Media & News

The Atlantic’s Anti-Ethanol Errors

November 27, 2019


It is not surprising that a staffer at an organization once dubbed "a Big Oil astroturf group" would write an article attacking renewable fuels, but it is sad that a publication such as The Atlantic would fall for a piece that is so long on opinion and short on fact. Often, facts cited are either woefully outdated or, simply, wrong. Let's take a look at just a few examples. Here's one: "In the United States, the cultivation of corn for ethanol now requires a staggering 38 million acres of land—an area larger than the state of Illinois. By comparison, the total area of cropland used to produce grains and vegetables that humans eat is only about twice that acreage." His number is a little off—if you divide the overall corn-for-ethanol bushels by yield in 2018, it comes to about 30 million acres—but it's also greatly deceptive, for two reasons. First, the corn-to-ethanol number USDA provides includes ethanol co-products like distillers grains, used for livestock feed. And this is not insignificant. For 2018, according to ProExporter Network, distillers grains used for livestock feed equated more than 1.2 billion bushels of corn. Further, the author's reference to "grains and vegetables that humans eat" is also deceptive. A lot of the grain and oilseed grown in the United States becomes food for people, as meat, poultry or dairy products. American ag products are also used for clothing, shelter, and other non-food uses. In 2018, all principal crops planted covered about 320 million acres. And he should know that the corn used for ethanol and livestock feed is not the same as the sweet corn we all enjoy eating so much. Here's the other example: "The RFS program mandates that corn ethanol have at least 20 percent lower carbon emissions than petroleum-based gasoline. But in the decade since the program's full implementation, many studies have shown that the greenhouse-gas impacts collaterally associated with ethanol production—the full 'carbon-cycle' effect—negate that 20 percent reduction and may even make corn ethanol worse for the climate than fossil fuels." The author attempts to justify this statement by citing a controversial 2011 report. Here's a more updated review from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from late last year, looking at the whole life-cycle: "We assess corn ethanol's current GHG profile at 39–43% lower than gasoline. We also develop two projected emissions scenarios for corn ethanol in 2022. These scenarios highlight opportunities to produce ethanol with emissions that are 47.0–70.0% lower than gasoline." And don't forget, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) credits ethanol with reducing GHG emissions by 37% compared to gasoline. CARB says ethanol use in the state has lowered transportation-related GHG emissions by 21 million metric tons since 2011. The great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes once remarked that there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact, and while it may be true that some data can be distorted in the presentation, the preponderance of data—especially fresh data based on the evolution and growing sustainability of an industry like ethanol—clearly demonstrates the value of renewable fuels to our lives, our communities, and our planet.