Federal Ethanol Policy: Bad for the Planet, Good for Lobbyists

By:  Michael Tennant
Federal Ethanol Policy: Bad for the Planet, Good for Lobbyists

Federal ethanol policy harms the environment and does nothing to halt alleged global warming, but the Obama administration isn't about to change it because it benefits industries with powerful lobbies.

The federal government’s push for greater ethanol production, carried out in the name of saving the planet, has done great harm to the environment. What’s more, it has caused the release of far more carbon dioxide — the gas that is blamed for alleged global warming — into the atmosphere than the burning of ethanol could ever hope to save.

“The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy,” the Associated Press wrote in a lengthy report. “But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.”

Washington has long encouraged the production of ethanol as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels, but the policy got a big boost in 2007 when Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed a law mandating the blending of ethanol into gasoline. The law was supported wholeheartedly by then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Once in the White House, Obama set about implementing the law. His “team at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] was sour on the ethanol mandate at the start,” according to the AP.

As a way to reduce global warming, they knew corn ethanol was a dubious proposition. Corn demands fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. What’s worse, ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.

Then there was the land conversion, the most controversial and difficult-to-predict outcome.

Digging up grassland releases greenhouse gases, so environmentalists are skeptical of any program that encourages planting more corn.

On the other hand, the White House and the Department of Agriculture, headed by former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, were all for it. Thus, when EPA models indicated that the ethanol mandate would not make fuel green enough to satisfy the law, the agency was pressured into rigging the input assumptions to produce the desired results. By assuming a huge increase in crop yields (and thus fewer new acres plowed) but a very small increase in corn prices, the EPA was able to claim that ethanol-blended gasoline would produce 21 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than standard gasoline, beating the law’s emissions-reduction target by just one percentage point.

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