Big Oil Rolls Out Al Gore to Torpedo Ethanol

To persuade President Obama to abandon ethanol, the oil industry and its allies will try a new television advertising pitch, starting today: Ethanol is worse for the climate than gasoline.
Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Climate change has a new evangelist: Big oil.

In its bid to roll back government mandates for the use of biofuels, petroleum producers have run out a series of arguments: It harms engines; it raises food costs; it’s bad for boats; and the mandate is government interference in the economy.

To persuade President Barack Obama to abandon ethanol, the oil industry and its allies will try a new television advertising pitch, starting today: Ethanol is worse for the climate than gasoline.

“Mandating corn for ethanol doubles greenhouse-gas emissions compared to gasoline over 30 years,” according to a new television advertisement sponsored by an odd-bedfellows group of refiners, environmentalists and chain-restaurant owners. “Mounting scientific evidence has revealed the inconvenient truth: Increasing ethanol mandates can actually make things worse.”

If a glancing mention of his controversial film, An Inconvenient Truth, was too subtle, a quote from former Vice President Al Gore (a 2007 Nobel Laureate for his work to stop climate change) then pops onto the screen: “First-generation ethanol was a mistake.”

The alliance behind the ad, Smarter Fuel Future Coalition, is investing to influence inside-the-Beltway players. Records on file with the Federal Communications Commission show that the group has plunked down more than $500,000 to purchase some 300 spots on Washington, D.C. television stations over the next two months. The group is spending big to advertise against news programming, including $25,000 for commercials during the Nov. 14 Democratic debate. Ethanol is a potent issue in presidential campaigns because of its importance to the economy of Iowa, the state where the first votes of the presidential race will be cast next year. 

Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency  faces a deadline of the end of November to set ethanol mandates through the end of next year. That deadline comes just as his administration will be gearing up to try to pull together a landmark global climate at United Nations talks in Paris.

“This is a response to a growing chorus reminding President Obama that his position on the Renewable Fuel Standard is inconsistent with his positioning going into the Paris climate talks,” said Brooke Coleman, the executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, which represents biofuel makers. “It’s a recognition of what the president cares about most. And the argument is patently absurd.”

Let’s first get one part of this fight out of the way: Does corn ethanol result in higher carbon emissions? Well, that depends on how you measure it. EPA determined that ethanol produced at newer plants, using natural gas or biogas, would meet a legal standard and have emissions 20 percent lower than gasoline. And Argonne National Laboratory, an independent government-sponsored lab, concluded: “The preponderance of the recent studies, show that ethanol has a positive net fossil energy value.” (That means it has lower emissions.) And the goal of the renewable fuel standard is to transition from corn to waste from crops or used oils that would bring about steeper emission cuts.

“The overall result is that biofuels are getting cleaner over time, and most biofuels are cleaner than gasoline,” Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog early this year.

So, end of story, right? Well, uhh, no. Once you take into account the fact that the ethanol mandate means more demand for corn and more demand for corn means more land is farmed, then corn ethanol results in greater carbon emissions, according to Emily Cassidy of the Environmental Working Group. “You have a big upfront climate cost from growing more corn and soy,” Cassidy said. And even the EPA’s results show ethanol results in greater emissions through 2036, she said. EPA's independent inspector general announced today that it would review how EPA calculates the lifecycle emissions of renewable fuels. 

That all leaves a muddled picture, with research findings on both sides -- but funded by the groups trying to get that result. What’s striking about this Smarter Fuels advertisement is that climate pitch is coming from the oil industry, which lobbied against the cap-and-trade bill and opposes Obama’s EPA regulations to cut carbon and methane emissions.

“No beach has ever been closed due to an ethanol spill,” said Tom Buis, the head of the ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy. “When it comes to environmental benefits, can anyone seriously believe that oil is better than biodegradable ethanol that burns cleaner, is renewable, and improves air quality.” Buis bundled $35,250 for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in the quarter than ended Sept. 30, papers on file with the Federal Election Commission show.  In an op-ed in an Iowa newspaper earlier this year, Clinton backed the ethanol mandate.

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