The Biden administration plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly over the next decade. Renewable fuels are part of the plan, but some researchers say ethanol doesn’t help that much. The ethanol industry says steps it’s taking could make it more of a player in slowing climate change.
President Joe Biden’s plan calls on the U.S. to lower carbon pollution in transportation by “reducing tailpipe emissions and boosting the efficiency of cars and trucks.” The Biden administration plans to invest heavily in electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. The White House hopes to reach net-zero emissions – when the greenhouse gases that go into the atmosphere are offset by activities that take it out – by 2050.
“Ethanol doesn’t have a big role to play,” said Jonathan Lewis, senior counsel for the Clean Air Task Force, about a future with more electric vehicles and charging stations.
Biden’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases singles out low-carbon renewable fuels for use in aviation “and other cutting-edge transportation technologies across modes,” but the proposal doesn’t mention renewable fuels in any other context.
In a statement, the Renewable Fuels Association said it was pleased to see renewable fuels included in the plan, “However, renewable fuels can do far more than decarbonize aviation and other off-road markets,” the trade association said.
Ethanol’s environmental impact
The ethanol industry has long been at odds with some climate groups and activists over how good their fuel is for the environment.
Ethanol is made from corn, which naturally pulls carbon dioxide from the air. But when ethanol is produced and burned, it releases CO2 and small amounts of two other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“When you look at the full life cycle of production and use of ethanol compared to gasoline, it has not been shown that corn ethanol actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jason Hill, a biosystems engineer at the University of Minnesota.
Hill said ethanol’s emissions are “comparable to gasoline” because growing corn and distributing ethanol also release greenhouse gases.
Still, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association commends ethanol as a tool that they say reduces carbon dioxide emissions and combats air pollution.
But environmentalists have other concerns. Lewis said the expansion of corn to meet the demands of food, feed and transportation markets converts more land into farmland.
“And as you turn that land over, you release soil carbon from the ground where it’s not impacting climate, into the atmosphere, where it’s contributing to climate change,” Lewis said.
Capturing and storing ethanol facilities’ emissions
While the science surrounding ethanol’s emissions is often debated, that could be changing.
Thirty ethanol plants in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota are part of a project led by Iowa company Summit Carbon Solutions, to capture the carbon dioxide released in ethanol production and store it underground.
The ethanol plants would capture carbon dioxide during fermentation. Then, they’ll liquefy it and pipe it to North Dakota, where it will be stored permanently in rock formations at least a mile underground.
Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures has also launched a pipeline project to capture and store ethanol emissions in Illinois. Both projects expect to be operational in 2024.
Summit Carbon Solutions said its project would be capable of capturing up to 12 million tons of CO2 per year. Jesse Harris, a spokesman for Summit Carbon Solutions, said that would be a “significant step in addressing climate change.”
Biofuels company Green Plains Incorporated has eight plants involved in the Summit project.
“We're being pushed from all sides,” said Green Plains CEO Todd Becker. “The consumer wants lower carbon. The companies we do business with want lower carbon, our investors want us to lower carbon.”
Becker called the project a “game changer” for the U.S. ethanol industry.
“This is the precursor to, I think, greater acceptance of the products that we make, whether it's in our fuel like the ethanol that we make, or in our proteins, like high-value proteins,” Becker said.
How much will it help combat climate change?
Robert Brown, the director of Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute, said carbon capture could be key to changing perceptions about the ethanol industry.
“I think we’re at a real interesting cusp in technology,” Brown said.
Brown said capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground puts ethanol on the path to being what’s called “carbon-negative energy.” That would mean it’s taking more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it’s putting in. Brown said that could make ethanol better than electric vehicles in its carbon footprint.
“Anything the ethanol industry can do to reduce that footprint, the better, the more attractive they will be as a sustainable source of energy,” Brown said.
But Jason Hill of the University of Minnesota disagreed on the notion of carbon-negative energy.
“That’s some pretty magical thinking,” Hill said. “No, it does not work that way.”
Hill said for ethanol to be carbon negative, the production and use of the fuel would have to result in lower greenhouse gas emissions overall.
“With carbon capture and storage, you would have the amount that’s captured in fermentation being stored in the ground,” Hill said, “but you’d have a lot of emissions still from the rest of the life cycle of production.”
In a statement, Summit Carbon Solutions spokesman Jesse Harris said carbon capture cuts ethanol’s footprint in half.
“There are still carbon emissions associated with ethanol production due to corn production, energy used by ethanol plants, and transportation,” Harris said.
He added that Summit Carbon Solutions has a goal to be at least carbon neutral by 2050 and plans to work with ethanol plants to reduce emissions.
The nonprofit Clean Air Task Force supports carbon capture technology, but the task force’s Jonathan Lewis said he doesn’t think corn ethanol can get all of the carbon dioxide out of transportation.
“We’re going to need to shift to other fuels and other systems, mainly hydrogen and electricity,” Lewis said.
Todd Becker of Green Plains said he doesn’t fear electric vehicles cutting into the demand for ethanol any time soon. Becker said the company will continue to work on lowering its carbon footprint. A spokesman clarified Green Plains has technology to cut the amount of energy and water used in making ethanol.
“And I'm confident this will be the time going forward that somebody will understand the importance of ethanol production, not only to the U.S. agricultural economy but to the emissions that come out of the tailpipe of our vehicles,” Becker said.