The United States Department of Agriculture just dropped a truth bomb. According to the agency’s new landmark report, the carbon benefits associated with homegrown ethanol have far surpassed previous expectations and continue to improve thanks to ongoing innovations in agriculture and manufacturing efficiency.
Scientists from around the country have long recognized that biofuels are the best tool we have to hold down carbon emissions, but the results from the USDA are a conclusive blow to oil industry advocates who have sought to tarnish ethanol’s reputation. In fact, just last August Big Oil sponsored a bogus report — quickly debunked by serious climate scientists — that aimed to prove gasoline was no worse for the climate than renewable energy.
In reality, according to the new USDA report, corn-based ethanol produced today achieves a 43 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline. By 2022, continued efficiency improvements will deliver an emissions reduction of 50 percent and could reach as high as 76 percent. In short, ethanol gets cleaner and more sustainable year after year, and those advancements are making a real difference for our environment.
If anything, the USDA expectations for ethanol’s climate benefits are probably conservative. The report compares ethanol produced today to gasoline produced in 2005. But since 2005, the production of oil has become increasingly problematic due to the extreme methods — such as fracking — now used to bring it to the surface. In contrast, ongoing innovations in cellulosic ethanol promise to deliver greater carbon savings, with emissions reductions of 100 percent or more according to research at the Department of Energy’s own Argonne National Laboratory.
In examining the ethanol sector’s emissions from farm to tailpipe, the report also showed that instead of plowing new land areas, biofuel production has driven farmers to make more efficient use of existing cropland, supplying consumer markets with more food and energy than ever before while protecting grasslands and forests.
Notably, many of the efficiency improvements that help ethanol get greener each year also reduce the cost of production, a big win for consumers who are benefiting from cleaner and less expensive fuel options at the pump. And these benefits are set to grow thanks to the Renewable Fuel Standard, an 11-year-old policy that is working to replace an increasing share of petroleum fuels with renewable energy, specifically biofuels like ethanol.
Under this bipartisan policy, we have already slashed carbon emissions by 589 million metric tons over the past decade, the equivalent of taking more than 124 million cars off of the road. At the same time, we’ve cut costs at the pump, reduced our reliance on hostile nations, and supported the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs in America’s heartland.
It’s no wonder that political leaders from Donald Trump to Barack Obama have embraced the RFS and sought to harness America’s vast renewable resources. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped fossil fuel advocates from spreading myths about ethanol and seeking to stop consumers from accessing cleaner, more affordable options at the pump. Stalwart defenders of the status quo can be found in Congress and even among some incoming administration officials who haven’t yet embraced the pro-biofuel view that won President Trump millions of supporters in farm-heavy states.
As we kick off the new year, it’s worth reminding these naysayers that America no longer needs to choose between economic growth and clean energy. Homegrown biofuels already meet about ten percent of our transportation needs, and increasing that share under the RFS promises to deliver benefits for our wallets, our planet, and our country.
Stephen Rapundalo is president and CEO of MichBio in Ann Arbor, Mich.
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