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Corn ethanol is NOT (and never has been) a climate solution

September 9, 2022

Yesterday, September 8th, Leah Douglas published an in-depth research article on ethanol in Reuters. It’s a careful, deeply researched piece that reminds us of what good journalism can be and an important and timely reminder that corn ethanol is NOT a climate solution.

A couple of key findings from the article:

  1. Corn ethanol production emits a lot of carbon. In fact, corn ethanol processing plants produce about twice the carbon that oil refineries do!
  2. Ethanol plants are allowed to pollute so much because older plants are exempt from the federal requirement in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that says that ethanol must be 20% better for the climate than gasoline. 95% of all ethanol plants are exempted from this requirement!
  3. The reason that the RFS allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to exempt these plants and allows them to pollute so much is because of industry and lobbyist pressure, as the biggest emitters are also some of the biggest agribusiness companies in the country.
  4. And in case you forgot, the article notes that back in 2009, EPA scientists found that corn ethanol would actually emit more greenhouse gases than gasoline, making it ineligible for the RFS which (as mentioned above) nominally requires that biofuels emit at least 20% less greenhouse gases than gasoline. However, under industry pressure (again), the EPA completely changed its methodology for calculating the climate impact of corn ethanol, and this time found that corn ethanol would actually be 21% better than gasoline, coincidentally just on the other side of the RFS cutoff.

So, what can we conclude? Here are some key takeaways:

  1. It’s been 15 years since the current version of the RFS passed. These are NOT new standards. The ethanol industry should NOT still be polluting this much.
  2. Corn ethanol is not good for the planet. The weight of current research is actually pretty overwhelming, as detailed in the piece. And yet, EPA and industry scientists use a flawed methodology to claim that corn ethanol is good for the climate. They undercount the carbon emissions related to corn production, and they undercount the carbon emissions related to converting native land to monocrop corn production.
  3. There are better uses for this land, like simply restoring it to a prairie grassland, as the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does, by paying farmers to keep land out of production and allow it to sequester carbon. Not only would this address the biggest source of emissions from corn ethanol production – ploughing up native grassland and converting it to monocrop corn production – but it may help to reverse some of the damage that the RFS has caused.
  4. There is no future for corn ethanol. Corn ethanol was never going to replace gasoline, and even if blending in 10% or 15% corn ethanol blends were better for the environment (which is not the case, see above), the climate crisis is way past the point where that’s enough emissions savings to be a real solution. Electric vehicles are clearly going to out compete gas for clean personal travel. Hopefully this will be paired with far more public transit, walking and biking to bring emissions from transportation down and meet our climate goals.
  5. Supporting farmers is a very valid policy goal, but as we at ActionAid USA have pointed out, there are far better farm policies that would both support farmers and rural communities and better serve climate action. Dive deeper here.
  6. And finally, the ethanol industry is trying desperately to figure out how to improve its status with climate champions, aggressively claiming that it can capture the carbon at the ethanol plants and then store it deep underground.  The proposed plans for carbon capture and storage (CCS) at these ethanol plants require thousands of miles of CO2 pipelines across the Midwest that pose risks to local communities and the planet with the risk of leaks, and also entail a massive land grab that puts farms, homes, and indigenous lands at risk. And this is all to prop up an industry that should never have been propped up in the first place.

Congress has tried and failed for years to address the issues with the RFS. The EPA cannot wait any longer to use its authority to chart a new way forward. The EPA should follow the science and start phasing out biofuel mandates.