Study: Ethanol cut would lower greenhouse gas

Source: Christopher Doering, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, May 30, 2014


Ethanol is again under attack for its environmental record, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers reducing a mandate to use the fuel this year.

The EPA’s proposal to cut the amount of the fuel required to be blended into gasoline would lower greenhouse gas emissions by 3 million tons, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Working Group.

Ethanol groups were quick to criticize the study, calling it flawed and based on incorrect assumptions.

In November, the EPA proposed reducing corn produced from ethanol in 2014 to 13.01 billion gallons from 14.4 billion gallons initially required in the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, a law that requires refiners to buy alternative fuels made from corn, soybeans and other products to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy.

A final rule is expected to be issued by the EPA in June. Those who follow the ethanol debate expect the EPA will increase the Renewable Fuel Standard blending level from the November estimate.

The 11-page study said blending corn into the gasoline supply has increased greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging farmers to convert wetlands and grasslands into acreage to produce corn. The increase in land use leads to the release of soil carbon into the atmosphere and promotes the application of more fertilizer, which also contributes to greenhouse gases.

“The Obama administration has a real opportunity to scale back the corn ethanol mandate and make a significant contribution in the fight against climate change,” said Emily Cassidy, Environmental Working Group’s research analyst and co-author of the report. “As our research shows, corn-based ethanol is actually worse for the climate than regular gasoline.”

The study says U.S. farmers converted 23 million acres of wetlands and grasslands – an area the size of Indiana – to crop production from 2008 to 2011, with about 8 million acres going toward corn. EWG’s analysis estimates that this massive transformation in the way the land is being used has resulted in greenhouse gas emissions of between 85 million and 236 million metric tons a year more than previous years.

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, called the EWG report flawed and said it “relies on overblown and disputed assumptions of land use change, making ethanol from corn appear to be worse than gasoline.”

Ron Lamberty, senior vice president for the American Coalition for Ethanol, said the study “takes a couple of real things, connects them in an imaginary scenario, and then multiplies over time, to create a big, scary conclusion.” Lamberty said while the EWG study found more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted for corn, the latest USDA Census of Agriculture showed farm acreage dropped by nearly 8 million acres from 2007 to 2012, the first five years of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“These people expect us to believe farmers were spending time and money to drain wetlands and plow marginal land while they quit farming productive cropland,” said Lamberty. “That’s ridiculous.”

The debate over the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard has led the ethanol industry and opponents of the mandate, including the American Petroleum Institute, environmental groups and the restaurant industry, to mount an aggressive public campaign in hopes of influencing the future of the controversial policy. Supporters have warned that momentum for ethanol, particularly next-generation fuels produced from crop waste, wood, grasses and other plants, could be slowed if the EPA chooses to scale back the Renewable Fuel Standard, costing millions of dollars in lost revenue and jobs for major fuel producers like Iowa.

Last year Iowa, the largest ethanol-producing state, accounted for roughly 28 percent of country’s production. The state generated 3.7 billion gallons of ethanol from 42 plants in 2013.