Cutting the amount of corn-based ethanol in the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard by 1.39 billion gallons would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3 million tons, according to a new report released by the Environmental Working Group on Thursday. That would be the equivalent of taking some 580,000 cars off the road for a year, the report said.
The report takes to task studies by the ethanol industry and other analyses for what the EWG says are underestimates on carbon emissions from land-use changes due to ethanol’s demand for corn.
EWG’s new report, “Ethanol’s Broken Promise: Using Less Corn Ethanol Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” comes just ahead of an expected EPA June release of an RFS that reduces the overall mandate for blending biofuels below the volumes currently mandated by the law. Recent reports are that EPA has backed off of its original proposal to cut more than 3 billion gallons.
“It is now clear that the federal corn ethanol mandate has driven up food prices, strained agricultural markets, increased competition for arable land and promoted conversion of uncultivated land to grow crops,” the new report said.
“In addition, previous estimates have dramatically underestimated corn ethanol’s greenhouse gas emissions by failing to account for changes in land use. In 2012, an Environmental Working Group study found that from 2008 to 2011, more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted for corn alone.
“EWG’s new analysis shows that these land-use changes resulted in annual emissions of 85 million to 236 million metric tons (CO2e) of greenhouse gases. In light of these emissions, many scientists now question the environmental benefit of so-called biofuels produced by converting food crops.”
Some argue, however, that the EWG report is based on inaccurate data.
USDA satellite data used by EWG and other groups in an attempt to peg land-use changes on expanded ethanol production are flawed, according to an official with a Des Moines, Iowa-based analytic firm that conducted a land-use study for farm bureaus in seven Midwest states in 2013. There are limitations to the USDA data, he said. Connecting what appear to be trends in data to actual occurrences on the ground isn’t so simple.
Spencer Parkinson, executive director at Decision Innovation Solutions, said his firm uncovered many inconsistencies in how USDA satellite data classified certain lands.
Once he accounted for the errors, Parkinson’s study confirmed what previous research has found: Grasslands in the Midwest were converted to crops during the ethanol boom years of 2007 to 2012. He said what is difficult to determine, however, is whether converted land was once native grasslands — a worrisome thing to land-use change critics — or land that simply had been previously planted to hay then rotated back to crops.
The new EWG study continues to cite the group’s previous land-use studies.
Increased competition for corn has “put upward pressure on corn prices. National Research Council studies suggest that the ethanol mandate raised commodity prices by 20% to 40% from 2007 to 2009,” the report said.
“Farmers have responded to higher prices and increased demand by increasing production and seeking more land to plant, resulting in millions of acres of land-use change. In 2013, EWG documented that 23 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetland had been plowed under for crop production between 2008 and 2011. Eight million acres were converted to grow corn and another 5.6 million to plant soybeans, because the ethanol mandate pushed up soybean prices as well.”
Bob Dinneen, president and chief executive officer of the Renewable Fuels Association, said in a statement that EWG has looked the other way when it comes to oil production emissions from tar sands and hydraulic fracturing.
“Today’s Environmental Working Group report relies upon overblown and disputed assumptions of land-use change, making ethanol from corn appear to be worse than gasoline,” he said. “That’s simply preposterous, particularly when contrasted with the ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands and fracking. The Department of Energy’s GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation) model clearly shows that corn ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 34% compared to gasoline, including hypothetical land-use change emissions.
“Additionally, a Life Cycle Associates study found that corn ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 37% to 40% when compared to tight oil from fracking and tar sands.”