Ethanol: Let’s Ride the Wave

FROM THE JUNE ISSUE: Making ethanol part of the "green wave" by debunking environmental misinformation.
By Dave VanderGriend | May 15, 2019

Now that we are well into the current Congress, it is clear that many new members are riding in on a green wave with a renewed emphasis on climate, carbon and pollution. Committees in the House of Representatives are fighting for attention as they all want to claim the green ground. Sadly, ethanol opponents seem to see this as an opportunity to make sure ethanol is not part of this discussion. There has been an uptick in unsubstantiated, uninformed published opinion pieces accusing ethanol and agriculture of being the problem, not the solution.

It is beyond irony that the money behind many of the so-called environmental groups who are fighting to define what is green or not green is often traced back to the oil industry. Pseudo-environmental groups claiming to save the planet cling to decades-old studies on agriculture and ethanol modeling and refuse to engage in honest debate. In fact, a recent article in a Washington newspaper included a shocking, uninformed statement by a lobbyist for the Environmental Working Group who claimed, “You can’t be for the status quo with ethanol and also be for saving the planet.” He later stated political candidates would be hypocrites by supporting ethanol and claiming to be green.

The true hypocrisy is that some environmental groups, and to some extent the U.S. EPA, refuse to recognize emerging science and data that clearly show the growth of the ethanol industry has ushered in a new era of agriculture productivity that has significantly reduced carbon while increasing food supplies. Domestic ethanol has replaced more than 10 percent of our petroleum-derived gasoline and reduced the carbon that is so much of their focus. Energy and carbon inputs are reduced throughout the full life cycle, including petroleum refineries as they use low-carbon ethanol to raise octane rather than energy-intensive aromatics. 

A sad reality when ethanol opponents rely on fringe groups like the Environmental Working Group is the blinders they wear when looking at carbon and ignoring the big picture of pollution and health. In addition to simply being wrong, the hypocritical position is to oppose biofuels like ethanol and fail to recognize the overall health hazards and pollution that come from oil. Ethanol is already replacing billions of gallons of benzene and other carcinogenic toxic aromatic compounds in gasoline.

Despite this constant attack from some in the environmental community, the tide may be turning.  Whether it is by design or simply laziness, the problem with much of the criticism of ethanol is the failure to do one’s homework and the old saying comes to mind that you are entitled your own opinion, but not to your own facts.

And those facts include the findings by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Argonne National Laboratory, which has developed the gold standard of models that gauge ethanol’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a comprehensive life cycle assessment from field to tank and is constantly updated. The result is that corn ethanol is now on par with sugarcane ethanol with a 50 percent reduction in GHG from baseline gasoline. This is supported by numerous private sector studies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also recently released a study that found corn ethanol was more than 40 percent lower in carbon dioxide than gasoline, and projected future reductions of 70 percent with continued improvements in agriculture and ethanol production.

Add to that the dramatic carbon dioxide decrease from vehicles when the ethanol is added to gasoline, and the combination produces carbon reductions that should meet anyone’s definition of green. A new study conducted by North Carolina State University and commissioned by the Urban Air Initiative confirms that splash blending ethanol at higher levels increases efficiency and reduces tailpipe emissions in non-flex fuel vehicles.

And finally, Urban Air Initiative has challenged EPA to withdraw a consent decree in response to a lawsuit by the Sierra Club that would effectively force an anti-backsliding study to assess the environmental impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard. There are certain procedures and protocols to this process, and while we welcome a fair assessment of the true impacts on the environment, we want to make sure EPA is using the best available science and information.

So yes, let’s ride this green wave. We have a great story to tell and need to keep telling it.

Author: Dave VanderGriend
President, Urban Air Initiative