The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

RFS and Consequence

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted December 22, 2014

A new peer-reviewed study of transportation fueling options generated a pretty good buzz last week, basically for the finding that electric vehicles might not be as good for the environment as previously thought. Another of the study’s conclusions also is worth underscoring: the negative environmental impacts of corn ethanol in fuels.

A team of University of Minnesota researchers assessed life-cycle air quality impacts of 10 alternatives to conventional gasoline vehicles. On corn ethanol:

We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or “grid average” electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline.


Although corn ethanol as modeled here emits marginally less GHGs than does gasoline, the combined climate and air quality impacts are greater than those from gasoline vehicles.


Other fuels, such as corn ethanol [the climate impact of which is unclear], are more damaging than conventional vehicles when air pollution impacts are considered alone or when air pollution and climate impacts are considered together.

Others have come to similar conclusions about corn ethanol and the environment.

The Clean Air Task Force found that “corn ethanol’s net emissions over 30 years are approximately 28% higher than the emissions that would result from the use of gasoline over that same period.” A study earlier this year by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “Ethanol’s Broken Promise,” found that federal corn ethanol mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) have driven up food prices, strained agricultural markets, increased competition for arable land and promoted the conversion of uncultivated land to grow crops. The report found that “studies that do factor in land use change show that using food crops to produce biofuels – once considered a promising climate change mitigation strategy – is worse for the climate than gasoline.” An investigation by the Associated Press also raised environmental flags.

A post on EWG’s AgMag Blog, “Corn Ethanol: A Lump of Coal In Your Christmas Stocking,” notes that seven years after corn ethanol was offered as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline, not only are benefits illusory, the opposite is true. The post comments on the Minnesota study:

… corn ethanol is worse for the environment and people’s health than we thought. And the more we learn, the more it’s clear it’s not even close. Why? Because the process that produces corn ethanol involves heavy agricultural production and fertilizer use, which trump any potential benefits.

The EWG post says that when the RFS became law in 2007 a number of corn growers decided to plant corn year after year, instead of switching between corn and other crops such as soybeans, to capitalize on higher prices – a transition that has “greatly harmed air and water quality.” EWG:

According to the Minnesota analysis “the air quality degradation caused by producing corn ethanol could lead to 1,500 extra deaths a year. The air pollution caused by corn ethanol leads to hundreds of more deaths than the corresponding toll from gasoline, so corn ethanol results in greater economic losses.”

EWG adds:

With each passing month, the evidence against corn ethanol mounts. As Congress turns its focus to 2015, it should take a serious look at reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard in order to phase out corn ethanol and bring truly green biofuels to the market.

We’ve posted before on the way RFS mandates for increasing ethanol use – through higher ethanol-blend fuels like E15 and E85 – have potential environmental impacts. While the RFS was supposed to encourage production of cellulosic biofuels from agricultural waste, that hasn’t yet happened on a commercial scale – leaving the RFS mandate to be mostly filled by corn ethanol.

So, one unintended consequence of the RFS, massive corn ethanol production, appears to be creating another – negative environmental impacts. Reasons, again, the RFS should be repealed.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.