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Trump's Ethanol Deregulation Could Hurt More People Than It Helps

Ethanol won't save us from oil dependence—or climate change.

On Monday, news broke that President Donald Trump's administration intends to undo Environmental Protection Agency regulations on gasoline with higher ethanol percentages. But even conservatives aren't crazy about this regulation rollback; ethanol initiatives are now panned on both sides of the aisle. In fact, only one group benefits from the change: corn farmers, distributors, and refiners.

Trump is looking to allow the year-round sale of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline, known as E15. Currently, E15 can only be sold before June 1st and after September 15th in smog-prone areas. That—along with its potential to harm older engines (federal regulation only allows its use in cars with a model year of 2001 or later) and its lower fuel efficiency—has made it unpopular across the country. Right now, you can only find E15 at about 2 percent of U.S. gas stations.

Meanwhile, almost all gasoline in the United States is blended with up to 10 percent ethanol, a mix called E10. It's been widely adopted for a few reasons. It's true that ethanol helps gasoline burn more cleanly and smoothly (especially in the winter) by raising the octane number. And it's a better additive for that purpose than lead or methyl-tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), both of which the industry has ditched—lead poisons humans, and MTBE contaminates groundwater. E10 also doesn't do noticeable damage to typical car engines. Most importantly, the U.S. has mandated production of corn-based biofuels for years under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Ethanol has long been promoted as the silver bullet for energy independence—especially when oil prices are high, like in the 1970s and the early 2000s. For decades, the narrative was that we'd produce and refine enough corn and other biomass to create enough fuel to power the country without any dependence on foreign oil. But that plan has flopped, and demand for higher ethanol concentrations in gasoline has largely waned.

Under the RFS, the U.S. was supposed to produce "conventional" corn biofuels while inventing, perfecting, and switching over to other "advanced" fuels for the majority of our biofuel needs by 2022. But production of other biofuels is far below expectations. Today, close to 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol production. No one is particularly happy with this—except for corn producers, of course.

Why not? Well, right-wing economists and conservative analysts decry it as government planning gone wrong. The "ethanol mandate" artificially increases demand for corn, which inflates prices. Corn is a major ingredient in many foods and most livestock feed, so that inflation increases costs for processed foods and meat, upsetting consumer advocacy groups and meat producers. Additionally, ethanol has less energy than gasoline, so mixing it with gasoline slightly decreases a vehicle's fuel efficiency. Oil companies and auto manufacturers worry about engine damage and reduced oil demand.

And on the left, environmentalists point out that corn ethanol often isn't carbon-neutral, making it an unhelpful climate change solution. While science says it's possible to produce sustainably, the corn infrastructure in the U.S. isn't doing that. A June EPA report to Congress found that the process of corn planting, harvesting, production, and refinement currently has an overall negative effect on the environment. Increases in demand for corn require the clearing of arable land for additional corn monoculture, which needs significant water and energy inputs. When topsoil is shifted for planting, it erodes, and the run-off carries fertilizers that contribute to algal blooms and anoxic waterways. And the reason E15 wasn't sold year-round already is that when it evaporates, it contributes to ground-level ozone formation and smog.

But Trump promised corn farmers in Iowa, the No. 1 ethanol-producing state, that he'd allow E15 sales year-round. And his announcement comes as corn and soybean farmers are suffering profit falls under Trump's trade policies with China and elsewhere, so they're excited—the policy could take effect early enough for E15 sales in summer 2019.

This move comes days after the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest dire report, which shows that a climate catastrophe is imminent without immediate action to end the burning of coal, gas, and other fossil fuels. But increasing ethanol production will not mitigate climate change—and it will adversely affect human and environmental health.