What it means to “Grow Ethanol”

October 22, 2014

On a recent trip to Indiana, President Obama offhandedly mentioned that “growing” ethanol is one way to put rural Americans back to work. Unfortunately for us, ethanol doesn’t grow on trees and turning the crop from food to fuel actually requires a great deal of effort and resources.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (known as the ethanol mandate) is a government mandate to fill our gas tanks with biofuels. The policy was supposed to be better for the environment than traditional gasoline and a way to increase demand, and therefore prices, for American farmers. 

But in fact, multiple government and academic studies have found that it actually does more harm than good to the environment and the rural economies it was supposed to bolster.

Here’s how:

Environmental Damage

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). 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 and is the single largest source of pollution to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” and the second largest source of impairments to wetlands.

To refine corn into one gallon of E10, a 10% ethanol mixture that is standard today but not enough to continue meeting the mandate, requires 170 gallons of water versus the five gallons that gasoline requires.

Not to mention, when considering the full lifecycle, corn-based ethanol nearly doubles GHG emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.

Rural Economies

While mandating ethanol has been good for ethanol producers, the policy has negatively impacted the livestock farmers and ranchers who rely on reasonable corn prices for animal feed. This has contributed to the closing of more than 60,000 pork, poultry and beef operations since 2007, when the policy was expanded.

Animal agriculture supports 20 times more jobs than the ethanol industry, so a policy that favors ethanol over food production hurts our economy.

While it’s true that right now corn prices are low, the Environmental Protection Agency — charged with making reasonable adjustments to the mandate annually — is more than ten months late in finalizing the 2014 mandate, which causes the kind of instability in the corn market that hurts everyone, corn and livestock farmers alike.

And cellulosic ethanol plants haven’t yet materialized as the rural job creators once hoped for. The federal government has spent hundreds of millions to prop up the cellulosic industry, yet many of the companies that received those funds have since gone out of business.

Forcing ethanol into our fuel supply damages both the American economy and our environment. Tell Congress to take action on this failing policy.