Government support for corn-based ethanol is such a sacred cow, thanks to corn-growing Iowa’s important presidential caucuses, that skeptic John McCain used to quip that he drank a cup every day. But ethanol, the biofuel touted as an important part of the renewable-energy future, causes almost as many environmental problems as it solves. Now, amid a rising tide of opposition to ethanol, the Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed scaling back how much of it is included in the nation’s gasoline supply for the first time since such targets were mandated by Congress in 2005. Despite the inevitable political outcry, the EPA should stick with its recommendation.
Under previous targets, the nation would have aimed to sell 18 billion gallons of renewable fuels next year and 36 billion gallons by 2022. But the EPA is now cutting the 2014 renewable-fuel goal to 15 billion gallons, of which 13 billion would be corn-based, according to The Washington Post. The reasons are many, starting with the fact that in the short time since Presidents Bush and Obama both hailed ethanol as a homegrown alternative to foreign oil, gasoline consumption has been declining because of vastly improved fuel efficiency in cars and shrinking car usage in the recession.
Meanwhile, attempts to market “E85” fuels containing up to 85 percent ethanol have attracted few drivers. Oil companies, which never wanted the hassle of blending corn into petroleum, say the discovery of vast domestic shale-oil deposits makes ethanol unnecessary as an alternative to foreign supplies. They also claim the current mandates put them in the position of increasing the ethanol content in an average gallon of gas beyond its current 10 percent, a level that automotive and motorcycle companies fear could damage some engines.
Ethanol now vies with livestock feed as America’s main use for corn, and cattle ranchers oppose the ethanol mandate because it drives up the prices they must pay for feed. Many environmentalists are equally opposed to corn-based ethanol. The Associated Press reported this month that 5 million acres of conservation land have been converted to corn crops during the Obama administration — “more than Yellowstone, Everglades, and Yosemite National Parks combined.” While defenders of ethanol, such as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, continue to maintain it is a greener fuel, the conversion of Midwestern grasslands and wetlands to cornfields is imperiling migratory wildlife and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The crops themselves have required billions of pounds of fertilizers, threatening drinking water in some places.
In the press release announcing the proposed ethanol cut, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy walked a fine line between critics and proponents, saying biofuels remain a “key” part of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy. But the cuts speak for themselves. Corn-based ethanol may remain a part of the strategy, but it is a shrinking one, with its energy and environmental promises withering on the stalk.