Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Renewable Fuel Standards Require More Corn Ethanol

Climate
Renewable Fuel Standards Require More Corn Ethanol

Environmental Working Group

By Alex Rindler

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The harm done to consumers and the environment by the federal biofuels mandate is destined to grow worse as a result of the recent decision to once again increase the amount of corn ethanol that must be added to the nation’s gasoline supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Aug. 6 announcement underscores the need to reform the federal program known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The law requires refiners to blend both conventional biofuels—corn ethanol—and advanced biofuels, such as soy biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol made from plant materials, into the supply of motor vehicle fuel. But with advanced biofuel technologies slow to commercialize, corn ethanol fills about 85 percent of the overall biofuels mandate.

The EPA’s decision means that refiners must increase from 13.4 billion gallons to 13.8 billion gallons the amount of corn ethanol blended into gasoline this year. This is a clear sign that U.S. biofuels policy is on the wrong track and must be reformed before more damage is done to the nation’s soil, water and air, and the global climate.

According to the EPA, corn ethanol is produced overwhelmingly in plants powered by fossil fuels. As a result, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are 33 percent higher for natural gas-produced ethanol than for pure gasoline, and 66 percent higher for coal-produced ethanol. And under a provision of 2007 legislation that expanded the federal biofuel mandate, most of this production is exempt from greenhouse gas reduction requirements.

From 2008 to 2011, the corn ethanol mandate has contributed to the plowing up of more than 23 million acres of wetlands and grasslands to plant crops—an area the size of Indiana. Environmental Working Group recently documented this rapid destruction of wetlands and grasslands by analyzing annually updated satellite data that the Department of Agriculture uses to track land use. Other studies have also provided compelling evidence of this dramatic change to the American landscape. The accelerating conversion of wetlands and grasslands to grow crops further drives up greenhouse gas emissions by releasing carbon stored in the soil and increasing fertilizer use.

Corn ethanol also increases emissions of other air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, ammonia, nitrogen oxides and ozone. In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the air quality effects of increased production and use of ethanol were more damaging to human health than those from gasoline use. The academy study also found that corn ethanol production contributes to poor water quality and is associated with the creation of oxygen-deprived “dead zones” that kill off aquatic life. This year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is estimated to span more than 5,800 square miles—larger than the state of Connecticut.

Despite the compelling evidence from the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences that corn ethanol contributes to climate change and dirties air and water, the industry is allowed to further saturate the market and skirt environmental protections, putting cleaner fuels at a disadvantage.

As a nation, we’ve drifted from the original intent of the RFS, which was to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and address the threat of climate change by promoting development of cleaner motor vehicle fuels. The current mandate is requiring more ethanol production than the transportation infrastructure can physically absorb—a problem known as the “blend wall”—and doing more harm than good to the environment. Meanwhile, declining gasoline consumption and stronger fuel efficiency standards have rendered the corn ethanol mandate irrelevant.

Although the EPA did acknowledge the need to address the blend wall in 2014, it has not taken steps to significantly relax blending requirements. The agency failed to waive the ethanol mandate during last year’s historic drought, which decimated corn yields and drove prices to record highs, despite the appeal of more than 180 lawmakers and 10 governors. Because administrative action is uncertain, Congress should intercede on behalf consumers, farmers and the environment by addressing the flaws of the RFS with legislation.

It’s crucial to reform—rather than repeal—the RFS by phasing out the corn ethanol mandate. This would allow promising advanced biofuels to better compete and help get the nation back to the business of reducing the climate impacts posed by transportation.

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.

——–

With restaurants and supermarkets becoming less viable options during the pandemic, there has been a growth in demand and supply of local food. Baker County Tourism Travel Baker County / Flickr

By Robin Scher

Beyond the questions surrounding the availability, effectiveness and safety of a vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to question where our food is coming from and whether we will have enough.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Tearing through the crowded streets of Philadelphia, an electric car and a gas-powered car sought to win a heated race. One that mimicked how cars are actually used. The cars had to stop at stoplights, wait for pedestrians to cross the street, and swerve in and out of the hundreds of horse-drawn buggies. That's right, horse-drawn buggies. Because this race took place in 1908. It wanted to settle once and for all which car was the superior urban vehicle. Although the gas-powered car was more powerful, the electric car was more versatile. As the cars passed over the finish line, the defeat was stunning. The 1908 Studebaker electric car won by 10 minutes. If in 1908, the electric car was clearly the better form of transportation, why don't we drive them now? Today, I'm going to answer that question by diving into the history of electric cars and what I discovered may surprise you.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A technician inspects a bitcoin mining operation at Bitfarms in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec on March 19, 2018. LARS HAGBERG / AFP via Getty Images

As bitcoin's fortunes and prominence rise, so do concerns about its environmental impact.

Read More Show Less
OR-93 traveled hundreds of miles from Oregon to California. Austin Smith Jr. / Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs / California Department of Fish and Wildlife

An Oregon-born wolf named OR-93 has sparked conservation hopes with a historic journey into California.

Read More Show Less
A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, on Sept. 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, was retired the following month. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

By David Drake and Jeffrey York

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The Big Idea

People often point to plunging natural gas prices as the reason U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shutting down at a faster pace in recent years. However, new research shows two other forces had a much larger effect: federal regulation and a well-funded activist campaign that launched in 2011 with the goal of ending coal power.

Read More Show Less