Did we ever figure out whether corn-based ethanol is good or bad for our beloved planet?

Kicking off a new Doublethink category for this blog…. “Biden will allow summertime sales of higher-ethanol gas as prices remain elevated.” (NYT):

Gasoline that contains ethanol reduces pollution, as indicated by the “Cleaner Air for Iowa” sticker (not to be confused with an “I did that” Joe Biden sticker, which can lead to being arrested).

The text of the article, however, says that gasoline that contains ethanol increases pollution:

Ethanol is made from corn and other crops and has been mixed into some types of gasoline for years as a way to reduce reliance on oil. But the blend’s higher volatility can contribute to smog in warmer weather. For that reason, environmental groups have traditionally objected to lifting the summertime ban…

Oil refiners are required to blend some ethanol into gasoline under a pair of laws, passed in 2005 and 2007, intended to lower the use of oil and the creation of greenhouse gases by mandating increased levels of ethanol in the nation’s fuel mix every year. However, since passage of the 2007 law, the mandate has been met with criticism that it has contributed to increased fuel prices and has done little to lower greenhouse gas pollution.

Perhaps the contradiction is only an apparent one in that the ethanol blend will reduce pollution in colder weather.

This reminded me to wonder if anyone has ever figured out definitively whether this 17-year-old policy helps or harms Planet Earth. Consider “U.S. corn-based ethanol worse for the climate than gasoline, study finds” (Reuters, February 14, 2022):

Corn-based ethanol, which for years has been mixed in huge quantities into gasoline sold at U.S. pumps, is likely a much bigger contributor to global warming than straight gasoline, according to a study published Monday.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradicts previous research commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showing ethanol and other biofuels to be relatively green.

The research, which was funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy, found that ethanol is likely at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline due to emissions resulting from land use changes to grow corn, along with processing and combustion.

Under the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a law enacted in 2005, the nation’s oil refiners are required to mix some 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol into the nation’s gasoline annually. The policy was intended to reduce emissions, support farmers, and cut U.S. dependence on energy imports.

As a result of the mandate, corn cultivation grew 8.7% and expanded into 6.9 million additional acres of land between 2008 and 2016, the study found. That led to widespread changes in land use, including the tilling of cropland that would otherwise have been retired or enrolled in conservation programs and the planting of existing cropland with more corn, the study found.

Tilling fields releases carbon stored in soil, while other farming activities, like applying nitrogen fertilizers, also produce emissions.

A 2019 study from the USDA, which has been broadly cited by the biofuel industry, found that ethanol’s carbon intensity was 39% lower than gasoline, in part because of carbon sequestration associated with planting new cropland.

We have Scientific Certainty (TM) on all subjects related to COVID, e.g., the effectiveness of ordering schoolchildren to wear masks, the ability of vaccines to end the global pandemic (just one more shot for all of us and SARS-CoV-2 will be gone!), and the need to require incoming travelers from zero-COVID China to produce a negative test while the undocumented may stream over the southern border and stay indefinitely with no testing or vaccination prerequisite. The question of whether growing more corn to burn in our pavement-melting SUVs increases or decreases CO2 emissions should be a comparatively simple one and yet Science cannot agree with him/her/zir/theirself.

Readers: What do we think? Do we go with the obvious “corn-based ethanol is bad”? Or are we convinced by the USDA??

Separately, for California readers, a couple of photos from Sunday, April 10 at Florida’s Turnpike Exit 152:


  • Factory farms may be killing coral reefs, not a warming planet (fertilizer dumped on corn fields eventually finds its way into the ocean)
  • Book that explores the biggest issue of our age: About 40 percent of the fertilizer applied in the last sixty years wasn’t assimilated by plants; instead, it washed away into rivers or seeped into the air in the form of nitrous oxide. Fertilizer flushed into rivers, lakes, and oceans is still fertilizer: it boosts the growth of algae, weeds, and other aquatic organisms. When these die, they rain to the ocean floor, where they are consumed by microbes. So rapidly do the microbes grow on the increased food supply that their respiration drains the oxygen from the lower depths, killing off most life. Where agricultural runoff flows, dead zones flourish. Nitrogen from Middle Western farms flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every summer, creating an oxygen desert that in 2016 covered almost 7,000 square miles.

29 thoughts on “Did we ever figure out whether corn-based ethanol is good or bad for our beloved planet?

  1. I have no idea if Ethanol is good or bad, my understanding is that it is corn producer subsidy and give away to ADM and big Ag.

    • This was my understanding. I’ve had to rebuild a carburetor more than once because of ethanol in the gas when I didn’t add a fuel stabilizer. I’m not sure if fuel stabilizers contribute to global warming….er I mean climate change.

    • TS: I did get them. Thank you! But I don’t want to apply them to gas pumps and get arrested (see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10706131/Pennsylvania-man-arrested-placing-did-Biden-stickers-gas-pumps-protest-prices.html ). We’re being monitored on video in any retail environment, right? So an “I did that!” sticker with Hunter Biden’s dad on it can’t be applied anywhere that there is a price displayed without some risk of imprisonment.

    • I am not sure if you pump your own avgas. Most self service aviation fuel stations do not have video surveillance.

    • @philg — you’re pussy :)))) Stickers, arrested, LOL. When I was still in the People’s Republic of Kalifornia, I used to go hiking in local parks for exercise… the COVIDiocy being strong in local governments, the trails were graced with signs mandating a specific direction (usually opposite to where I wanted to go). I was either turning them the other way, or drawing a penis on these signs. Both ways worked to erode the public trust in authoritah, and eventually they gave up on fixing the stupid signs.

      My 15 minutes of fame were getting rid of the nuclear-armed Evil Empire (aka the USSR:) Got all kinds of useless ego boosters afterwards (like having my mug gracing the very first issue of The Colors — that one was quite educational; I now have tons of respect for the work of photo models… Oliviero Toskani used six rolls of film ( I counted) to get the single shot, and I had to endure a day of uncomfortable poses, LOL).

  2. I know you’ve bought into the right-wing narrative: “All scientists are idiots because some wanted me to wear a mask during a pandemic.” Doesn’t saying that out loud make you feel like an idiot?

    • As an aside to Mike: your snide comments are awesome, dear! Welcome injection of reality from the world of CNN! (wanted to use word “idiot” but you have exhausted the daily limit of this page)

    • Anon: In any collective that has a code of conduct and is run by Red Guards (i.e., almost all modern software projects), Mike’s comment would be praised as insightful and CoC compliant!

      Some Google employees talk like that on Twitter and get a substantial number of upvotes as long as their ramblings are directed at counterrevolutionaries.

    • Anon & loophole: You shouldn’t beat up on Mike! He’s critical to our understanding of how slightly more than half of Americans think. Journalists at CNN and the New York Times, for example, consider an MD to be a “scientist” with the same predictive power as a Ph.D. physicist talking about what will happen to a satellite orbiting a planet. Given that the track record for COVID-19 predictions by MDs is more consistent with astrology than physics, this is kind of fascinating!

  3. Still remember generation Xers melting the pavement in their E85 SUV’s. E85 was the future. Then millennials banned it because it wasn’t the future. Then wearing masks was the future.

    Watching the ruling party mandate a new future every 3 months & the amerikan people obey reminds lions how easily humans were manipulated to destroy Warsaw & Mariupol.

  4. 1) Corn ethanol costs more oil energy in growing the corn, producing fertilizer, harvesting and distributing it than it brings back. Total greenwashing scam. From a global warming and CO2 emissions perspective, it is a net negative.

    2) Diverting food to make fuel raises food prices worldwide, in places like Mexico or Egypt, causes hunger and political instability, and is thus particularly immoral.

    3) It’s bad for car engines.

    The only reason it exists is as a farm subsidy boondoggle.

    • Fazal is more succinct than I am, and his analysis agrees with my understanding. Our fascination with corn oil as fuel might be traced back to the end of the movie “Back to the Future” (I forget if its 1 o 2), although obviously there isn’t just a single source and it could have been more caused-by rather than a-cause.

      As far as science goes- phrases like “scientific fact” (bandied about by people like William Fuckly Jr) are misnomers. Thee is no such thing. Science deals in hypotheses and theories when they are supported by alot of evidence. A lot of questionable fellows recently have been trying to “disprove” Relativity, for instance. Its a double-stupid idea. For one thing, any theory that “disproves” Relativity needs to match all the predictions that (both special and general) Relativity makes, and then also make other predictions that are validated by measurements. In short, it can only be *improved upon*, not disproven – and old Albert would *thank* anyone for doing that if he was around.

    • My understanding is that the biggest liability for car owners who use E85 fuel is water contamination. At one time there were lots of people who argued with varying degrees of “truthiness” that it damaged fuel system components like rubber fuel lines and the associated o-rings, internal seals, gaskets and so forth. There may have been some truth to that at one time – Jay Leno says so all the time, so maybe he’s promulgating something that was once true but is now mostly a myth. He has a lot of OLD cars.

      I think it’s safe to say that you can run ethanol-enhanced fuels in your car/truck/pavement melting SUV if the *owner’s manual doesn’t specifically prohibit it.* Most modern car manufacturers are smart enough to tell you, right there on Page 12 of the RTFM.

      As I alluded to, though – the bigger problem is that ethanol readily mixes with water, which is why we make cocktails with it, which people drink and crash their cars. So if you let your car “sit” you must add “stabilizer” to the gas tank in order to prevent *rust* in the fuel tank, etc. So companies make things like this:


      My 2010 FEH has lived in Massachusetts its entire “life” and therefore has been fed a regular “diet” of E10. So far there has been no need to add stabilizer and no ill effects are noted, but this car has also never sat idle for more than a week and the evaporative emissions system is working perfectly (i.e., the fuel filler neck SEALS so that water cannot easily seep in.)

      I imagine that gas station owners who sell highly “enriched” ethanol gasoline must have some specialized equipment and procedures to keep water out of their large, underground tanks of fuel. If you buy gas from a shady, off-brand service station that has low, low prices and pumps that look like they date from the middle of the last century, it could be that they are not maintaining those systems well and when you fill up, you get a quarter tank of water along with 3/4ths tank of “gasoline.”

      So I try to stick with good-brand gas in newer service stations that do a lot of business, because their stock is replenished on a regular basis. I actually try to go to truck stops that have the best prices on diesel and gasoline. They cannot afford to sell “bad” fuel to their customers.

  5. Since I try to “split the baby” but in a beneficial way by driving a Hybrid that has a 2.5 liter Atkinson cycle 4-cylinder engine along with two electric motors, which runs fine on the E-10 gasoline mix here in Massachusetts, I haven’t found the mental energy to track the entire saga of ethanol fuels. I’m sure it’s complicated, litigious and nuanced.

    What I love about driving my ’10 FEH is the Universal Bafflement Factor: I’m “cool” with environmentalist types because I can say: “Oh, yeah, this is a Hybrid that uses regenerative braking to recoup kinetic energy and help save the planet. It uses a high-voltage, high-efficiency electrical A/C compressor. And it runs great from 0-44 MPH in pure EV mode” and for the gas-engine die-hards I say: “This 2.5 liter four is a really good design, basically indestructible and uncomplicated, starts on the first crank in all four seasons and is relatively easy to maintain.” Both of those are true, and so I just let the two warring parties beat each other up and leave me the heck alone.

    However, I’ve always basically thought that ethanol-supplemented fuels were just a big subsidy to corn growers, to guarantee them a stable market for their product, all other real-world factors be damned. E-10 doesn’t damage fuel system components and the car runs great, so basically I let other people pull their hair out arguing about it while I drive away from the pump in EV mode.

    My car has a ~16 gallon gas tank, small for a full-sized 5-door SUV, and it will go ~480 miles on a fill-up, which costs me about $3.85×15.5 = $60 in MA right now, or about 12.5 cents per mile.

    How does this compare to the cost of driving a pure electric car?

    A 2020 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus is rated at 0.24 kWh/mi. ( https://ecocostsavings.com/electric-car-kwh-per-mile-list/ ) Therefore a 480 mile trip takes 115.2 kWh of electricity. In MA, the January 2022 cost of residential electricity is 25.28 cents per kWh ( https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.php?t=epmt_5_6_a ) so that 480 mile trip in a Tesla would cost me $29.12.

    So if I used my home electricity to charge a Tesla, that same 480 miles would cost $29.12, or about 1/2 as much. In an earlier post, you noted that some EV charging stations are hitting people with costs of around 43 cents per kWh, which would make it $49.50 and the Tesla still wins.

    From this comparison I conclude that ethanol subsidies are a boondoggle that doesn’t compete well against electric vehicle costs….at least until you start counting the costs of manufacturing/remanufacturing/recycling the batteries.

    And to my eyes the Tesla Model 3 still looks like a big Goose Egg with an ugly interior. But I guess the momentum is all behind EVs now so the gas/ethanol engine days are numbered and we’re going to have to find a new price support for corn.

    • But of course, the people on Beacon Hill in MA wouldn’t allow the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Massachusetts if they had a proverbial gun to their heads, which is a real shame, because a good nuclear plant here would lower the price of electricity for everyone, including poor folks who need it – and further incentivize electric cars.

      But Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas scared the Commie ***t out of everyone here with The China Syndrome back in 1979 and we’ve been on a Turbine Trip ever since then. I don’t think more damage has ever been done by a single cadre of Comrades.

      Everyone knows we can’t generate more electricity – we must USE less. Right?

    • This sounds great, except for the weight of two extra motors and a battery, and the through-life cost of the latter. Is a flywheel also involved?

    • @ /df:

      I love the car. I think it was one of the best-engineered cars Ford produced in the past 20 years, and I wish Ford had kept making them – maybe with a “jumbo” extra capacity battery pack option – for another five or six years. The new 2021 and up Escape Hybrids are nice, but they’re smaller. The biggest problems with the FEH from “my” generation are:

      1) It uses a rather small (in terms of capacity) battery pack comprised of NiMH “D” cells. The pack weighs about 250 pounds and serves as the floor of the rear cargo compartment. It’s big enough to store sufficient energy to improve the base car’s mileage by about 40%. Downside: battery replacement is a killer. Because the cells are NiMH nobody (unless you trust AliBaba) is making replacement cells/packs. I am hoping to get another couple of years out of mine.

      2) In 2010, in response to the Great Fiscal Crisis / Too Big to Fail automotive industry turmoil, Ford’s beancounters pushed their engineers to remove a big part of what made this car’s battery thermal management “best of breed”: They just summarily REMOVED the extra A/C evaporator assembly that used to reside in the side panel of the rear cargo compartment. They compensated by giving the car better battery management software and an upgraded, electrical A/C compressor. However, in hot weather, the battery’s thermals are at the mercy of the front cabin A/C. Heat is what kills the NiMH cells. So the 2010-2012 models are compromised in that regard. It’s a shame, and it was a big step backward.

      The transaxle is a very nice piece of engineering. These cars were used in NYC as taxicabs and with proper maintenance (fluid change every 60k miles, very easy) the transaxles can go more than 300,000 miles. They are Aisin/Ford HD-20s, a derivative of the Toyota Prius transaxles. Planetary gearset, two rather compact electric motors, no clutches, no solenoids, no valve bodies, no hoses, no shifting, no nothing. The car is basically “drive by wire.” The computers control almost everything.

      John Kelly of Weber Auto shows the innards here. My car is a 2010 with the HD-20. And yes, I have changed the fluid.

      If I had the money I would seriously consider a new Escape Hybrid. I am convinced that Ford’s engineers understand them well. This car changed my mind about Hybrid vehicles. It just works! You can see from the video how compact the transaxle is, even with the inverter/converter system on top.


      Unfortunately Ford ended this platform in 2012 and spent eight years wandering in the darkness with the Escape “Eurodesign” platform until they wised up and fixed their mistakes.

    • @ /df: And the short answer to your question is yes, there is a conventional flywheel: at about 2:35 …


      The gas engine in my ’10 is a 2.5 liter, not a 2.3. A little extra “oomph.”

      How does it feel in operation? Imagine you’re merging onto a highway, starting from a dead stop at the bottom of a long entrance ramp, at the bottom of a hill, and have to accelerate to about 65 to merge into traffic. As you go up the hill and press on the accelerator, the gas engine revs higher but *also* the electric (traction) motor swings into action, using the energy the motor/generator socked away while braking down the hill on the other side. It provides extra torque to accelerate the car and feels almost like a small turbocharger kicking in. Your speed increases, you climb the hill, and the gas engine reaches an RPM plateau which barely changes b/c the electric motor provides extra torque. Somehow you are going faster and climbing the hill but the engine RPM stays the same!

      It’s really cool, it’s like no other car I’ve ever driven. I’m a nerd at heart and I like it!

  6. Keep in mind that ethanol has only around 2/3 the energy of gasoline. Multiply the E10 price by 0.9835 and if the E15 price is lower than this result, then economically it’s a worthwhile buy.

  7. Here in Germany it has been the fashion since 10 years to get wood burning stoves to heat the house. The argument was when you burn wood, you are only releasing the CO2 that the tree originally captured, and if trees are planted again the CO2 will get captured again. Now this year the greenies are saying that soot/dust from wood stoves is more dangerous than auto exhaust, so wood stoves should be banned. There is nothing that can please the greenies. You offer them nuclear, oh no – too dangerous (Chernobyl/Fukushima). They build windmills and solar panels, but still burn coal to fill in the gaps. It’s all fake. The green agenda is a big money maker for the contractors installing PVs and insulation, the energy consultants, and the home builders in general.

    • GermanL: The same thing happened in the American Rocky Mountain states even before the Climate Doom prophets were anointed. They went nuts for wood stoves in the Jimmy Carter malaise years (late 1970s) and filled their valleys (a lot of the towns are in “bowls” that are subject to pollution-trapping inversions) with filthy soot and other combustion byproducts. So then it was time for bans on wood stoves, fireplaces, etc.

  8. Greenpeace etc. have always said that biofuel is not the solution (2007):


    Because photosynthesis performed by fuel crops removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and can reduce fossil fuel consumption, we are told they are green. But when the full lifecycle of biofuels is considered, from land clearing to consumption, the moderate emission savings are outweighed by far greater emissions from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation and soil carbon losses. Every ton of palm oil generates 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions – 10 times more than petroleum. Tropical forests cleared for sugar cane ethanol emit 50% more greenhouse gases than the production and use of the same amount of gasoline. Doug Parr, chief British scientist at Greenpeace, said: “If even 5% of biofuels are sourced from wiping out existing ancient forests, you’ve lost all your carbon gain.”

    I suppose that pushing biofuels in the U.S. is a mixture of crony capitalism, national security by emergency energy reserves (call it “Patriot Fuel”?) and the feeling that “we are doing something”.

    And of course, government money opens up interesting business opportunities (one does not need to produce anything to get the subsidies):


  9. corn ethanol increases octane which is better for modern cars with small high compression or turbo charged engines. Either way, cars and “pavement melting SUV’s” are energy and carbon intensive. Bicycles are much more efficient. Unless him/her/zir/theirself gets themselves hit by a car and requires expensive medical care can also be energy and carbon intensive.

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