As gas prices continue to soar following a ban on Russian oil imports, a bipartisan group of Midwestern lawmakers hopes the U.S. can replace the flow with something else: ethanol.
Last week, representatives from Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois introduced the Home Front Energy Independence Act to encourage production of the mainly corn-based fuel, which is mixed with gasoline and sold alongside conventional gas at pumps across the country. The bill would make E15, a blend that contains 15 percent ethanol, available year-round. (The Environmental Protection Agency currently restricts retailers from selling during the summer to allay concerns about its contributions to smog.) It would also establish an E15 tax credit of at least five cents per gallon for blenders and retailers, extend other soon-to-expire tax credits for biofuels, and provide funding for biofuel infrastructure such as fuel tanks and pumps, which need upgrades to handle E15.
The bill mirrors legislation introduced in the Senate in early March, led by Senators Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. Both pieces of legislation have sought to complement a ban on Russian, oil, gas, and coal that President Joe Biden announced on March 8.
“With the cost of this war hitting Americans at the gas pump, it’s time to bolster our fuel supply with home-grown biofuels,” Representative Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat, said in a press release. “Not only would this cut gas prices for consumers, but it would also reduce emissions and support our family farmers.”
The White House has signaled that it’s open to expanded E15 sales, and the bill’s sponsors have argued that the U.S. already has enough excess ethanol capacity to make up for Russian oil imports. But some energy experts contend the country would actually have to expand ethanol production significantly to meet the shortfall, meaning the promised price relief could be elusive. Doubts about the environmental benefits of switching to ethanol are substantial, too: Growing, processing, and burning corn to produce ethanol may exacerbate climate change even more than the fossil fuels it could replace.
Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Democrats and Republicans alike have decried America’s reliance on Russian oil, which forms about 8 percent of U.S. oil imports. But while some Democrats in Congress saw Biden’s ban as an opportunity to transition to a clean energy economy, many Republicans and the fossil fuel industry have seized on the moment to criticize renewable energy policies and call for increased oil production.
The ethanol bill takes a third path, but it’s not clear yet how much support it has in Congress outside of major corn-producing states, especially given that it combines previous pieces of legislation that were never passed. Much of the explicit support it’s received has been from the Renewable Fuels Association, or RFA, a trade group representing the ethanol industry.
“This commonsense legislation would bring immediate economic relief to American families who are experiencing unprecedented pain at the pump, while simultaneously reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and tailpipe pollutants linked to cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses,” RFA President and CEO Geoff Cooper said in a statement on the group’s website. “Not only would the bill eliminate dependence on Russian oil imports, but it would also ensure that those imports are replaced by more affordable renewable fuels produced right here in America’s heartland.”
The RFA, which has separately urged Biden to use his emergency authorization powers to allow E15 to be sold year-round, stated that the U.S. already has enough ethanol to replace every lost barrel of Russian oil. But Chad Hart, an Iowa State University professor who specializes in agricultural economics, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch that ethanol production may need to increase by more than 30 percent to meet demand.
That expansion could worsen the climate crisis. Refining ethanol produces carbon dioxide, as does burning it — but because it’s made up of plants that pull carbon dioxide out of the air while they’re growing, it has long been considered greener than fossil fuels. Previous studies have found that the average carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol production and consumption are about 20 percent lower than those of gasoline, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture contends that they’re about 40 percent lower.
Other research has disputed this assertion. In February, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that ethanol incentives such as the Renewable Fuel Standard — which requires that 36 billion gallons of gasoline are replaced with ethanol each year — encouraged the expansion of corn production, converting carbon-rich forests and grassland into monocrop cornfields that made the fuel least 24 percent more carbon-intensive than gasoline. And that’s not counting the increased use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers used to grow corn in the U.S., which emit the equivalent of 29.4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year and pollute nearby waterways.
The focus on using farmland to produce ethanol is especially misguided as the invasion of Ukraine threatens global food supplies, according to Silvia Secchi, a sustainability researcher at the University of Iowa. Ukraine is a major producer of wheat and corn, and food prices have soared since the invasion. Given this, Secchi said the U.S. should instead convert more of its corn fields to wheat, particularly to feed vulnerable areas such as the Middle East and Africa.
“It is absolutely ridiculous to be redirecting more of the US corn crop to ethanol while we actually need to do all we can to shore up world food supplies,” Secchi wrote in an email to Grist. “The US farm lobby and its advocates really do not seem to care about the real problems we face but instead want to keep producing a subsidized crop and an obsolete fuel.”