If a jolly green giant really could magically produce corn, maybe the nation’s ethanol project could live up to early expectations that fuel made from corn could help reduce the environmental damage caused by the use of petro-fuels. But in real life, growing corn on a massive scale to produce ethanol has taken its own environmental toll, causing many to question whether ethanol is much greener in the end than gasoline.
Barack Obama has been a champion of the ethanol program since he first ran for president. But on Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it might reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the nation’s fuel supply.
While this might not have much impact on the average consumer, it would be the first time since the biofuel law was enacted in 2007 that the Obama administration has wavered in its support for ethanol. This year, under the Renewable Fuel Standard, oil companies were required to blend 13 billion gallons of corn ethanol into the gasoline supply. The change proposed by the EPA would reduce that amount by almost 3 billion gallons in 2014.
The well organized ethanol industry won’t take that reduction lying down. The Renewable Fuels Association, the Washington-based group that lobbies for the ethanol industry, threatened to sue if the EPA’s proposal isn’t altered.
But what the American people should be asking is why the government continues to mandate the use of ethanol when it has failed to live up to its promise of leaving a lighter carbon footprint on the planet. The nation shouldn’t just reduce the ethanol mandate; it should get rid of it altogether.
Fuel derived from corn is, as an end product, cleaner burning than gasoline, emitting far fewer greenhouse gases. But other environmental costs must be factored into the calculations.
Farmers planted 15 million more acres of corn last year than before the ethanol boom. And in the process, they plowed up virgin prairie in the nation’s heartland, filled in wetlands and wiped out five million acres set aside for conservation – more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined.
Corn used to be grown primarily for livestock feed, with a small amount of sweet corn grown for human consumption. Now acreage is about equally split between corn for livestock and corn for ethanol.
In addition to damaging the land, the boom in corn for ethanol has required farmers to use billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which has found its way into drinking water, contaminated rivers and destroyed underwater habitat in the Gulf of Mexico, creating dead zones that can’t sustain life. And, ironically, coal and natural gas fuel plants that refine ethanol, and trucks burn gas to take it to blending stations,further increasing ethanol’s carbon footprint.
We hope the proposal to reduce the ethanol mandate is a sign that the Obama administration is re-examining all the environmental costs involved in producing this so-called green fuel. And that should provoke the essential question: Will the ethanol mandate ever accomplish its chief environmental goal of reducing greenhouse gases?
The evidence, after nearly seven years, suggests otherwise.