New Evidence on the Environmental Benefits of Biofuels

FROM THE NOVEMBER ISSUE: Growth Energy report highlights ethanol's environmental benefits as EPA contemplates RFS reset.
By Emily Skor | October 16, 2019

As regular readers know, biofuel producers and farm advocates are working tirelessly to ensure that 2020 biofuel targets from the U.S. EPA restore vital opportunities for growth. But that’s not the only battle taking place at EPA. Right now, the agency is also crafting a rule that will set new goal posts for renewable energy in 2021 and 2022.

When Congress established the Renewable Fuel Standard, it included a mechanism directing the EPA to reevaluate targets if certain blending thresholds weren’t met over time. We hit that trigger last year, which means a so-called “reset” proposal could emerge at any time, clearing the way for the biofuels industry to showcase the many economic and environmental benefits that result from the RFS.

Under the law, the EPA is directed to evaluate a range of factors in setting any annual renewable volume obligations under the RFS, including energy security, infrastructure and environmental impacts, among others. Few of those factors have been the subject of more oil-backed misinformation than the environmental benefits of biofuels. Time and again, we’ve seen efforts to suppress homegrown biofuels and hold back America’s clean energy future through the same outdated and misleading claims.

That’s why the team at Growth Energy has been working to build a stronger RFS by highlighting the continued success of a strong RFS program. As part of that effort, we recently released a new report authored by Ramboll, a global research and management firm specializing in sustainable development. It presents the latest data on U.S. agricultural innovation, provides a detailed review of recent studies and illuminates gaps in EPA’s understanding of U.S. biofuel production. It also shows how—from the lab to the farm—new innovations have allowed us to ramp up biofuel production year after year, without expanding our environmental footprint.

Among its key findings, the authors note what we’ve known all along: “There are no proven adverse impacts to land and water associated with increased corn ethanol production under the RFS.
Accordingly, EPA could decide to reset renewable volumes in a manner that would incentivize greater production and consumption of conventional corn ethanol in U.S. transportation fuel without discernible adverse environmental impacts to land and water, to the extent any exist. The major factors supporting this conclusion are that continued improvements in agricultural practices and technology indicate that increased demand for corn grown for ethanol in the U.S. can be met without the need for additional acres of corn planted, while at the same time, reducing potential impacts to water quality or water supplies.”

The Ramboll findings also debunk the misconception that increased ethanol production cannot be accomplished without a growing environmental footprint. “Acres planted in corn across the U.S. has remained close to or below the total acres planted in the early 1930s, despite increases in demand for corn as human food, animal feed and biofuels over this nearly 90-year period,” Ramboll explains. “The increase in demand has largely been met by an approximately seven-fold increase in yield (bushels per acre).”

On water use, they note, “Advancements in technology and water management techniques have continued to increase the efficiency in water resource management by stabilizing, and potentially reducing, the overall volume of water necessary for corn growth. … Additionally, the USDA has shown that irrigation for all crops, including corn, has decreased even as the farming acreage has essentially been stable over the past 35 years.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Ramboll authors correct a fundamental flaw in EPA’s 2018 Second Triennial Report to Congress, which provides no comparison of the environmental impact of biofuels against destructive, petroleum-based alternatives. Ramboll writes, “spills of petroleum, gasoline and a wide range of other fluids used in the exploration, production and refining processes as well as land use change to support those activities all have adverse effect on water quality, ecosystems (including wetlands), and wildlife. Additionally, both conventional and unconventional oil and gas extraction place demands on water supply. Failure to address impacts associated with gasoline production relative to impacts from ethanol production does not present a balanced view of alternative energy sources and casts a negative bias on ethanol production.”

In each case, the findings are supported by a wide body of research from public, private, and academic sources. Our goal is that regulators will make use of this data to make more informed decisions about the future growth of biofuels based on sound science, not misinformation. If they do, the upcoming reset will ensure that the RFS of tomorrow aims higher than the RFS of yesterday.

Author: Emily Skor
CEO, Growth Energy