Despite concerns over rising air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and the potential to harm endangered species, a bipartisan group of Midwestern governors and fuel industry leaders are pushing the federal government to approve increased ethanol sales this summer.
Ethanol, a renewable fuel made from corn, is not normally available during the summer months as it is linked to rising smog levels. The strain of ethanol known as E15, which means it is made from a maximum of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline, cannot be sold in the summer, specifically from June 1 to September 15.
Fuel releases more pollutants in warmer, wetter conditions and its production and release by vehicles is linked to an effect known as “summer smog“, due to its chemical composition.
Typically, states have had to apply for one-time waivers to sell E15 during the summer months. In the past year alone, many states have obtained to renouncer to sell E15 over the summer to help support rising fuel costs caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
With the summer driving season approaching, governors across the Midwest have been defend for a permanent reversal of limits on summer sales, which are set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the event of a reversal, states could sell E15 year-round without needing a waiver in the future.
APE released its decision in early March and decided to allow the requesting states – Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin – to sell E15 fuel year-round.
But that wouldn’t start until next year, a detail that is prompting some states to sue the EPA.
“At best, this delay is arbitrary and capricious. At worst, it is simply illegal,” Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird and Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers wrote. letter to the EPA who urged the agency to enact this new rule by the end of April this year. Otherwise, the duo wrote, Iowa and Nebraska plan to sue the federal agency for the delay.
In addition to state governors, industry groups have submitted their waiver requests to the White House directly, citing the ongoing Russian invasion as well as “growing uncertainty in domestic fuel supplies”.
Midwestern states have a vested interest in increasing the amount of ethanol drivers can buy year-round. Iowa leads the nation in ethanol production, according to the Iowa Corn Association, accounting for about 30 percent of the country’s total production. Nebraska, Illinois and the majority of those who petitioned the EPA follow behind in the production of ethanol.
Geoff Cooper, President and CEO of Renewable Fuels Association, welcomed the EPA’s decision to increase E15 sales and welcomed Midwestern states’ request for sales to begin this year. He said he was “quite disappointed” that the EPA delayed its decision, which pushed E15 sales to summer 2024.
“There’s huge uncertainty in the market right now about what’s going to happen this summer,” Cooper said.
Cooper said a possible nationwide sale of E15 ethanol is the next step in replacing petroleum and other fossil fuels with “low carbon options.” He said the summer ban on E15 sales is an obstacle to the Biden administration’s stated goals of net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.
While the fate of this corn-based fuel and its economic power remain uncertain, new research has shown that increased production could endanger protected species and that the fuel is not as green as some claim. .
Tyler Lark is a research fellow at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a recently published studyLark explained how increased biofuel production could harm the country’s endangered species, as the need for massive acres of corn and other staple crops has historically changed the country’s geography and environment.
In 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor environmental groups who argued the same point. The tribunal writing that the EPA’s actions were “contrary to recorded evidence” and that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act when it failed to consult with federal wildlife management groups before establishing renewable fuel standards.
The renewable fuels sector has exploded as the energy sector continues to move away from fossil fuels, with more and more expansion on the horizon. Lark said that while moving away from fossil fuels is an immediate need, how industries make this shift will have a huge impact on land use and environmental health.
“We would expect to see farmers responding by switching crops to corn, which is much more intensive to grow, requires more fertilizer, and causes more runoff and soil erosion issues,” Lark said.
Lark said grasslands and meadows are converted into acres of corn that must be plowed and the soil disturbed every year. The new study has linked increased maize production to water pollution and threats to aquatic species through fertilizers and pesticides flowing into rivers and streams, creating “ dead zones” across the country.
The EPA is responsible for mandating the amount of renewable fuel, such as ethanol or biogas, needed each year under guidelines known as the Renewable Fuel Standard. The guidelines aim to stabilize this fuel sector, but environmental groups have criticized the agency’s reliance on fuel sources that are harmful to the environment and public health.
In a study published last yearLark and other researchers have found that although ethanol has been touted as a greener fuel than pure gasoline, the entire fuel cycle is at least 24% more carbon intensive than gasoline.
“The role of corn ethanol is up in the air at this point because we know it’s not as climate-friendly as we hoped,” Lark said.
Silvia Secchi is a researcher and professor in the Department of Geographic and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa. She said she’s seen the “destruction of the state’s landscape” that ethanol has caused, given that Iowa is the number one nation in the country. corn producer state, as the mass production of maize to supply industry has led to increased soil damage and water pollution from chemical runoff.
Her research predates that of Lark and also indicates a decrease in land conservation related to the increase in corn products used for ethanol production. Secchi said the year-round E15 sales surge is not a solution to the climate crisis, but a distraction.
“Ethanol does not replace gasoline; it’s a complement to them,” Secchi told Grist, referring to the fact that gasoline and ethanol are mixed. “Industry is basically trying to slow down and delay the transition from fossil fuels for as long as possible.”