Ethanol

EPA Says It Needs Eight More Years to Decide if Ethanol Mandate Is Bad for the Environment

It is, as everyone who isn't a corn farmer will tell you.

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Bill Barksdale/Newscom

The Environmental Protection Agency never submitted a report due to Congress in 2014 that might have shed light on the environmental problems with mandating the use of ethanol in gasoline.

When the EPA's Inspector General pointed out this week that the study was nearly two years overdue, the EPA said they'll get around to finishing it—by 2024.

Congress created the ethanol mandate in 2005, requiring the blending of corn-based biofuels into gasoline and diesel. A 2007 law expanding the scope of the mandate required the EPA to submit reports to Congress every three years detailing the consequences of that policy on air and water quality. After completing one such report in 2011, the EPA says it ran out of money and didn't have enough time to keep doing them.

"Not having required reporting and studies impedes the EPA's ability to identify, consider, mitigate and make policymakers aware of any adverse impacts of renewable fuels," the EPA's Inspector General concluded in a report released Thursday.

In a response to the inspector general's findings, the EPA says it will release an update to the 2011 report next year but won't have a full study completed until 2024.

Unless you're a corn farmer or a politician who needs votes from corn farmers to get elected, there aren't many reasons to support the federal government's ethanol mandate. Burning ethnol doesn't reduce carbon emissions and the process of making the biofuel actually increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as Reason's Ronald Bailey reported earlier today.

Even so, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump support the Renewable Fuels Standards law that mandates the use of ethanol and other biofuels. In other words, these laws probably aren't going to change anytime soon, whether the EPA gets its reports done on time or not—although there were some encouraging signs for fans of reasonable ethanol policies in February when Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses while calling for a reduction in ethanol subsidies.

While we wait for the EPA to discover how terrible the ethanol mandate has been for the environment (to say nothing of what it's done to the price of food, beer and just about anything else made with corn or transported within the United States) here's a look at what others have found.

An Associated Press investigation published in 2013 found that federal ethanol policies drove up the price of corn and encouraged farmers to plant more of it. That touched off "a cascade of unintended consequences, including the elimination of millions of acres of conservation land." Since the 2007 expansion of federal ethanol mandates, farmers had planted 19 million new acres of corn, the AP found, including 6.5 million acres planted on land supposedly set aside for conservation.

That's more than the land area of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades National Parks, combined.

"The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy," the AP concluded. "But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry."

Ethanol isn't just bad for the land, it's bad for the air too. The switch from gasoline to ethanol-blended fuels has been linked to increased smog in some cities. Mark Jacobson, an environmental engineer at Stanford University, found that using ethanol adds 22 percent more hydrocarbons—the miniscule bad guys responsible for burning a hole in the planet's ozone layer—to the atmosphere than does burning gasoline.

Environmental groups like The Sierra Club oppose the ethanol mandate because the carbon-heavy process of making ethanol cancels out any supposed greenhouse gas benefits from using it instead of gasoline and because of those pesky "unresolved direct and indirect environmental impacts." Craig Cox, a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, a green group with close ties to the Obama administration, has called federal ethanol policy "an ecological disaster."

But, sure, maybe the federal agency that's supposed to protect the environment just didn't have time to study all that.

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  1. So hillary’s first two terms. Convenient.

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  2. I thought it was chlorofluorocarbons that did the ozone layer stuff.

    1. Yeah, not sure where he got that comment. From the quoted article:

      Because burning ethanol can potentially add more smog-forming pollution to the atmosphere, however, it can also exacerbate the ill effects of such air pollution. According to Jacobson, burning ethanol adds 22 percent more hydrocarbons to the atmosphere than does burning gasoline and this would lead to a nearly two parts per billion increase in tropospheric ozone. This surface ozone, which has been linked to inflamed lungs, impaired immune systems and heart disease by prior research, would in turn lead to a 4 percent increase in the number of ground level ozone-related deaths, or roughly 200 extra deaths a year. “Due to its ozone effects, future E85 may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline,” Jacobson writes in the study published in Environmental Science & Technology. “It can be concluded with confidence only that E85 is unlikely to improve air quality over future gasoline vehicles.”

      In other words, the author has confused tropospheric and stratospheric ozone.

      1. And reducing ozone with increasing ozone. But other than that….

    2. It is CFC’s that react with ozone in the stratosphere, thus reducing the amount of ozone. There is a link between hydrocarbons, NOx (nitrogen oxides) and ozone, but that’s at the troposphere.

      The bigger problem with ethanol is that it promotes incomplete combustion, which is where the 22% more hydrocarbons have to becoming from. Ethanol is also water soluble (anyone who drinks knows this), so you can bet that there is a small, but still bothersome amount of water in 85/15 gasoline/ethanol, leading to further incomplete combustion. There is virtually no water in gasoline. I think people who pay attention to the performance of their car engines know the difference between ethanol fortified gasoline and regular unleaded.

      1. Ethanol is also water soluble (anyone who drinks knows this), so you can bet that there is a small, but still bothersome amount of water in 85/15 gasoline/ethanol, leading to further incomplete combustion.

        No. Water injection is problematic from an implementation standpoint but beneficial to engine performance.

        1. Only in cases where increased compression ratios create detonation, which can be inhibited with water injection. Also water injection is less effective than methanol injection, so even if you mandated water injection and high compression, there are better options.

        2. Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas too.

        3. I own hundreds, if not over a thousand engines. Ethanol is a crap fuel. It’s corrosive, and it’s hydrophilic nature causes gasoline to spoil more quickly, particularly in humid environments.

      2. Ethanol reformulation retards engine performance, fuel economy, and may accelerate long term deterioration of engine components.

  3. So does the ethanol mandate exist if Iowa isn’t quite so important during the primaries?

      1. I’d say, maybe not. It is a cronytastic program, and you don’t need an early primary for those.

  4. EPA Says It Needs Eight More Years to Decide if Ethanol Mandate Is Bad for the Environment

    But when it comes to Climatey-Changey, well, we must act now before it is too late!

  5. The switch from gasoline to ethanol-blended fuels has been linked to increased smog in some cities.

    Well, when it comes to smog, I prefer Dos Equis.

  6. A 2007 law expanding the scope of the mandate required the EPA to submit reports to Congress every three years detailing the consequences of that policy on air and water quality. After completing one such report in 2011, the EPA says it ran out of money and didn’t have enough time to keep doing them.

    I’m guessing if you tell the IRS you ran out of money and didn’t have enough time to file your taxes “law” and “mandate” and “require” will mean something different than what this passage seems to suggest, that they’re all synonymous with “if you get a chance and it’s not too much trouble”.

    1. I’m pretty sure if you started putting regulators in jail for not complying with the law, they’d squeeze that money from somewhere. The fact that there are no consequences is yet another example of the ineffectiveness of big government. And the asymmetrical enforcement of same. We citizens better fucking well comply or they’ll throw us in jail.

  7. “In other words, these laws probably going to change soon?”

    The likely intent is

    “In other words, these laws are probably not going to change soon?”

  8. “We ran a couple of vehicles in multiple dynometer runs and measured tailpipe emissions,” he says. “[E85] compared very favorably to a low-sulfur, low-benzene, oxygenated gasoline.”

    And you can get both of those things right out of the same pump at the gas station just by pushing a button so it’s not like there’s any difference in how they’re produced to consider when you’re figuring out how much they pollute. Like with electric cars where coal burned to produce electricity for charging batteries somehow magically doesn’t pollute, oil used to produce fertilizer and herbicides and pesticides and diesel tractor fuel doesn’t contribute to pollution when it’s used to grow corn for ethanol production.

  9. “Ethanol is not the silver bullet”

    No kidding. I think the silver bullet is and always has been nuclear, but unfortunately that train seems to have long since left the station.

    1. I thought silver bullets were exclusively used for killing werewolves.

      1. This is true, and I’m trying fit in some clever Warren Zevon pun, but coming up empty….

        1. Send money, guns, and lawyers: the shit has hit the fan.

          1. That’s lawyers guns and money

    2. Some silver bullets do contain ethanol, though.

      http://www.coorslight.com/

  10. Government agencies really, really, really hate to file reports that say, “Oops! We obviously screwed the pooch on this one. Congress needs to cancel this subsidy we’re handing out and take away our power to make people use this stuff we provide, immediately. Bad on us.”

    1. Unfortunately, every subsidy creates a new interest group with resources to lobby for and maintain it.

  11. RE: EPA Says It Needs Eight More Years to Decide if Ethanol Mandate Is Bad for the Environment

    I am sure I am speaking for everyone that I am so glad there is a useless, unnecessary, bloated, job-killing, touchy-feely, feel good bureaucracy like the EPA to wait years to determine if ethanol is toxic to us. How did we ever live without such an entity as the EPA before it was created by Comrade Richard Nixon? One can only speculate how much tax dollars went unspent. One can only cringe at the thought there were bureaucrats that were not working making an obscene amount of money (and benefits) for the benefit of a bunch of politicians and their cronies. How wonderful it is must be for farmers to wait years on end for a bunch of government employees to determine what is good for us instead of scientist and research analysts. One can only hope more bureaucracies like the EPA will pop up so we can all see our tax dollars go down the toilet.

  12. It’s called protecting their jobs.

    Trust me. They know.

    If the literature and studies about ethanol is out there, it’s impossible they haven’t read it.

    They just need to find a way to do it in a way it doesn’t impact their employment.

  13. What are you complaining about?

    Eight calendar years is practically light speed in government years.

    It’s just like dog years – only in reverse.

  14. Burning ethnol doesn’t reduce carbon emissions and the process of making the biofuel actually increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as Reason’s Ronald Bailey reported earlier today.

    No, he didn’t.

    “The amount of fossil fuel displaced by a low-carbon fuel is determined by the economic forces of supply and demand,” the authors observe. “In general, an increase in fuel supply causes a decrease in fuel prices, which in turn encourages greater fuel consumption.” The authors conservatively estimate, based on an extensive survey of previous research, that about a half-gallon of gasoline is displaced by the energy equivalent of a gallon of biofuel. In other words, they assume a 50 percent gasoline displacement rate.

    So it is the act of consuming more fuel that causes the increase and not the substitution of ethanol for gas.

    1. “The authors conservatively estimate, based on an extensive survey of previous research, that about a half-gallon of gasoline is displaced by the energy equivalent of a gallon of biofuel. In other words, they assume a 50 percent gasoline displacement rate.”

      So, a zero change in CO2 emittance via the burning of fuel plus the CO2 emittance in the production of biofuels.

      Every worthless sack of shit working for the EPA should be standing on a street corner tomorrow holding a tin cup.

      Eight years? If it were up to me the EPA wouldn’t last another eight minutes. The country, the budget and the environment would be better off for it.

  15. How many more engines will be destroyed by having ethanol in gasoline? Does the EPA consider the energy and pollution cost of prematurely having to replace those cars and other items ruined by this fuel? Talk about inconvenient facts.

  16. Saying they need eight more years to do the report indicates one of two things, or maybe both.

    1) Abject incompetence

    2) Severe corruption

    I think I lean to both as the answer.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  17. Planting, harvesting, and transporting all that corn also requires massive amounts of diesel, too, to fuel all those tractors, combines, trucks, locomotives, and tugboats.

  18. “EPA Says It Needs Eight More Years to Decide if Ethanol Mandate Is Bad for the Environment”

    That’s the EPA’s “secret science” at work.

  19. Why it’s almost as if EPA is top-heavy on the bureaucrat payroll and there’s a toothpick worth of objective science in play there.

  20. Reason loses me on ethanol, or any ag-issue. I’m aligned regarding subsidies, but the blatant ignorance, anti- and non-science BS is organic-cult crap. Obviously, the concept of supply chain and co-products is beyond their limited skill-set.

  21. So how much is 8 EPA years in US dollars?

    1. $64 billion give or take of which how much is on loan from our good friends in China? And considering about 20% of tax receipts go against debt interest that conservative estimate is in fact far below actual, but call it $77 billion. With 311 million people of which 94 million don’t participate in our contributory tax scheme and 55 million are minors that leaves what about $600 per taxpayer per year. I don’t have time or money to pay $600 of my taxes this year.

  22. Really? Burning food for fuel is a bad idea? No wonder it will take the EPA until 2024 to figure out.

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  26. Yet so many people see alcohol prohibition as different from drug prohibitions….

    Reminds me on the Keen Burns’ documentary on prohibition. It’s very informative, but on one of the three is the series, I think last one, either the narrator or one of the more consistently speaking experts said something like, “At least we learned our lesson.”

    Sorry, but we didn’t learn our lesson on prohibition or interning the Japanese or murder droning or anything else.

    In their defense though it’s hard to learn any lessons from history when you’ve been blinded by how much more brilliant we are than we used to be.

    Of course reality doesn’t care – you can only either learn from your mistakes or repeat them.

    Reality is the true bitch teacher.

  27. HyR fucked up the link. Oh, it’s about ethanol, all right, but….

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