24 Ethanol Realities

September 15, 2014

Proponents of the ethanol mandate (known as the RFS, or Renewable Fuel Standard) promised Americans that their plan would save the environment; that making 10 percent of America’s fuel from the water, pesticide and land-intensive corn they grow would lower emissions and protect the land.

But 10 years later, America’s premier “environmental” policy is actually doing more harm to the environment than good.

In honor of Al Gore’s “24 Hours of Reality,” focused on climate change, we wanted to share some hard truths about ethanol fuel:

Turning wild lands into industrial biofuel fields

1. Between 2008 and 2011, eight million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetland were plowed under to grow corn, dramatically increasing carbon emissions by 85 million to 236 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases per year. — Environmental Working Group
2. Global energy use from all sources is currently about 250 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Therefore, biofuels are providing less than one-half of 1 percent of the world's energy needs. And in doing so, they are requiring a land area more than twice the size of California. – Bloomberg
3. Meeting the RFS mandate for advanced cellulosic biofuel in 2014 will require 4.8 million acres of land; in 2022, 44 million acres. – Colorado State University
4. To produce 20 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, 16-19 million acres of land is required for non-residue feedstocks. — Biomass Research and Development Initiative
5. Producing enough cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass to displace one million barrels of oil per day would require switchgrass to be planted on 25 million acres of land — an area about the size of Kentucky. – AEI

Consuming and polluting precious water resources

6. It takes five gallons of water to refine one gallon of gasoline; 146 gallons for one gallon of E10 containing cellulosic ethanol; 170 gallon for one gallon of E10 containing corn-based ethanol. — University of Colorado
7. Nearly 1 in 10 gallons — nine percent — of all water consumed in the United States will go toward biofuel production by 2030. — United Nations
8. Eighty-seven percent of irrigated corn is grown in regions with high or extremely high water stress. — Ceres
9. Corn uses the most fertilizer of all major U.S. crops, more than half of all commercial fertilizer applied to U.S. cropland (195 pounds of fertilizer per acre of corn). — Ceres
10. Nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that is released from the fertilizers used to grow corn, has 298 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. – Environmental Working Group
11. Nitrogen run-off from U.S. corn acres damages lakes, streams and groundwater and is the single largest source of pollution to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” — an area the size of Connecticut — and the second largest source of impairments to wetlands. — Ceres

Raising emissions

12. Even if corn ethanol caused no emissions except those from land-use change, overall GHGs would still increase over a 30-year period. – Science Magazine
13. Corn-based ethanol nearly doubles GHG emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. – Science Magazine
14. The loss of trees cleared to make room for new biofuel crops increases emissions. – MIT
15. If GHG emissions from the indirect land use changes are considered, the environmental impact of E85 (a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) is, on average, 33% greater than that of gasoline. – Environmental Science and Technology
16. “Corn ethanol has not only been a disaster for consumers, the hungry and for most farmers, it has also been a disaster for the environment. We have lost more wetlands and grasslands in the last four years than we have in the last 40 years.” – Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group
17. Despite statements from the EPA saying the RFS is intended to stimulate second generation biofuels, corn ethanol still fulfills 80 percent of the mandate.
18. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase GHG emissions by 50 percent. – Science Magazine
19. Converting American corn fields to grow switchgrass would trigger emissions from land-use change that would take 52 years to pay back and increase emissions by 50 percent over a period of 30 years. – Science Magazine
20. Fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass would require delivering a semi-truckload of the grass every six minutes, 24 hours a day, which adds to emissions associated with ethanol development. — Rolling Stone
21. Use and production of biomass ethanol is projected to result in a higher release of air pollutants, such as ozone and sulfur oxide, than petroleum-based fuels. — National Academy of Sciences
22. Ethanol burned in an engine produces more than twice as much ozone as the equivalent amount of gasoline. – The Economist
23. Expanding biofuels feedstock production on marginal lands compete with wildlife and fowl habitat. — Congressional Research Service
24. “Ethanol use does little to prevent global warming and environmental deterioration, and clear-headed policy reforms could be urgently carried out, if American politics would permit it.” – Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize-winning economist

Oh, and speaking of Former Vice President Gore, here’s what he has to say about the ethanol mandate:

“It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol. The benefits of ethanol are trivial but it's hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.”

The White House needs a reality check—it’s time for ethanol mandates to stop posing as sound environmental policy.