Study suggests corn-based ethanol is worse for global warming than gasoline

Corn-based ethanol is being blended into U.S. gasoline supplies to reduce transportation-related emissions, but a new study suggests ethanol could be worse for the environment than straight gasoline.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencescontradicts previous research commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) concluding that ethanol and other biofuels deliver greenhouse gas benefits to fossil fuels, Reuters Noted.

Funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and the US Department of Energy, the study found that ethanol is at least 24% more carbon intensive than gasoline due to emissions from land use. and changes in corn growth, as well as emissions from production and combustion that accompany any carbon-based liquid fuel.

Large square baler harvesting wheat straw for cellulosic ethanol production

After the federal government began encouraging ethanol production as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2008, corn prices rose 30%, while prices for other crops rose 20%. according to the study. This led to increased cultivation, requiring greater land use.

According to the study, agricultural production based on ethanol also led to a decrease in water quality and an increase in annual fertilizer use nationwide by 3 to 8 percent. Supplemental use of nitrogen-based fertilizers increased nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions by 8.3%, according to the study.

The Renewable Fuels Standard has always been a compromise, essentially pitting corn state and oil industry lobbyists against each other, and designed at a time when consumer electric cars seemed unlikely.

FlexFuel badge on E85 compatible 2009 Chevrolet HHR

FlexFuel badge on E85 compatible 2009 Chevrolet HHR

US automakers have backed a push for so-called “flex-fuel” vehicles that run on conventional gasoline or E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline (as opposed to E10 or E15 blends most cars run on). But that’s become a bit of a mess, and now many of those same automakers are committing to launching full lines of electric vehicles.

Studies have long shown that increasing ethanol in gasoline can contribute to smog, so a number of states have reduced the amount of ethanol blended during the summer months.

However, no coherent attempt has been made so far to review the ethanol policy.

Presentation GM E85

Presentation GM E85

The Trump administration was inconsistent on ethanol – initially calling it subsidy-based, then participating in it with a huge bailout.

Under Trump, the EPA has also studied reducing the amount of ethanol in gasoline. Biofuel policies are currently under review by the Biden administration, Reuters Noted.

Is ethanol a distraction from green energy priorities, or does it still have a place in energy policy? Tell us what you think.

Teresa H. Sadler