Ethanol Industry: Update GHG Analysis

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) is calling for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update their lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) analyses of corn and sugarcane ethanol for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The association made the request in a letter sent to the EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen wrote, “There have been literally dozens of new studies and modeling improvements since EPA finalized the RFS2 almost three years ago. Overwhelmingly, these new reports and data show that the corn ethanol process is far less carbon intensive than assumed by EPA. Corn ethanol is offering real and significant GHG savings today. Meanwhile, the carbon intensity of crude oil production continues to worsen, as we drill farther and deeper than ever before and get more of our energy from marginal crude sources like tar sands.”

Also noted in the letter is that recent GHG research has shown than lifecycle GHG emissions associated with Brazilian sugarcane ethanol production are worse than originally estimated by EPA. The letter cites since 2006, harvested sugarcane in Brazil has expanded 55 percent with at least 70 percent of the land formerly pasture land. However, when the lifecycle analysis was originally conducted, little land use change emissions were factored in to the data.

While RFA says the EPA underestimated land use change emissions for sugarcane, they also say the EPA overestimated ethanol plant energy use, corn farming energy use and land use change emissions for other forms of ethanol, primarily ethanol produced from corn.

Recent modeling and data improvements were presented in a peer-reviewed paper by researchers at Purdue University and the Department of Energy. According to the research, corn ethanol, on average, reduces GHG emissions today by at least 24 percent compared to gasoline even with speculative LUC emissions included. GHG reductions for ethanol from dry mill plants are even larger. Dinneen concluded that it is imperative that EPA recognizes this new science and data.

Click here to read the letter in full along with supporting charts and sources.

3 thoughts on “Ethanol Industry: Update GHG Analysis

  1. Perhaps Mr. Dinneen should read unbiased research such as that published by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, as summarized below.

    In its final rule for the Renewable Fuel Standard Program, the EPA concluded that corn ethanol produced using certain “advanced” technologies will reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with regular gasoline. It tested a whole host of conditions in making this finding but emphasized the wrong one. The EPA’s calculation is based on a scenario highlighting ethanol produced from a high-efficiency natural gas distillery in the year 2022. It says this will reduce GHG emissions 21 percent compared with gasoline. That is not the same thing as saying ethanol produced in the Midwest under current technology will reduce GHG emissions by 21 percent. This detail of what is supposedly a greener fuel makes the calculation misleading.

    The EPA’s findings conflict with the trend in academic research. Initially, studies tended to show that corn ethanol slightly reduced GHG emissions. But new peer reviewed papers since 2007 have highlighted the problem of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a GHG 300 times as potent as CO2. This new research, based on full cycle analysis that includes land use changes, strongly suggests corn ethanol is not necessarily an improvement over gasoline. The new research shows corn ethanol could ultimately emit more GHGs than traditional gasoline. The Baker Institute released a study last month “Fundamentals of a Sustainable U.S. Biofuels Policy” documenting these new studies and questioning the GHG benefits of corn ethanol.

    The academic research on the subject should continue, but this rapid-fire pendulum swinging from slightly green to dirty to slightly green in a few years demonstrates the question is far from settled. In the meantime, we recommend that the EPA and Congress not assume corn ethanol is better and give biofuels a free walk on carbon balance. Corn ethanol should not be credited as a low-carbon fuel in or considered an offset in any possible future cap-and-trade program for CO2 emissions.

  2. The Baker public service award was sponsored by Enron, hardly an unbiased source again the competing ethanol industry.

  3. One observation: US corn ethanol, generally, is not changing land use — yes, there are more corn acres but most are coming out of other crops. It isn’t tearing up rainforests or wetlands.