Why Ethanol Is Worse Than Oil as a Fuel Source

Corn Ethanol

Story at-a-glance -

  • The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires oil companies to increase ethanol in gasoline, was based on the assumption that biofuels are carbon neutral
  • New research shows biofuels such as corn ethanol are not carbon neutral; they’re associated with a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions — even worse than gasoline
  • Corn and soy crops planted to produce biofuels only offset 37 percent of carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning biofuels

By Dr. Mercola

The use of biofuels like ethanol in the U.S. has expanded over the last decade under the assumption that they're better for the environment than gasoline. A new study by professor John DeCicco, Ph.D., at the University of Michigan, and colleagues is the latest to suggest that such assumptions are categorically false.

The research looked into the notion of whether or not biofuels are carbon neutral as they're often assumed to be. Carbon neutrality is perceived as the holy grail of the biofuel industry. It refers to a product that achieves net zero carbon emissions.

In the case of biofuels, the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard was based on the assumption that biofuels are carbon neutral.

In other words, this would mean that the corn or soybeans grown to produce biofuels remove as much carbon dioxide from the environment as is given off when the biofuels, such as ethanol, are burned.

Because of its supposed environmental advantage over gasoline, the Renewable Fuel Standard requires oil companies to increase ethanol in gasoline from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022.

The U.K. has also launched the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, which requires 4.75 percent of suppliers' fuel to come from a biofuel like ethanol.1 DeCicco told the Detroit Free Press:2

"Carbon neutrality has really just been an assumption … To verify the extent to which that assumption is true, you really need to analyze what's going on on the farmland, where the biofuels are being grown. People haven't done that in the past — they felt like they didn't need to …

I swallowed hard when I first, on a mathematical basis, uncovered the problem, which was about four years ago."

Ethanol Is Not Carbon Neutral

The problem that DeCicco is referring to is his finding that biofuels such as corn ethanol are not carbon neutral. In fact, they're associated with a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions; they're even worse than gasoline, according to DeCicco's research.

It turns out that even as environmentally beneficial grasslands have been plowed under to make room for more ethanol-producing crops (i.e., corn), the crops only offset 37 percent of carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning biofuels.3

Meanwhile, governments around the globe are continuing to roll out initiatives aimed at increasing the use of these supposedly renewable fuels. Britain, for instance, has plans to introduce a new type of gasoline called EIO, which contains a higher proportion of biofuel.4

Such plans have been made on false assumptions and flawed data and have the potential to worsen and speed environmental destruction. It should be noted that DeCicco's study was funded by the American Petroleum Institute, which obviously has reason to want to discredit the sustainability of biofuels.

However, the research reiterates what other researchers have found before — that growing more monocrops like corn and soy is causing the environment far more harm than good. DeCicco told the Detroit Free Press:5

"The name of the game is to speed up how much CO2 [carbon dioxide] you remove from the air … The best way to begin removing more CO2 from the air is to grow more trees, and leave them. Prior to settlement, Michigan was heavily forested.

A state like Michigan could do much more to balance out the tailpipe emissions of CO2 by reforesting than by repurposing the corn and soybeans grown in the state into biofuels. That is just a kind of shell game that's not working."

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Is Ethanol Worse for the Environment Than Gasoline?

In 2014, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report titled "Ethanol's Broken Promise," which reached similar conclusions as DeCicco's study — corn ethanol might be worse for the environment than gasoline.6 The report detailed four widely circulated myths about ethanol:

Myth 1: Ethanol Doesn't Increase Corn Prices

Scientists from the National Academies revealed that using so much corn for ethanol increased the price of corn by 20 percent to 40 percent between 2007 and 2009 (which is partly why anti-hunger organizations are angry about corn ethanol).

Myth 2: Corn Increases Yields Infinitely

Corn cannot magically increase yields indefinitely, as Big Ethanol would like people to believe. In order to increase yields, farmers are plowing up native grasslands to make more room for corn.

According to EWG, more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands have been converted to corn from 2008 to 2011, which released at least 80 million tons of carbon a year.

Myth 3: Corn Doesn't Need Water

Estimates showing corn ethanol's positive influence on the environment failed to take into account the water needed to grow the corn.

According to agricultural economists at Purdue University, when corn plants' water needs are taken into account, corn ethanol is worse for the environment than gasoline.

Myth 4: The Global Population Eats Too Much

More than 800 million people around the world don't have enough to eat, and when corn prices rise, it makes it difficult for even more people to feed their families. Nearly half of the corn grown in the U.S. goes toward fuel, while people are starving around the world.

Carbon-Sequestering Grasslands Plowed Up to Grow Corn for Ethanol

In an example of all that is wrong with the notion of ethanol as a renewable resource, since the U.S. government began requiring ethanol in fuel in 2007, more than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost to corn (and soy) crops.7

Grasslands, which have vast underground root systems, play a major role in storing carbon. It's estimated that one-third of the world's carbon stocks are held via these complex root system, which is nearly as much as is stored by forests.

Every time an acre of grassland is plowed, 60 tons of carbon dioxide are released into the environment.8 On the other hand, leaving grasslands as is and adding in compost has the potential to significantly increase carbon sequestration.

Using a field-scale model to test several case studies on California grasslands, researchers found applying manure slurries led to greenhouse gas emissions from the soil.

However, applying composted manure and plant waste led to large offsets that exceeded emissions. Other benefits, including increased plant productivity, soil carbon sequestration and reduced need for commercial feeds, were also seen.9

So while the ethanol fuel program was designed to reduce carbon emissions, the loss of grasslands does just the opposite.

Meanwhile, research is showing that planting corn crops in their place cannot offset the carbon released by burning biofuels, making it a no-win situation for virtually everyone, except, of course, Monsanto.

Ethanol Is Subsidizing Monsanto While Polluting Our Air, Soil and Water

Monsanto is an oft-overlooked player in the realm of biofuels, but it shouldn't be. Herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered (GE) corn like Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn accounted for 89 percent of U.S. corn acreage in 2014, 2015 and 2016.10

In other words, every time an acre of grassland is plowed up to plant more corn, it's in turn planted with Monsanto's GE corn, bolstering their bottom line at the expense of the environment.

With Roundup Ready corn comes the requisite application of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, with its active ingredient glyphosate. Research continues to accumulate that glyphosate, now the most widely used agricultural chemical ever, is another nail in the coffin for the Earth and its inhabitants.

Recently, for example, researchers found glyphosate-based herbicides appear harmful to a common variety of freshwater algae; the chemical had a negative effect on the algae's photosynthesis, chlorophyll levels and respiration.11 Further, the researchers concluded:12

"Our results indicate that glyphosate has a stronger inhibitory effect on photosynthetic rate when applied in association with a surfactant (Roundup). These effects are related both to the concentration of the active ingredient and to exposure time."

Devastating Glyphosate May Be Illegal

The U.S. Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) mandate aggregate testing of food crops in order to gauge accumulated exposures to pesticides from consuming common foods. However, the Weston A. Price Foundation reports "that no government aggregate food testing of glyphosate residues has occurred, so the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] uses 'available information.'"13

Because aggregate product testing for glyphosate has not been conducted, they say, "glyphosate should be illegal." And that's not all. The FQPA 10x Safety Factor is supposed to be used to give an additional 10-fold margin of safety for those most at risk of pesticide exposures, such as pregnant women, infants and children. The EPA, however, waived the FQPA Safety Factor for glyphosate, removing the 10-fold safety margin to 1-fold.

High-Price Ethanol Fuel Credits

Adding to the complexity surrounding the use of biofuels are renewable identification numbers, or RINs. The Renewable Fuel Standard requires oil companies to use a certain amount of biofuels every year, which are tracked via RINs, or, as they're also known, fuel credits.

An oil company may meet this annual obligation by adding a certain amount of biofuel to each gallon of petroleum-based fuel that's refined or by purchasing fuel credits from other refineries that earn them. Small refiners are often penalized by this system since their facilities may only be equipped to process petroleum products and adding in special equipment to blend in ethanol would be cost-prohibitive. The New York Times reported:14

"Fuel credits known as RINs have been in place for the last decade as part of a federal program to encourage the blending of ethanol or other renewable additives into gasoline and diesel fuels. Refiners that do not fulfill the federal blending mandate are required to buy RINs instead — which they say impose financial burdens when market speculation or other factors cause RIN prices to rise."

The credits originally sold for just a few cents per gallon but have risen as high as $1.50. In August 2016, they sold for 86 cents per gallon. RINs are traded privately, which means such transactions lack transparency. It's thought that some are stockpiling the credits in anticipation that the EPA will raise ethanol requirements in 2017. As RIN prices rise, it creates more incentive for ethanol to be produced. The New York Times continued:15

"Several large independent gas station chains that blend biofuels, including RaceTrac, have announced that they will soon begin pumping more fuel with higher concentrations of ethanol to generate more RINs that they can sell."

Ethanol Is Not the Answer

The U.S. government has previously moved to lower ethanol quotas for oil refiners, but in 2015 the EPA increased them anyway.16 The real issue is that plowing up native grasslands to plant vast expanses of corn and soy — the epitome of monoculture — needs to be stopped, not further subsidized by the government.

Such practice releases carbon dioxide into the environment while increasing erosion and the use of GE crops, toxic fertilizers, herbicides and other chemicals; it also destroys habitat for native plants and wildlife. Corn crops are already subsidized by the U.S. government, so between subsidies and rising ethanol-driven prices, corn has become quite a cash crop for farmers.

But this "green energy" program is backfiring, because there's nothing "green" about planting an absolutely unnecessary surplus of corn, especially when natural prairies are being sacrificed.

Not to mention, ethanol has been found to be worsefor engines,17 worsefor mileage,18 and more about political agendas than economic or environmental ones. As further reported by Clean Technica, corn ethanol fuel standards have created more problems than solutions:19

"A [10]-year review of the US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) by researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT) found that the RFS is 'too reliant' on corn ethanol, and the production of this biofuel is resulting in additional water and soil problems, as well as 'hampering advancements' in other biofuels."

Perhaps you can't do anything about the direction of biofuels on a national level, but you can make a difference for yourself, for your family and community that might have residual effects. You can, for instance, avoid falling for the hype that high-ethanol fuels and the cars designed to run on them are better for the environment.

Meanwhile, you can choose to purchase organically grown foods that are free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Monsanto's GE crops are often touted as necessary to ensure global food security and feed the world, but nearly half of the corn grown in the U.S. goes toward fuel. Feed the world? More like starve the world to protect Monsanto's fuel subsidy.