Opinion

Ethanol Worsens Climate Change, Yet EPA Demands More of It

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt took a trip to Iowa last week to meet with ethanol producers. But the day before he headed to the Hawkeye State, the agency doubled down on the biofuel boondoggle, announcing it would mandate yet another increase in the amount of ethanol forced into our nation’s motor fuel.

This announcement is a win for the all-too-powerful Washington corn lobby and their political allies and another loss for American consumers and our environment. It also irked the petroleum industry because of the costs that it imposes, and a group of oil-state senators has now asked for a meeting to tell the president their side of the story.

The concept behind the decade-old Renewable Fuel Standard seemed laudable — get America off foreign oil, drive economic development and reduce climate-wrecking greenhouse gas emissions using home-grown biofuels. When writing the law, Congress assumed that requiring refiners to blend increasing amounts of conventional ethanol made from corn into gasoline would be a limited, temporary measure.

The reality turned out to be quite different.

More than a decade later, advanced biofuels made from cellulosic materials or algae have failed to materialize. Instead, corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel now have a firm grip on the market. The EPA, backed by corn-state politicians, has been all too willing to steadily increase the amount of these environmentally damaging conventional biofuels in the nation’s fuel supply.

The costs of these decisions — economic and environmental — have been enormous. Indeed, from an environmental perspective, the Renewable Fuel Standard is a disaster.

Tragically, a decade ago when they backed the mandate, a number of major green groups failed to perform scientific due diligence, ignoring warnings raised by some environmental professionals (myself included) about the risks of the policy.

Now that a decade’s worth of data is in, the harm caused by the biofuel mandate is even worse than some of us feared. Our analysis at the University of Michigan has concluded that a rigorous, real-world accounting of renewable fuel impacts – including the full lifecycle emissions from growing and processing the crops as well as the destruction of grasslands and forests triggered by expanding biofuel production – entirely erodes the environmental argument for the mandate.

Although proponents claim that biofuels are renewable, a flaw in their reasoning is the fact that fertile land is a finite resource. Growing the quantities of corn, soybeans and other biofuel feedstocks needed to meet the mandate’s quotas has caused ecologically devastating and carbon-intensive land conversions. University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers concluded in 2015 that clearing grasslands to grow the corn and soy needed for biofuels released as much carbon dioxide as 34 coal-fired power plants in one year, or an additional 28 million cars on the road.

Yet, some, namely the ethanol lobby and their allies, argue that the planting of new crops offsets any increase in emissions. Some gullible greens — and even California’s environmental agency — also buy into the argument that it is worthwhile to cause a huge excess of carbon emissions now in the hope that they will be offset decades down the road by the biofuel use. Our latest research pulls the rug out from underneath such arguments.

What we found is that the additional carbon uptake on cropland – the ability of new corn and soybean plantings to absorb CO2 emissions – was only enough to offset 37 percent of the carbon emissions due to biofuel combustion.

The bottom line? Our analysis – as well as that of other independent researchers – clearly demonstrates that the biofuel mandate harms the climate more than if we’d just used petroleum fuel. We do, of course, need to address the greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use, but the best ways to do that are by improving vehicle efficiency and honestly offsetting the emissions through reforestation and other natural climate solutions.

The agency tasked with protecting the environment, though, again let us down last week. If there’s a silver lining, EPA stated that this spring it will issue its long-overdue report to Congress on the environmental impacts of the policy.

If the agency relies on sound science that reflects the reality of this failed policy, then that report should be the final blow to the renewable fuel experiment. Let’s hope the EPA doesn’t let politics shape the findings.


John M. DeCicco, Ph.D., is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute where he examines transportation energy use and its associated climate challenges.

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