A new study shows that the corn lobby's favorite fuel is worse for the environment than gasoline.
Lewis Morris as appeared in The Patriot Post
released this week
by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) revealed that corn-based ethanol is likely doing more damage to the environment than if we used straight gasoline.
"Even without considering likely international land use effects," researchers said, "we find that the production of corn-based ethanol in the United States has failed to meet the policy's own greenhouse gas emissions targets and negatively affected water quality, the area of land used for conservation, and other ecosystem processes."
In other words, ethanol is a failure.
But that's not what we're supposed to hear. We have been told since the government forced us to use alternative fuel blends — the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) — in 2005 that ethanol is grand. Putting corn in our gas tanks would reduce our dependency on foreign oil, reduce our carbon emissions, and just make us all around better people. So said the environmentalists. With few exceptions, so said the Republican and Democrat presidential candidates who wander through Iowa every few years. And, of course, so said the media.
We were treated to a completely different set of outcomes, the most obvious being that ethanol did not save us any money at the pump
. The PNAS study lists several others, obtained from a thorough examination of the RFS in its totality, from the planting of the corn to the processing of the fuel to the pumping of your gas.
According to the study, in the years 2008-2016, the RFS led to a 30% increase in corn prices. Prices of other crops rose by 20%, along with a multitude of grocery items that rely on corn. Cereal, anyone? Corn cultivation in the U.S. expanded by 8.7%. And to be clear, this expansion, along with the outsized impact corn has had on food prices, was driven overwhelmingly by the need for corn as a biofuel, not as a food source.
Along with all this corn came fertilizers, and there was a nationwide annual increase of up to 8%. Overuse of the land depleted the soil, caused soil erosion, polluted natural water sources, and diverted water from other crops. It takes three gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol.
When taking all factors into account, even the use of gasoline to run the tractors that till the soil (which releases carbon into the atmosphere), the PNAS study found that ethanol-treated gasoline is 24% more carbon intensive than conventional gasoline.
This finding totally contradicts what the Department of Agriculture had to say about ethanol in its own 2019 study, which found that ethanol was 39% less carbon intensive than gas. Gee, a government study
that found a government program was working perfectly. Imagine that.
To be fair, the Agriculture Department study did not perform a holistic analysis of the entire RFS program, so its numbers may depend on the context. Or at least, that is probably the argument that ethanol's staunch defenders will use when asked about the disparity.
The Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol lobby group, was more direct in its response to the PNAS study. "Completely fictional and erroneous," said Geoff Cooper, the group's president and CEO.
Naturally, many who stand to lose something from the disappearance of ethanol will fight to keep it. It's the law of government inertia. Failure alone does not kill a bad policy. Only enough people accepting the truth can do that.
If we truly are serious about creating effective biofuels that will not harm the environment, then we need to be honest about the performance of ethanol. The technology isn't there yet, but it may be soon. America is by far the world's largest producer of biofuels, responsible for 47% of global output in the last decade. This is a market we can dominate, if we produce a quality product that does what it says it does. It's time to admit the failure that ethanol has become, learn from it, and move on.
RFA: SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT ON THE ENVIRONMENTAL OUTCOMES OF THE RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARD
Source: Renewable Fuels Assn news release
A new report published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation, purports to examine the "environmental outcomes" of the Renewable Fuel Standard. In keeping with their previous "research" on biofuels and the RFS, the authors of this new paper precariously string together a series of worst-case assumptions, cherry-picked data, and disparate results from previously debunked studies to create a completely fictional and erroneous account of the environmental impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard.
The claims in this report simply don't align with reality and the facts on the ground, and the paper reads more like a fantasy novel than a genuine piece of academic literature. It should not be taken seriously.
In fact, when related research from some of the same authors was released several years ago, representatives from RFA and corn grower organizations met with this study's lead author, Tyler Lark, at the University of Wisconsin, in an attempt to begin a constructive conversation about today's ethanol industry and the real impacts of biofuels policy.
At that time, we shared data and information with Lark and his colleagues and asked how we could collaborate on research. We asked how we could work together to ensure their error-ridden satellite analysis of land-use changes was grounded in reality. We never heard back from them.
RFA is always open to having an honest, fact-based discussion about the impacts of ethanol and the RFS on the environment and economy. We have a great story to tell, and the data to back it up. Ethanol already reduced GHG emissions by roughly half compared to gasoline, and we are on a trajectory to achieve a net-zero emissions carbon footprint for ethanol by 2050 or sooner. Unfortunately, the authors appear more interested in slandering farmers and getting salacious headlines than examining the facts.
for a more detailed rebuttal from RFA that offers key facts about ethanol's environmental impacts that were purposely omitted from the paper.
Editor's Note: We reprint the synopsis from the National Academy of Science because we fell like you need to know what's "out there." There can be little doubt the renewable fuels standards and ethanol have had a large and positive impact on agriculture. We also think it is fitting we furnish the RFA response to the NAS report. You may very well get questions from your non-ag friends on this and might find this useful reading.