Opinion: Biden gives in to the ethanol con

Source: By Editorial Board, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2022

President Biden at a bioprocessing facility in Menlo, Iowa, on April 12. (Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg News)

Election year after election year, presidential candidates have made pilgrimages to Iowa’s corn fields and promised to preserve the bonanza its farmers reap from the government-mandated ethanol industry. For a while, it seemed as though President Biden might have ended the need for this quadrennial pander. He got to the White House despite getting a drubbing in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses and its general election vote in 2020. Nevertheless, Mr. Biden trekked to Iowa on Tuesday, announcing that he would authorize more ethanol to be blended into Americans’ gasoline over the summer, waiving environmental rules.

This was not a 2024 play. Mr. Biden’s political concerns are more immediate: convincing voters that he is doing something to restrain the rise in gas prices before this year’s midterm elections. By allowing E15 — gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol — to be sold over the summer, the president claims that those who fill up with the blend will face substantially lower prices at the pump.

The truth is, very few Americans will see any benefit. Only some 2,300 gas stations carry E15, a tiny fraction of fuel retailers, mainly in the Midwest and South. By contrast, Mr. Biden’s large release from the strategic petroleum reserve, which he coordinated with other countries, may ease the pain for all drivers of gas-fueled vehicles.

Moreover, ethanol, which some hailed as a key piece of the country’s strategy to combat climate change, has turned out to be an environmental loser. Absent a waiver such as the one Mr. Biden just issued, the federal government restricts its use during summer months because the emissions from burning ethanol can promote smog in hot weather. The administration promised it would work with states to counteract any summertime rise in smog.

Instead of cutting planet-warming greenhouse emissions, many experts have concluded, the federal policy mandating that ethanol be blended into the gasoline supply has made things worse. A paper published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that ethanol produced and blended under this policy likely has life-cycle emissions — those produced along the way from the farm to the tailpipe — greater than gasoline. It has spurred more corn farming — indeed, a third of all U.S.-produced corn is converted into ethanol — leading to the clearing of land and the release of the carbon stored in its preexisting plant life.

The study’s authors found that those who paint a rosier picture about ethanol, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, badly underestimate the sum of its effects. “Ethanol’s small contribution to the domestic fuel supply, while providing a sizable guaranteed market for corn farmers and ethanol producers, comes at substantial cost to the American public,” an expert commentary on the study concludes. Noted among those costs: higher taxes to subsidize crop insurance, more expensive food and fuel, and the consequences of climate change, reduced air and water quality, habitat loss and other environmental damage.

Mr. Biden should have used his presidential power to put an end to the ethanol con. Instead, he has become yet another politician trying to hoodwink Americans on its supposed benefits.