Ethanol still makes sense for climate, rural communities

September 26, 2023

Ethanol makes a lot of sense. It’s a form of energy that harnesses sunshine and, in the process, can sequester carbon. It plays into a circular economy, enabling farmers, like Ray Gaesser, to work with neighbors to use and reuse resources, creating a ripple effect of economic and environmental benefits.

Renewable corn energy seems a no-brainer compared to nonrenewable petroleum-based gasoline. Oil does not—and cannot—foster life like agriculture. And once oil is gone, it’s gone. But a working group of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) is questioning the environmental benefits of ethanol.

The SAB’s draft commentary to EPA says, “it appears there is a reasonable chance there are minimal or no climate benefits from substituting corn ethanol for gasoline or diesel,” reports Reuters.

Solutions from the Land agrees with Geoff Cooper, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, who, according to Reuters, said: “We adamantly disagree. We encourage the SAB to conduct a more expansive and inclusive examination.”

One of the major problems with the SAB’s conclusion is that it ignores pertinent, recent research studies that demonstrate the benefits of ethanol.

A 2021 study published by the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory “found that U.S. corn ethanol has 44-52% lower GHG emissions than gasoline,” wrote Valerie Sarisky-Reed, Ph.D., director of the Bioenergy Technologies Office in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in June 2022.  

Sarisky-Reed describes Argonne as “recognized globally as one of the leading experts in this type of LCA [life cycle analysis] research” and notes that “other credible studies have found similar results.”

Further, she points out that Argonne’s analysis showed carbon emissions from U.S. corn ethanol fell 20% from 2005 to 2019 “due to increased corn yields per acre, decreased fertilizer use, and improved ethanol production practices.”

But these facts are missing from the SAB’s comments.

“While the SAB draft report repeatedly points to some highly criticized work by a University of Wisconsin researcher, the SAB report doesn’t mention Argonne’s work once in its list of studies about ethanol,” reports Chris Clayton, DTN ag policy editor.

“There’s a lot of good science that says ethanol does, in fact, have lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions [from origin to consumption] compared to gasoline,” says Brian West, a former Oak Ridge National Laboratory vehicle, fuels and engines researcher.

“I believe very strongly that benefits of ethanol should be reflected in our regulations,” West says, noting studies that reflect poorly on ethanol often rely on flawed, misused land use change models.

Sarisky-Reed also notes that recent studies based on data, not modeling “indicate initial projections significantly overestimated land use change impacts.”

“Biofuels have already saved millions of tonnes (MT) of greenhouse gas (GHG) in the United States and greater use of these clean fuels should be embraced for sustained and increased contribution to this objective,” West wrote in February, arguing that higher ethanol blends can support transition to a low-carbon future, even as interest turns to electric vehicles, which, he says, should not be considered “zero emissions” transportation simply because there is no tailpipe. Ethanol continues to be a worthwhile solution for our nation to pursue as it aims to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. There will always be room for improvement and further research, but let’s not ignore the good research that has already been done.

More Like This From Our BLog

Our Vision

An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.