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February 17, 2022

There Is Nothing ‘Green’ About Ethanol

A new study confirms what we have asserted repeatedly — ethanol is worse for the environment than gasoline.

A study 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.

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