A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences could deliver a death blow to E85 ethanol fuels.
Automakers like General Motors and Ford, along with numerous farm states and agricultural lobbyists have long promoted ethanol as an environmental friendly alternative to gasoline.
But the newly published study suggests the opposite is true, estimating corn-based ethanol actually is at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline. The report could influence future use of biofuels, a subject now under review by the Biden administration.
“Corn ethanol is not a climate-friendly fuel,” wrote Tyler Lark, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.
Feds mandate biofuels
By the turn of the millennium, automakers were committing heavily to the use of ethanol. Under the Renewable Fuel Standard enacted in 2005, U.S. refiners were required to mix 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol into gasoline each year.
Meanwhile, there was pressure on refiners to boost distribution of E85, a fuel mix of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.
This required vehicle modifications, such as the use of stainless steel fuel lines, to prevent damage from highly corrosive ethanol. Despite the added cost, Detroit automakers were strong backers of bi-fuel vehicles due, at least in part, to the fuel economy credits they received for those models.
Missing the mark
They also invested in alternative sources, such as cellulosic, which were intended to produce ethanol from waste products ranging from agricultural scraps to recycled paper.
“This is absolutely critical to our future,” said then-GM President Fritz Henderson in 2008, following the automaker’s investment in Coskata, an Illinois cellulosic alcohol startup. “It is in our economic self-interest for these companies to succeed.”
But that technology never lived up to its billing and dependence upon corn-based ethanol grew rapidly. Between 2008 and 2016, the new study noted, the farmland in the U.S. devoted to providing corn for alcohol grew by 6.9 million acres.
That has had the opposite effect of what ethanol backers claimed, according to the research which was backed, in part by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy. Carbon stored in soil was released, while the use of fertilizers increased. Modern fertilizers create numerous environmental problems, starting with emissions released during their production.
Study generates controversy
The new study released by the National Academy of Sciences immediately generated controversy. For one thing, it contradicts some previous studies, including research by the Department of Agriculture that declared ethanol an environmental plus.
The NAS research is “completely fictional and erroneous,” Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, told Reuters. It relied on “worst-case assumptions [and] cherry-picked data,” he claimed.
There already has been a sharp decline in public acceptance of E85, demand sliding during the past decade and fewer service stations making it available and automakers have been actively trying to get the mandates reduced.
White House ready to curb biofuel mandates
The study could have a big impact on a review of the use of biofuels by the White House. The original mandates extended through 2022. The EPA is expected to announce future targets in May.
According to a report by Reuters, levels of all biofuels would be pared back as the administration’s focus shifts to electrified vehicles.
“Ethanol would take the biggest hit,” the news service reported. “Levels for conventional renewable fuel, which includes ethanol, would drop from 15 billion gallons to about 12.5 billion gallons in 2020, 13.5 billion gallons in 2021 and 14.1 billion gallons in 2022,” according to internal EPA documents Reuters studied.
But any cutback is likely to generate severe controversy and could come into play, experts suggest, as an issue during the upcoming mid-term elections.