Corn vs. climate.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Corn Ethanol Is Worse Than Keystone

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of "Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong."
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For years, environmental activists have opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, claiming that development of Canada’s oil sands will be “game over for the climate.” But if those same activists are sincere about climate change, why aren’t they getting arrested outside the White House to protest the use of corn ethanol? 

That’s a pertinent question, given a new analysis from the Environmental Working Group, which finds that corn ethanol produces more carbon dioxide than Keystone XL would -- presuming, of course, that the pipeline ever gets built. Making the issue even more relevant, last Friday, the EPA outlined new requirements for the minimum amounts of ethanol that retailers must blend into their gasoline. 

Before looking at the EWG’s findings, a quick refresher on Keystone XL: Proposed in 2008, it would carry crude from Canada’s oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Two years ago, several dozen people, including leaders of 350.org and Sierra Club, were arrested outside the White House for protesting against the pipeline. It got provisional environmental approval from the State Department in 2010 and has been blocked by the Obama administration ever since. 

Now back to climate change and ethanol. In a May 29 report, Emily Cassidy, a research analyst at EWG, says that “last year’s production and use of 14 billion gallons of corn ethanol resulted in 27 million tons more carbon emissions than if Americans had used straight gasoline in their vehicles.” She continues, “That’s worse than Keystone’s projected emissions.” (Another environmental group, Natural Resources Defense Council, has estimated that Keystone XL would increase carbon dioxide emissions by about 24 million tons per year.) 

In a graphic comparing corn ethanol with standard gasoline and fuel produced from the oil sands, Cassidy shows that the carbon intensity of corn ethanol is about 120 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent per megajoule of energy produced. That’s about 20 percent more than standard gasoline and about 10 percent more than that produced by the oil sands. 

Cassidy concludes: 

So far the federal corn ethanol mandate has resulted in a massive influx of dirty corn ethanol, which is bad for the climate and bad for consumers. The only interest it benefits is the ethanol industry. 

The ethanol industry’s interests continue to trump other interests. Consider that all the presidential candidates except Ted Cruz have come out in favor of corn ethanol. Among the most obvious examples of pandering to the corn ethanol lobby: an op-ed article by Hillary Clinton last week in the Gazette, an Iowa City newspaper. 

While Clinton was in the U.S. Senate, she voted against the ethanol industry 17 times. In a 2002 letter, she and three senate colleagues called then-pending legislation that was to require the blending of two billion gallons of corn ethanol per year into domestic gasoline supplies “an astonishing new anti-consumer government mandate.” That same year, during a floor debate on the proposed mandates, she said she found it “impossible to understand why any pro-consumer, pro-health, pro-environment, anti-government mandate member of this body would vote for this provision.” 

But since she decided to run for president, Clinton has switched sides. In her Gazette op-ed,she praises “rural clean energy” and says the Renewable Fuel Standard, the mandate that requires retailers to mix ethanol in gasoline, has been “a success for Iowa and much of rural America.” 

Unfortunately, success for Iowa and the corn ethanol racket means failure for consumers and the environment. Indeed, the EWG’s analysis of corn ethanol’s outsized carbon footprint should serve as a wake-up call to climate activists. They can continue protesting against Keystone XL if they like. But if they're serious about climate change, they should join the coalition of groups -- ranging from the Clean Air Task Force and the American Petroleum Institute to the National Marine Manufacturers Association and Friends of the Earth -- who are calling for an end to the mandates that require motorists to use motor-fuel moonshine. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Robert Bryce at robert@robertbryce.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net