MEP works to dispel myth of ethanol as a climate solution

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, December 6, MEP and 20 allied organizations called on the Minnesota House of Representatives to fix a problem that is deeply entrenched in Minnesota’s policies, economy, and landscape: the predominance of corn based ethanol. In our letter to key House committee chairs, we asked them to begin a transition away from Minnesota’s 35-year-long focus on growing corn for ethanol in favor of solutions that clean up our transportation, protect land and water, and support the livelihoods of farmers.

Ethanol was once considered a promising and less-polluting alternative to gasoline – a renewable fuel, even, given that it  can be refined from crops like corn and sugar. But ethanol is seldomly used as a fuel by itself, but rather mixed into gasoline. All gasoline sold in Minnesota is at least 10% ethanol, a mixture that generates only about 3% less emissions than regular gas when used to fuel a car. E-15 is about another 2% reduction.

While it’s true that ethanol production generates about 40% lower carbon emissions than gasoline over the course of its lifecycle, that doesn’t make it a “green” alternative. In order to meet our climate needs, we need to reach zero net emissions by 2050, the sooner the better.. We have far better prospects for cleaning up transportation by investing in transit, building up pedestrian and walking infrastructure, planning more efficient land use, supporting electric vehicles and biofuels with dramatically lower carbon intensity levels. 

Even if corn based ethanol scored better on greenhouse gas emissions, the artificially increased market for corn that ethanol subsidies have created is another reason that business as usual won’t work for our environment and climate. Minnesota is the nation’s fourth-largest state for corn production, and more than thirty percent of that corn is used to make ethanol. We use 8 million acres – about 14% of our entire land area – on corn production. That’s produced profits for some farms and agribusinesses, but it’s all devastated the waters and lands of our state.

Corn is an input- and water-heavy crop, and those inputs result in damage to the surrounding environment. Phosphorus from fertilizer runoff has impaired thousands of Minnesota lakes and nitrates flow into streams, as well as waters downriver from us in other states and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrate pollution has also made a dizzying number of rural wells unsafe to drink. Pesticides have wreaked havoc on our ecosystems. And conventional plowing and cropping systems have reduced the quality of our soil.

Not every crop grown for fuel is so destructive. As we wrote recently, the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota is currently breeding winter camelina and other crops that can provide relatively clean fuel, protect and restore water quality, and even provide habitat for pollinators. In the long run, these crops will provide a far better return on investment for Minnesota if we work to scale them up.

Corn ethanol isn’t the primary driver of climate change – but we shouldn’t treat it like a cure for what ails us. We’ve asked the legislature to recognize this reality, break ethanol’s decadeslong hold on our state, and oppose an E-15 mandate and further investments in ethanol.

As we move on from ethanol, however, we have to make sure that farmers receive full state support during the transition. In the short run, any significant change to our farming systems can be costly. But the current system is hurting farmers now, leaving farm families subject to agribusiness monopoly power and price structures for corn that are frequently stacked against them. 

In the long run, rural communities and Minnesota’s entire economy will benefit from a greater variety of cleaner crops. As with fossil fuels, we can see a future beyond corn ethanol – and it’s a bright one.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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