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New Study Paints Corn Ethanol As Eco-Unfriendly

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In May 2009, Steve Ruh, who was then chair of the National Corn Growers Association’s Ethanol Committee, called corn ethanol the “most environmentally friendly fuel available today.”

But the only “green” thing about this fuel is the money the corn lobby has made to help produce and promote it — at the expense of the American taxpayer.

The latest institution to call Big Corn’s bluff is the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, which has recently updated its 2007 study, the first of its kind, on the life-cycle impacts of biofuels and fossil fuels. Crunching extensive publicly available data with advanced analytical tools, the Swiss researchers found that among the majority of indicators examined, the increased cultivation of corn for ethanol damages ecosystems and threatens human health to a greater extent than producing synthetic crude oil from Canada’s tar sands, a process that pollutes water supplies, dirties air and scars natural landscapes. Tar sands development is also synonymous with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that would export the oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The Swiss researchers determined that for every kilometer driven by an average mid-size passenger car, corn ethanol contributes more to fouling freshwater, marine and dry land with excess nutrients than synthetic crude oil or low sulfur gasoline. The reason: corn cultivation uses more fertilizer per acre than any other biofuel feedstock. Fertilizers in farm runoff are a severe water pollutant. They set in motion a lethal spiral in which nutrient overload causes excessive algae blooms that deplete oxygen in water, creating “dead zones” that kill off aquatic life.

As well, the overuse of nitrogen-based fertilizers, while increasing yields, acidifies the soil, which degrades its structure and contributes to erosion. The Swiss scientists also measured the loss of carbon in soil, referred to as “land use.” Soil carbon improves the physical properties of soil and is a major factor in the overall health of arable land. Corn ethanol ranks ninth out of 25 in this category, indicating significant land use impacts. Indeed, there’s nothing renewable about losing vast tonnages of the best soils in the world as a result of expanded ethanol production.

The Swiss team found that a car burning corn ethanol produces “marginally lower” CO2 emissions than gasoline but significantly increases vehicle emissions of dangerous air pollutants, including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde – chemicals that cause asthma and bronchitis in children, cancer and chronic respiratory illnesses. These findings echo Environmental Working Group’s own conclusions that emissions from higher ethanol fuels may worsen health risks from air pollution.

The Swiss study dovetails with earlier studies by Environmental Protection Agency,  National Academy of Sciences, U.S. Department of Agriculture, EWG and numerous other independent analysts that have found that growing corn for fuel does major harm to our water, air and soil.  These assessments form a powerful consensus that corn ethanol is an agricultural product, not a clean or renewable energy source.

This study is also one of many that illustrate the consequences of a broken policy called the Renewable Fuels Standard. Passed by Congress in 2005 and later expanded in 2007, the RFS requires 15 billion gallons per year of “conventional biofuels” to be blended into transportation fuel by 2015. Because corn ethanol accounts for almost all conventional biofuels produced and blended in the U.S., the RFS serves as a de facto mandate for corn ethanol, encouraging farmers to convert millions of acres of sensitive land and wildlife habitat to cornfields.

The study should also be a cautionary tale for the RFS mandate for so-called “advanced” biofuels. The Swiss study found that corn ethanol was marginally better than tar sands in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – the only criterion used to determine if a biofuel can help meet the 21 billion gallon mandate for advanced biofuels. But judged against a more comprehensive and meaningful environmental standard, corn ethanol gets an F. The RFS must be amended to include a more comprehensive set of environmental sideboard before it sends us down another dead end.

The bottom line: corn ethanol is no longer defensible from the standpoint of environmental protection or public health. Industry officials promise consumers that commercial production of advanced biofuels is just around the corner, yet 2012 marks the third consecutive year that the mandate for cellulosic ethanol, made from plant biomass, was drastically reduced – this time by a whopping 98 percent. Since the “next generation” of biofuels is always just around the corner, corn ethanol remains the dominant source.

Fully 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used to produce ethanol, a reality made starker by the ongoing drought. Misguided federal mandates have forced upon drivers a dirty, inefficient fuel. And while backers of corn ethanol continue to assure us of a cleaner, securer energy future, Americans have grown tired of waiting. Our nation’s leaders need to wake up and admit that corn ethanol has failed to deliver. Until the corn ethanol mandate is phased out, U.S. biofuels policy amounts to nothing more than broken promises of a better tomorrow.