Is Ethanol Really Green?

Entrenched financial interests, outdated policies, fear of change block environmental progress
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Mary Sussman

We all drive cars fueled in part by ethanol—a chemical compound and simple alcohol with the chemical formula C2H5OH that many consumers believe to be green energy. Ethanol, of course, comes mostly from corn, which in August grows as high as an elephant’s eye, a ubiquitous feature of the Wisconsin landscape.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was passed in 2007 to incentivize green cellulosic fuels, made from non-food crops or crop waste. Between 2006 and 2012, tax credits and incentives for ethanol cost taxpayers an estimated $6-8 billion annually. Though designed to incentivize non-food crops, these credits and incentives went largely to subsidize corn and soy. Ethanol production was incentivized because it was viewed as a route to energy independence and a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Over time, the RFS has been criticized for not fulfilling its original promise. Recently, new research conducted by UW-Madison scientists found that cropland expansion from wetlands, pasture and forests released 115 metric tons of carbon between 2008 and 2012. During this period, more than 7 million acres of habitat were plowed under. During the same period, corn production for ethanol increased to satisfy the mandate and corn prices rose.

“This cropland expansion, driven in part by the ethanol mandate, has far-reaching impacts on the climate through its effects on the land and the carbon that it stores,” says Seth Spawn—lead author of the University of Wisconsin land use study and a graduate research assistant student at the Center for Sustainability and Global Environment at UW-Madison—adding that, “These impacts are significant and should be taken seriously.” Such increases in released carbon from the soil result in increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which contributes to the greenhouse effect.