Reuters just published a story on ethanol production that, whether intentional or not, advances the interests of oil by ignoring the significant progress corn growers have made in cutting the carbon footprint of the biofuel.
This article fails to provide readers with an updated, full and accurate picture of the environmental benefits ethanol provides, including lower GHG and tailpipe emissions compared to gasoline.
Once again, we see outdated projections made in the early days of the Renewable Fuel Standard – nearly 15 years ago –substitute for today’s analysis based on actual corn and ethanol production experience. This keeps old oil arguments afloat when today’s data show otherwise.
What does recent research on this issue tell us?
The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab concluded in 2021 that the combined improvements from farmers and ethanol producers cut ethanol’s carbon intensity by 23 percent between 2005 and 2019, resulting in ethanol that is 44 to 52 percent lower in GHG emissions than the gasoline it replaces, including accounting for emissions from land cover changes.
The research from the Argonne National Lab, which is consistent with updated analysis from Environmental Health and Engineering with researchers from Harvard and Tufts Universities and ethanol production facility assessments from the California Air Resources Board, also notes that any energy source requires a full life-cycle analysis, including corn feedstock production, the biorefining process and transportation/distribution and combustion in vehicles. And emissions across transportation sources must be compared on a full life-cycle to life-cycle basis.
As we consider the life-cycle process, it’s also important to remember that the bulk of CO2 emissions from an ethanol plant are biogenic. That means the carbon emissions from the fuel production process are counterbalanced by carbon uptake during the feedstock production process. That’s our corn plants hard at work, pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil, a process we can actually view from space during the summer.
Unlike oil refineries, biorefineries produce a nearly pure stream of carbon emissions, creating demand for recycling this resource for food and beverages, meat processing, and other sources, adding value and meeting the needs of a range of industries. These characteristics also make biorefineries great facilities to deploy carbon capture and storage technologies, and adoption of this technology is growing rapidly across the industry to further shrink ethanol’s carbon intensity on a pathway to net zero emissions.
In addition, farmers’ increased productivity and efficiency, resulting in higher yields using less land and fewer resources, coupled with continuous improvements in farming practices, cut carbon emissions from the corn feedstock production portion of the lifecycle by 15 percent. We plant fewer acres to corn today than when the RFS was expanded in 2007, yet corn production has increased about 2 percent per year, thanks to farmers’ productivity.
The bottom line: You simply can’t compare emissions from energy and transportation sources based on one variable or a single point in the production and use process. And you can’t rely on projections made nearly 15 years ago when updated data based on actual corn and ethanol production experience is readily available.
The real story here is that farmers are working hard to produce a product that feeds and fuels the world, supports emissions reductions, saves consumers money at the pump, and is helping the U.S. on its path to energy independence.
This is not an exposé. It’s a success story. And one worth telling.
Edgington, an Iowa farmer, is president of the National Corn Growers Association.