The EPA’s growing battle with the corn and ethanol industry

ethanolThere’s a war brewing in the Corn Belt between two unlikely entities: the EPA and the agriculture industry. On one side of the equation, as the Associated Press (AP) reported today, is the Environmental Protection Agency, which is proposing that the amount of renewable fuels produced be reduced, and on the other side is big corn, which relies on ethanol sales to sustain its growth. Ethanol, which comes primarily from distilled corn, is mixed into gasoline and makes up 10 percent of each gallon of gasoline, and up to 15 percent in 16 states (as of 2014).

The problem is that supply can’t keep up with demand, and environmentalists, who once championed adding ethanol to your gas tank, are crying foul when they realized the damage the ethanol industry was doing to the environment. All this stems from an announcement last month when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that roughly 4 billion gallons of renewable fuels won’t be used this year, and almost 5 billion gallons won’t be used next year, contrary to what was stipulated by Congress in 2007. Now the EPA is holding hearings before any final determinations are made in November, and everyone has a stalk in this field of green schemes.

According to the director of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality Chris Gundler, “250 people have signed up to testify at the Jack Reardon Center.” Because so many people want to speak about the EPA’s proposed regulations, they’ve had to set up a second panel to hear from two different groups. These two meetings are the only ones planned by the EPA before it announces its decision. Grundler notes that unless the requirements are reduced, “there’s no way the standards can be met in the next few years. There would be widespread noncompliance, and the EPA is not in the habit of putting out standards we don’t think are achievable.”

The whole point of the 2007 renewable fuels law, signed into law under President Bush, was to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, reduce pollution, and “bolster the rural economy by requiring a steady increase in the overall amount of renewable fuels such as ethanol blended into gasoline over time.” With the explosion in fracking over the last five years, domestic oil production has risen so high that the U.S. is hardly dependent on any foreign oil.

And then two things happened on the way to the cornfield: large swaths of land from the Conservation Reserve Program were turned into massive seasonal cornfields, once a primary source of CO2-absorbing plants and woodland. It also diverted much-needed corn for food into corn ethanol, which caused “a sharp increase in food costs worldwide.” Growing corn and making ethanol also requires large amounts of water. For every gallon of ethanol made, nearly three gallons of water are needed.

Couple all this with the lack of infrastructure to grow enough corn and the agriculture industry unable to “produce enough non-ethanol fuels to meet the requirements,” and demand starts outpacing supply. “Granted, we are not growing them as fast or as large as Congress anticipated, but they are still growing, just at a different pace than what was expected in 2007,” Grundler told the AP.

The war between the agriculture industry and the EPA has gotten so bitter that Grundler was accused of “being in bed with the oil industry.” The president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Chet Thompson, agrees, telling the AP that it was laughable to think the EPA was on the oil industry’s side. “The EPA is doing what it is doing because it’s undeniable there’s a lack of demand and infrastructure out there to meet the statutory requirement,” Thompson said.

There will also be a rally of Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) opponents, where two governors from each party are expected to speak: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D). Organizers of the rally will also be busing people in from outside the state, with members of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) coming in from Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. According to Chip Bowling, NCGA president, the EPA’s proposal will “hurt the ethanol industry” by “removing incentives to build up the infrastructure to handle higher volumes.”

Bowling believes his industry’s growth, and its ancillary sectors, will be negatively impacted if “retailers and oil companies aren’t required to increase the use renewable fuels in their gasoline,” he said. “We’re the little guy going against the big guy. Anytime we’re displacing 10 percent of their production, they don’t like it.”

Aside from the massive deforestation that happened in the Amazon (mainly Brazil) and the U.S. to make room for cornfields, ethanol is also hydrophilic. This means that ethanol can readily absorb moisture out of the atmosphere (condensation) leading to lots of auto problems. Newer cars that are equipped to handle the increased ethanol can help to reduce levels of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and benzene, though that is still in dispute with today’s technology. Older cars, however, can develop engine corrosion, and degradation of “plastic, rubber, or even metal in your fuel system,” all from that little bit of extra moisture pulled into your gas.

According to Popular Mechanics, any vehicles (or motorcycles) that have modern fuel injection systems (since the 1980s) simply don’t need the ethanol. So why is ethanol still being mandated? “President Bush made a decision to offset some of our dependence on foreign oil with domestically produced alcohol, and the Corn Belt senators agreed.” Indeed, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, in 2014 the United States produced 58% of the world’s ethanol fuel, and the gross value of the ethanol industry’s output was $32,000,000,000. It also exported over 800 million gallons of ethanol in 2014, with 43 percent being exported to Canada.

Now that we have plentiful supplies of domestic oil, closed-loop fuel injection systems, and truly modern automotive systems, it seems like now would be the right time to let the marketplace decide whether you should have grain alcohol in your gas, and finally drive the politicians out of the auto industry.