National Geographic: Congress’s Affair With Ethanol: Love Gone Wrong?

March 29, 2013

Bill Chameides, March 28- The ethanol mandate in gasoline is starting to sting.

Trouble Brewing

In a news article published in Science magazine last week, journalist Robert Service writes: “This year is shaping up to be decisive for ‘cellulosic’ ethanol made from corn stalks and other agricultural waste, as oil companies and the ethanol industry clash over government mandates for the automotive fuel.”

What’s going on? Let’s start with a brief primer on the use of ethanol in America’s automobile.

As a libation, ethanol’s been around for a long, long time. As a fuel, it dates back to 1826 when it was first used in an internal combustion engine. Ethanol was also the fuel that ran the 1908 version of the Ford Model T. But “the decreasing cost of oil (and US prohibition)” among other factors turned Ford’s “fuel of the future” into a fuel of the past and, with the exception of World War II [pdf], there it remained for much of the mid-20th century where the fuel of choice on America’s roadways was ethanol-free gasoline.

Congress’s Love Affair With Ethanol

Starting in the late 1970s, however, ethanol began to creep its way back into our fuel tanks, at first in response to oil shortages [pdf] and the Clean Air Act’s mandated phase-out of leaded gasoline (ethanol supplanted lead as an additive to enhance octane). Demand for ethanol increased as Congress began actively encouraging and then mandating its use in cars. For example, a 1978 tax break for ethanol-blended gasoline was followed by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, whose requirements included the presence of an oxygenated compound such as ethanol in gasoline to produce cleaner automobile emissions and thus cleaner air.

More recently, Congress upped the ethanol ante with two renewable fuel standards: the 2005 Energy Policy Act “required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline by 2012” and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 greatly expanded the program by:

  • increasing the volume of renewable fuels from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022,
  • adding more renewable fuel categories each with separate volume requirements (including cellulosic ethanol targets of 100 million gallons in 2010 increasing to 16 billion gallons in 2022), and
  • applying life cycle greenhouse gas performance threshold standards to ensure that each category of renewable fuel emits less greenhouse gas emissions than the petroleum fuel it replaces.

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