Not many people know that ethanol is a primary ingredient in gasoline. Most believe it is an environmentally friendly substance since it comes from sugarcane and corn. There has even been talk in the past of increasing ethanol in gas from 10 to 30 percent because of the perceived benefits of ethanol. However, the process of creating it inflicts more damage on the environment than good. And with the world officially entering ‘the red zone’ from a climate change perspective, we need to be extremely careful with our own carbon footprints. The ‘behind the scenes’ work to create ethanol uses more energy than the gasoline market would like to admit. The political motives of ethanol make this market an extremely hard one to bring to a halt.

What is ethanol?

Ethanol is a renewable biofuel that is made from high starch and sugar content crops. In the U.S., ethanol used in gasoline comes primarily from corn. Brazil uses sugarcane, which is the second-largest country producing ethanol for fuel in the world. Ethanol is made by fermenting the starch in corn into sugar, then fermented into alcohol. The thought process behind adding ethanol to gasoline is to reduce greenhouse emissions and be environmentally friendly. The reality is that ethanol hurts the environment more than helping it.

Costly damage

Despite the well-meaning intentions of the EPA, ethanol has damaged the environment since implementing it in fuel. The Renewable Fuel Standard program was authorized under the ‘Energy Policy Act of 2005,’ which Congress developed. Its goal was to improve the environment since ethanol is a ‘renewable fuel,’ stemming from a renewable resource. Gasoline used about 12.6 billion gallons of ethanol in the United States alone. Back in 2007, 36 billion gallons was the economic target. The Yale School of the Environment exposed the detrimental effects of ethanol:

The truth is, however, that growing corn in the U.S. heartland still has a major environmental impact — one that will only increase if we add even more ethanol to our gasoline. Higher-ethanol blends still produce significant levels of air pollution, reduce fuel efficiency, jack up corn and other food prices, and have been treated with skepticism by some car manufacturers for the damage they do to engines. Growing corn to run our cars was a bad idea 10 years ago. Increasing our reliance on corn ethanol in the coming decades is doubling down on a poor bet.

Thankfully, the United States is rethinking the environmental steps they’ve taken. But unfortunately, the U.S. political system has not.

Ernest Moniz, former Secretary of United States Energy during the Obama administration, holds up a pro-ethanol flag at a NASCAR race.

Political motives

In Iowa, 53% or 1.3 billion bushels of corn are used in the creation of ethanol production. This industry is responsible for $4.7 billion of the GDP in Iowa. It accounts for 42,000 jobs, which is a priority for the United States’ political agenda. Most presidential candidates since 1980 have pledged to support the mandate for ethanol in our fuel. Since winning Iowa provides a trajectory towards the presidency. In turn, ethanol is a mandatory requirement for most political candidates to support. The corn lobby has spent millions of dollars supporting federal officials. It all ensures the continuation of the ethanol fuel mandate. Corn ethanol lobbyists have even received tariff protection from foreign competition and special treatment with regard to tax codes.

But does it make sense to put ethanol in our fuel? Producing one gallon of ethanol requires almost twice the energy contained in that gallon of fuel. Machinery powered by greenhouse-gas producing technology develops most ethanol today. In addition, it cost $1.74 to produce a gallon of ethanol in 2009 but only 95 cents to produce the same amount of gasoline. The average U.S. automobile traveling 10,000 miles per year needs eleven acres of land to grow the corn needed to power a car on ethanol. 

That is not the reality that most Americans live in.

Most U.S. citizens focus on monetary value instead of taking an environmental stance, something we all have to work on. I would understand the counter-opinion of ethanol in gasoline if ethanol created economic growth. However, both the economic and environmental effects of ethanol do not give a great stance for using ethanol in fuel. And if we keep using it like politics wants us to, it could greatly contribute to a world with ever-increasing temperatures.

A dismal outcome

Talk of global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions floods the headlines these days. The massive size and deep pockets of lobbyists prevent true discussion of adding ethanol to our fuel. It sounds like a great idea on the surface, but these facts demonstrate that the truth is not as promising. Is it a good idea to locally grow many acres of corn at great expense to the environment, just to produce fuel that is less efficient and more costly than the gas it replaces? Would the corn lobby want that data widely disseminated or publicized? It probably would not. As is often the case, peeling back the layers of seemingly innocuous subjects reveals unexpected complexity. 

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