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Study: Corn Ethanol May Be Worse For Climate Than Gasoline

Corn-based ethanol may be more emission-intensive than previously thought and is likely contributing to more emissions than gasoline, a new study finds.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the environmental benefits of the U.S. renewable fuel standard (RFS) remain unclear.

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard, oil refiners are required to blend growing amounts of renewable fuels into gasoline and diesel.

The RFS raised corn prices, which in turn expanded the land used for corn crops. This increases emissions from the conversion of land to corn crops, and raises fertilizer and water usage, says the study, funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation.

“These changes increased annual nationwide fertilizer use by 3 to 8%, increased water quality degradants by 3 to 5%, and caused enough domestic land use change emissions such that the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS is no less than gasoline and likely at least 24% higher,” the authors of the study write.

The study contradicts previous findings, including a study published in 2019 saying that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from corn ethanol are about 39 percent lower than gasoline on an energy equivalent basis.

Carbon capture and storage alongside biofuel production could play a role in holding global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the latest study says.

“However, our findings confirm that contemporary corn ethanol production is unlikely to contribute to climate change mitigation,” the authors point out.

“Corn ethanol is not a climate-friendly fuel,” Tyler Lark, Assistant Scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) and lead author of the study, told Reuters.

According to the ethanol trade group, the Renewable Fuels Association, “the authors of this new paper precariously string together a series of worst-case assumptions, cherry-picked data, and disparate results from previously debunked studies to create a completely fictional and erroneous account of the environmental impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Geoff Cooper, RFA President and CEO, said in a statement.

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By Charles Kennedy for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on February 16 2022 said:
    Even without this new study showing that corn ethanol is no less harmful for climate than gasoline and likely at least 24% higher, the mere use of huge agricultural areas in the United States to grow corn for the sole purpose of producing ethanol is happening at a time when food prices worldwide are surging and threatening to cause global food shortages.

    Therefore, ethanol should be discarded and the millions of tons of corn used to produce ethanol should instead be exported to reduce rising food prices.

    The same logic should apply to sugarcane ethanol produced in Brazil from massive clearings of trees in the rainforest areas for the production of ethanol when these areas could be preserved or at least used to growing food for the benefit of Brazil and the world at large.

    In so doing both in the United States and Brazil which account for 81% of global ethanol production could be contributing less emissions and delaying an impending global food crisis.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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