines need low-sulfur diesel fuel. Unfortunately, US Department of Energy modeling has shown this fuel to be more oil- and carbon-intensive than reformulated gasoline.

Making a gallon of diesel fuel requires 25% more oil and emits 17% more heat-trapping greenhouse gases than gasoline reformulated with MTBE. Similarly, diesel requires 17% more oil and emits 18% more heat-trapping gases than gasoline reformulated with ethanol. This means that diesel fuel's advantages from its higher per-gallon energy content and better performance on greenhouse gases are partially offset by the impact of diesel's fuel-production process.

Still, future diesel vehicles, though perhaps not as cost-effective as gasoline, may have a role to play in reducing oil consumption and global warming pollution. Of the vehicles evaluated in the UCS report "The Diesel Dilemma: Diesel's Role in the Race for Clean Cars," full hybrid-electric diesels offered the maximum improvement in fuel economy as well as the greatest reduction in heat-trapping emissions. But a key challenge remaining is whether diesel vehicles will ever be able to deliver the same progress on other air pollutants that we've seen in today's gasoline-power technologies.


Technologies are being developed that can make diesel much cleaner and more fuel-efficient. But those advances have to be compared to continuing advancements in gasoline-powered vehicles. The chart below compares diesel performance to gasoline performance for a variety of characteristics. The more dark blue (+ signs), the better.

Table 1. Comparison – Diesel vs. Gasoline

Initial cost ok  
Range + ok  
Extreme towing capability + ok  
Infrastructure availability + +  
Tested tailpipe pollution +  
In-use pollution – – a
Maximum potential oil reduction + +  
Maximum potential global warming benefits + + + b
Cost-effectiveness for oil reduction + + +  
Cost-effectiveness for global warming benefits + + +  
Net consumer savings + + + c


Excels in this area + + vertical arrow with best at top and worst at bottom  
Does well in this area +
Performs adequately in this area ok
Does less well in this area
Performs poorly in this area – –


a. Assumes diesel emission controls fail at the same rate as those for gasoline vehicles, resulting in higher in-use pollution.

b. If diesel soot proves to be an important heat-trapping gas and is difficult to control, the potential global warming benefits from diesel will be muted.

c. It should be noted that different gasoline and diesel formulations can affect cost, oil demand, and greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, our general finding that gasoline is more cost-effective than diesel appears to hold true among common gasoline and diesel formulations.


The chart above helps us determine which automotive choice is best when considering the following factors:

  • petroleum usage;
  • greenhouse gas emissions (global warming pollution);
  • toxic air contaminants (including soot);
  • total cost to purchase, own, and operate.

Diesel does have a slight advantage over gasoline in the first two categories. But UCS modeling suggests that diesel's tough pollution-control challenges and the high up-front cost of engines and emission controls for diesel vehicles gives gasoline technology the edge overall. That means there is no mandate to bring back diesel in a big way—gasoline-powered cars, particularly gasoline-electric hybrids, are likely the best way to go.


Here are a few broad recommendations that can ensure the role diesel plays in our future vehicles will be a positive one:

RESEARCH AND INSPECTIONS: Emission-control systems deteriorate with age, are sometimes tampered with, may be improperly maintained, or may have been poorly engineered in the first place. To ensure that actual emissions for vehicles—all vehicles, including diesel—match predictions, we should do more to monitor vehicles' real-world pollution performance. Inspection and maintenance programs can help and should be expanded to include diesel vehicles, particularly if diesel becomes more popular in the light-duty vehicle sector. We should also study the public health effects of non-regulated emissions to determine whether emissions standards are effective enough.

picture of mileage sticker MILEAGE STANDARDS AND LABELING: To enable consumers to properly evaluate fuel-efficiency claims for new cars, mileage standards should compare gasoline and diesel on an energy-equivalent basis; that is, how efficiently they use a gallon of oil, not how far they go on a gallon of gasoline or diesel. Window stickers on new vehicles should be expanded and made more accurate to give consumers more information so they can evaluate the impact of their purchase on air quality, global warming, and energy security.

INCENTIVES: Protecting public health and improving vehicle fuel economy can and must be complementary goals. Incentives for vehicles with higher fuel economy and lower pollution—regardless of fuel type—can help increase production volume, lower costs, and raise consumer awareness of better vehicle technologies.

Whether we're talking about diesel or gasoline, improved vehicle technologies have the potential to cut oil usage and global warming pollution by more than 50% while saving consumers money and protecting public health. It just takes the will to make it happen!

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  • Full UCS report, "The Diesel Dilemma: Diesel's Role in the Race for Clean Cars"
  • Find fuel-efficient vehicles at
  • Find low-emissions vehicles using the US EPA's Green Vehicle Guide
The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world. An alliance of more than 250,000 citizens and scientists, UCS combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. Visit them at  

Publish date: 12-APR-2005

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Songs for a Better Planet

Diesel and dust is what we breathe;
This land don't change and we don't leave.
Some people live, some never die;
This land don't change; this land must lie.
Some people leave, always return;
This land must change or land must burn . . .   more

Song: "Warakurna"

Artist: Midnight Oil

Album: Diesel and Dust

Category: Rock


album cover for Midnight Oil, Diesel and Dust Midnight Oil's sixth album, Diesel and Dust, was something of a breakout for them—it finally took the Oils' music to a global audience. The international success came partly on the strength of a couple of hit songs—"The Dead Heart" and "Beds Are Burning"—but also on the strength of generally good songwriting and great studio production values. For instance, the song "Beds Are Burning" featured a warm, plodding bass line and an instantly memorably three-note guitar/trumpet hook juxtaposed with equally memorable lyrical hooks like: "The time has come to say 'fair's fair'; the time has come to pay our share." The song is about the rights of aboriginal peoples, usurpation of land, and freedom—themes that come up a number of times in Diesel and Dust. Political lyrics were nothing new for Midnight Oil at the time they wrote this album, and they're a centerpiece here, too. Other topics include weapons of mass destruction and the ruination of natural landscapes for the sake of resource extraction. But don't think you're just in for a dry lecture with Diesel and Dust—the boys in the band spent a lot of time working on the music and catchy lyrical phrasings that go with the messages, so it's easy to enjoy the songs without getting worn out by preaching. Overall, the songwriting here shows Midnight Oil reaching maturity, with the Oils adding some nifty musical spices to many of the songs, including the sweeping trumpets in "Beds Are Burning," the spacey synths in "Put Down That Weapon," the semi-mellotron passages in "Arctic World," the plucky guitar riffs in "Dreamworld," and the occasion "do-do-do" or "na-na-na" lyrical passages that look silly in print but can really help put the icing on a song and make it more accessible. All of this serves to elevate Diesel and Dust above Midnight Oil's earlier efforts, which tended to be a little more raw, and makes the album one of the must-have Midnight Oil CDs.

Get more reviews, hear clips, or get purchase info for this album at

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"Oil depletion and climate change will create an entirely new context in which political struggles will be played out. Within that context, it is not just freedom, democracy, and equality that are at stake, but the survival of billions of humans and of whole ecosystems."

— Richard Heinberg


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