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Study finds ethanol reduces carbon emissions by nearly 50% as industry gears up for major environmental regulatory changes ahead.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

January 27, 2021

4 Min Read

An enormous agenda around climate offers both a challenge and opportunity in the legislative and regulatory arenas to demonstrate what a solution ethanol can be in both adding higher octane and lowering carbon emissions. That's according to former South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle and main architect of the initial Renewable Fuel Standard advanced in Congress nearly two decades ago.

While speaking at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association virtual meeting Jan. 26, Daschle recalls when he and former Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., started the RFS movement as those in agriculture sold the idea ethanol offered a pathway to oil independence after the events of 9/11. Today, ethanol can position itself around the unifying message that it provides a solution to eliminating emissions as focus ramps up on mitigating climate impacts.

A new significant study offers a scientific foundation for ethanol’s role in the climate debate with scientists from Harvard University, Tufts University and Environmental Health & Engineering Inc. showing that using corn ethanol in place of gasoline reduces greenhouse gas emissions by almost half. The “central best estimate” of corn ethanol’s carbon intensity is 46% lower than the average carbon intensity of gasoline, according to the study’s authors, with some corn ethanol in the market today achieving a 61% reduction. The study credits recent efficiency improvements and the adoption of new technologies for the steady reduction in the lifecycle carbon intensity of corn ethanol.

The scientists found that emissions from land-use change are only “a minor contributor” to the overall carbon footprint of corn ethanol, accounting for just 7% of total GHG emissions.

Growth Energy also notes a study done late last year found that transitioning to higher ethanol blends (from E10 to E15) would lower greenhouse gas emissions by 17.62 million tons per year, the equivalent of removing approximately 3.85 million vehicles on the road.

“Ethanol can and should be allowed to do more to contribute to the fight against climate change, and that starts by breaking down the barriers to higher blends like E15, E30 and flex fuels like E85,” says Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO Geoff Cooper. “As President Biden’s administration and the new Congress consider actions and policies to address climate change, we encourage them to examine the best available science and properly account for the critical role ethanol and other renewable fuels can play in securing immediate GHG reductions.”

Related: Outlook promising for increasing ethanol exports to China

Seth Meyer, USDA chief economist, says the current EPA regulations limit corn ethanol from being given the D6 – or advanced biofuels – classification and given credit for the gains now recognized in GHG reductions. Legislation or rulemaking at EPA would need to occur to give full credit to those gains. He notes it can also be beneficial for EPA as it looks beyond 2022 when the current RFS resets.

Josh Pedrick, American Biofuels managing editor at S&P Global Platts, says the new research also could be beneficial as countries around the world adjust their low carbon fuel standards. With the research in the hands of administrators in Brazil or Europe’s regulators, he questions whether the research will be strong enough for them to improve how they score U.S. ethanol and possibly allow higher credit for its ability to cut emissions.

All savings on the table

While speaking at the virtual event, Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor adds that growing the share of renewable biofuels in the fuel supply can and will accelerate the transition to a healthier, zero-emission future and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. “We’ve seen it in California, where biofuels like ethanol have generated more than 75% of the carbon savings achieved under the state’s decade-old low carbon fuel standard.”

IRFA Executive Director Monte Shaw urges members to be ready to do battle in 2021 in getting everyone to stand behind sound science instead of adopting a bumper sticker solution. If there is to be a new carbon policy, set goals and let technologies compete he says, rather than mandating all vehicles be electric as an example.

“There’s no reason traditional biofuels like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel can’t be darn close to net carbon neutral. Biofuel supporters need to be ready to battle for sound science,” he says.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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