Ethanol Blog

RFA Chief: EPA Science Board Using Bad Data to Question Corn Ethanol Emissions

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Geoff Cooper, center, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, talked to farmers at the Farm Progress Show last month with RFA's flex-fuel/electric hybrid Ford Escape that RFA modified to run on E85 fuel. RFA and other groups continue to be locked in a battle with EPA's Science Advisory Board about studies used to validate corn ethanol's greenhouse gas reductions compared to gasoline. (Photo courtesy of RFA)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- As the EPA's Science Advisory Board meets Thursday and Friday, the ethanol industry is continuing to push back on the board's claim that there are "minimal or no climate benefits" in using corn ethanol in place of gasoline.

More than 18 years after the first Renewable Fuels Standard was put into law, the Science Advisory Board, called "SAB," laid out a draft report in late August declaring EPA has not resolved the scientific question over whether ethanol from corn starch actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline or diesel. The report stated, "According to the best available science, it appears there is a reasonable chance there are minimal or no climate benefits from substituting corn ethanol for gasoline or diesel."

The SAB wants EPA to conduct more extensive research into the role the Renewable Fuels Standard plays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By law, ethanol is required to reduce emissions at least 20% below gas and diesel fuel. In drafting a three-year volume standard for the RFS, the SAB stated EPA "missed an opportunity" to "engage the scientific community on the vital question of whether the majority fuel used for compliance with the RFS, corn starch ethanol, meets this criterion."

Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, was among those during public comment to the SAB on Thursday seeking to push back on the board's initial draft statements that "the best available science" suggests there are "minimal or no climate benefits." Cooper said the group adamantly disagrees with that take.

"In reality, the best available science shows just the opposite. Extensive research conducted by government laboratories, major universities, state and federal agencies, NGOs, and private lifecycle analysis experts all demonstrate that corn ethanol is 40-50 percent less carbon intensive than petroleum on a full lifecycle basis--including emissions from hypothetical land use change scenarios."

Cooper pointed to work done by the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, which "has done more research on corn ethanol's carbon impacts than any other entity in the world." Argonne's latest work concludes that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 44% compared to gasoline, RFA cites. Argonne adds corn ethanol "can play a critical role in the U.S. desire for deep decarbonization of its economy."

While the SAB draft report repeatedly points to some highly criticized work by a University of Wisconsin researcher, the SAB report doesn't mention Argonne's work once in its list of studies about ethanol.

Cooper added the SAB asserts that the disagreement over the climate benefits of corn ethanol has to do with whether "cropland has expanded to grow corn for ethanol in the United States as a result of the RFS..." The commentary suggests that "these facts are difficult to pin down."

"But these facts are readily available and easy to interpret," Cooper told SAB. In 2010, EPA began quantifying U.S. agricultural cropland every year to determine whether any expansion has occurred beyond 2007 levels as a result of the RFS. EPA's assessments clearly show a steep downward trend in the amount of land dedicated to crops since 2007. U.S. cropland continues to shrink--not expand. This fact is incontrovertible.

Cooper finished his statement to SAB, "We encourage the SAB to supplement its commentary after conducting a much more expansive and inclusive examination of the science on corn ethanol's carbon footprint. Specifically, the SAB should consider recent lifecycle analyses from DOE, USDA, state air agencies, academia, and other sources to evaluate what is really happening in today's corn ethanol industry."

The National Corn Growers Association wrote a similar letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan last week laying out a similar case over Argonne's work and crop acreage in the U.S.

The SAB will discuss the "disposition" of its report, which will then be passed on to EPA staff.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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