A Case for Ethanol That Greens Need to Heed

Quite often in this space, we have taken on the criticisms leveled at ethanol by the oil industry, as well as similar attempts made frequently by environmental interests, intent on perpetuating outdated and disproven contentions about the domestically produced, renewable transportation fuel.

It’s with some satisfaction that we can share with you an essay from two leading voices in the clean energy movement who have eloquently articulated a response to those criticisms. The response is so comprehensive and thorough as to not only show that the contentions are “misguided and just plain wrong,” but they even reinforce the role ethanol plays in reducing air pollution, providing significant health benefits and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

In their piece published by the prestigious Yale Environment 360 ‑ an online magazine that offers opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues ‑ former Sen. Timothy Wirth, a founding CEO and now vice chair of the United Nations Foundation, and C. Boyden Gray, the founding partner of a Washington, D.C. law firm and former White House Counsel under President George H.W. Bush, make the powerful case that for environmental, climate change, public health and economic reasons, the time has come to consider mixing higher blends of biofuels with gasoline. And in the United States, the best feedstock for that biofuel today is corn.

Acknowledging the “cries of protest” elicited from many in the environmental community who continue to reiterate the long dismissed articles and reports that alleged ethanol’s “disastrous” impact on everything from emissions to food prices to engine performance, the authors of the essay say, “ethanol has been unfairly stigmatized in the conventional wisdom and that the reasons for concern about corn ethanol deserve reexamination.” (The fact that the essay is part of a Yale Environment 360 “Point/Counterpoint” feature, posing the ethanol advocates’ argument against a piece written by a University of Minnesota law professor who has long built a reputation for his opposition to ethanol, makes the Wirth-Gray treatise even more effective.)

Triggering the latest debate over ethanol is EPA’s scheduled “mid-course evaluation” next month of President Obama’s ambitious fuel economy target, established in 2012, to have cars and light trucks reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Wirth and Gray point out that increasing the ethanol blend in gasoline from the current 10 percent to roughly 30 percent would help boost gas mileage and make engines run more efficiently and significantly cut U.S. carbon emissions and air pollution.

A strength of the Wirth-Gray essay is the detail with which it lays out the research that totally refutes the charges that growing corn for ethanol causes big spikes in food prices or environmental damage. The authors itemize a number of recent studies that show the wide expansion of new “precision” management practices on farms, including low-till and no-till conservation tillage that are significantly reducing, if not eliminating, any adverse environmental impacts high-production agriculture may have. And the essay shares other research showing that even with the controversial indirect land use change factor counted, more efficient use of inputs and other measures are improving carbon sequestration in high-production soil, giving ethanol a 37-percent advantage in fewer carbon emissions than gasoline.

Noting that higher ethanol blends are rich in octane, which would allow for increase in the “compression ratio” of an engine without damage from knock, therefore creating more power with less fuel, Wirth and Gray assert that mid-level ethanol blends will make it easier for automakers to achieve the 2025 fuel economy targets and deliver more greenhouse gas reductions.

The authors say ethanol’s economic value “has been widely mischaracterized and misunderstood.” And while conceding that ethanol does have less energy content per gallon than gasoline, they point out that in mid-level blends, the improved efficiency made possible by ethanol almost completely compensates for its lower energy content, evening out the economic equation.

Of particular concern to Wirth and Gray are oil refiners that are currently meeting octane needs through the use of “aromatics,” which are hydrocarbon chains with a stable benzene ring that resist combustion and prevent engine knock. These aromatics consist mostly of neurotoxins that comprise on average 25 percent of every gallon of gasoline, and their emissions are implicated in a variety of serious health impacts, especially affecting the heart and lungs. The authors cite a 2013 assessment by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimating that exposure to fine-particle pollution from aromatics in gasoline results in 3,800 premature deaths per year and a total social cost of more than $28 billion annually. The use of mid-level ethanol blends could reduce the content of aromatics in gasoline by 60 percent, the authors say.

Wirth and Gray close their essay by calling on EPA to give a “green light” to automakers to proceed with a mid-level ethanol-blend test fuel that could become the standard for the car designs of the next decade. “To be ready for widespread use in 2025, the transition of fuels, vehicles and refueling infrastructure must begin very soon,” they write.

The 25x’25 Alliance urges renewable energy advocates – and environmentalists – to carefully read the essay and share with stakeholders its findings that higher ethanol blends improve engine performance, reduce carbon pollution and, by replacing aromatics with ethanol, significantly decrease the risk to public health. As the authors note, “EPA should embrace the opportunity of its mid-term review to support higher-ethanol fuels and the myriad advantages they offer.”

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