By most estimates, ethanol as a component of motor fuel costs a few percentage points in fuel economy; in my own car during the summer, the difference has been 1.3 mpg, or about 4.5 percent. What are we getting for this tradeoff? Nothing good, says the EPA:
An extensive report from the Environmental Protection Agency found that including ethanol into the U.S. gas supply is wreaking havoc on the atmosphere and soil.
In a study titled “Biofuels and the Environment: The Second Triennial Report to Congress,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that ethanol derived from corn and soybeans is causing serious harm to the environment. Water, soil and air quality were all found to be adversely affected by biofuel mandates.
“Evidence since enactment of [the Energy Independence and Security Act] suggests an increase in acreage planted with soybeans and corn, with strong indications from observed changes in land use that some of this increase is a consequence of increased biofuel production,” read a portion of the 159-page report.
The ethanol mandate has negatively effected water quality, with greater biofuel production resulting in more harmful algae blooms and hypoxia. While most algae is harmless to water, some forms — such as the kind produced in Lake Eerie from biofuel feedstock — has emitted toxic chemicals into the water. This harmful algae can consume the oxygen in the water, a process known as hypoxia, killing other wildlife.
Um, “Erie” is the name of the lake. “Eerie” is a town in Indiana.
Increased irrigation — fueled by growing demand for ethanol — has also taken a toll on the ground, with the report finding “grassland-to-annual-crop conversion negatively impacts soil quality because it increases erosion and the loss of soil nutrients.”
Back in middle school, we were taught the necessity of crop rotation: you can’t plant the same damn thing over and over again without damaging the soil. Evidently this is no longer being taught.
Essentially, the study found that biofuel mandates are boosting production of corn and soybeans. Large-scale production of these crops is causing environmental degradation. The EPA also found that — at least in some instances — using ethanol in lieu of gasoline resulted in worse air emissions.
“[A]ir quality modeling suggests that production and use of ethanol as fuel to displace gasoline is likely to increase such air pollutants as PM2.5, ozone, and SOx in some locations,” read a section of the report pertaining to air quality. While traditional gasoline contains more CO2, ethanol-based fuels have more nitrogen oxides (NOx), which can be more harmful to human health. NOx can exacerbate asthma by causing inflammation of the respiratory airwaves, with long-term exposure resulting in decreased lung function.
We’ve had ozone alerts all last week. And no matter what you heard, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Ask any tree.