Feb 16, 2022 - News

Ethanol is worse for climate change than gasoline, new report says

Illustration of a danger sign with an ear of corn for an exclamation point.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The process to harvest and produce corn-based ethanol creates more harmful emissions than normal gasoline, according to a new report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

  • The five-year study, partially funded by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy, found that ethanol is at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: The findings run counter to goals set in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a federal program created in 2005 to reduce U.S. emissions and lower energy reliance on other countries.

  • It requires oil refiners to blend billions of gallons of ethanol into the nation's gasoline supply.
  • Plus: Iowa's ag economy relies heavily on ethanol sales. The state is the country's biggest corn producer and half of that crop goes to fuel.

State of play: Ethanol produces more carbon emissions than gasoline because of the amount of farmland that's required to grow the corn crops and the tillage associated with it, Reuters reports.

  • Because of RFS, corn cultivation expanded in the U.S. into nearly 7 million additional acres of land between 2008-16 — 8.7% growth.
  • But tilling the land releases carbon in the soil and fertilizers also produce emissions, according to Reuters.

The other side: The authors of the paper put together "a series of worse-case assumptions" and "cherry-picked data" for their report, Geoff Cooper, president of the Renewable Fuel Association, said in a statement.

  • The association argues that even with the tillage, past studies have shown corn ethanol still produces fewer emissions than gasoline.

The big picture: Iowa continues to bet big on biofuels as the Legislature considers requiring E-15 at gas pumps.


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