- Written by webmin
With additional reporting by Mike McNessor
In this corner, in the red trunks: America’s single largest agricultural lobby and associated hangers-on; numerous local boondoggle ethanol plants; and a number of bought and paid-for Senators and Representatives. The challenger, in blue trunks, and coming out swinging: America’s Darling, Ford; GM; the AAM, AIAM and NMMA; and the rest of the posse.
At stake: The EPA’s recent ruling to allow the use of E15 ethanol blends in over-the-counter gasoline.
We’re not an opinion blog. We just talk about old vehicles and generally leave politics and religion to people with an appetite for abuse. But over the years, we’ve made an exception for issues of direct importance to car owners, now and in the future. Ethanol is chief among those.
Over the last five or six years, we’ve done a lot of research into just where this federal lust for the stuff comes from. As I said a couple of years ago,
The roots of our ethanol industry are complex, but the EPA’s 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard has a lot to do with its presence in our gas. RFS required oil companies to develop renewable fuel sources and set minimum standards…
Three arguments are made in ethanol’s favor; we’ve addressed each in the past, so here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons:
1. We must reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Well, duh. No matter how far right your politics are, I don’t know anyone who disagrees. But often unasked is, “will ethanol do this?” As far as I can tell, no. Creating automobile fuel from corn is an energy-intensive process, to the point that it’s difficult to get a positive energy return. If there’s a positive side to this, the large energy draw from ethanol plants will encourage the creating of more electrical generating capacity, which will be helpful as electric car adoption spreads. But that’s a completely unintentional benefit.
2. We must reduce carbon emissions.
The same question asked of reducing oil use should be asked here: “Will ethanol do this?” It really doesn’t look that way:
Timothy D. Searchinger recently wrote in Science that ethanol’s overall greenhouse gas contribution as LCES would measure it is actually greater than that from gasoline: “Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 percent savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50 percent. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.” Searchinger addresses many of the ethanol industry’s arguments in a separate (very readable) document available here.
3. Ethanol is a green alternative.
The science says it isn’t. In addition to the above possibility of increased global emissions from biofuels production, there are many questions about tailpipe emissions from cars using E15. The EPA ruling was made after a (controversial) finding that it wouldn’t damage emissions equipment, and does not promise anything more.
Additionally, as many municipalities which embraced the construction of ethanol plants have found to their chagrin, they have an enormous environmental footprint. Some 200,000,000 gallons of water per day are being used by ethanol plants nationwide. It’s worth noting that notorious right-wing outfits such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Working Group oppose E15.
So why? Why push this stuff on us, year after year? The answer is in the corn.
Between 1995 and 2009, federal corn subsidies totaled $73.8 billion. Toss that number around for a while. The staggeringly huge American corn subsidy has left us with production that far outstrips demand. Even with a $9 billion export subsidy, we have, literally, mountains of unused corn. Turning it into ethanol, via ethanol’s own comparable subsidy, to the tune of about $5 billion a year, or $1.45 per gallon produced, gives it a place to go. At the same time, ethanol projects end up in Congressional districts where the jobs are noticed by voters.
Debate on the ethanol subsidy is its own matter, but the relationship between the two huge projects is incontrovertible, and should be a cause for national shame. We, however, are not alone in our outrage and at long last, active corporate resistance has started to coalesce.
It’s difficult to imagine a scenario that puts Sierra Club and American Petroleum Institute on the same side of an issue, but Congress has managed it. Automakers and engine manufacturers have filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency on this issue, the Associated Press reported Monday.
This is the latest of several groups to come out against the sale of E15. In November, The American Petroleum Institute, predictably, filed suit against the EPA over the sale of E15. Also last month, a coalition of farm and food trade associations filed a lawsuit against the EPA.
“The EPA’s partial waiver is premature, lacks statutory authority and puts consumers at risk,” API’s Director of Downstream Operations, Bob Greco, said. “Ongoing testing by our industry, auto makers and the Department of Energy to determine whether E15 is safe has not been completed. Results so far have revealed potential safety and performance problems that could affect consumers and the investments they’ve made in their automobiles.” We old-car enthusiasts are not enthusiastic about ethanol blends in fuel, as well.
We don’t need more corn, and we don’t need more ethanol, but the tens of billions of tax dollars pumped into both every year suggest that’s what we’re going to get.