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Let's get some facts straight on ethanol

corn field
Unsplash/Bannon Morrissy

The recent opinion piece by Mark Hendrickson is an unnecessarily vicious attack on farmers and bioethanol based on ignorance of laws, facts, and realities. If not a purposeful misrepresentation, then it is shameful for its shallowness.

The demand for clean burning ethanol has ushered in a new era of productivity that has allowed the industry to fuel and feed the world. His characterization of a recent decision by the U.S. EPA to allow higher blends of ethanol up to 15% as being a requirement is just plain wrong.   It is not a requirement. It lifts a restriction based on a decades-old definition of fuel that will soon be corrected via legislation and provides an option to offer consumers a cleaner, lower-cost fuel.

E15 was never banned. In fact, E15 is used year-round in some of the most polluted cities in the U.S. under the Federal Reformulated Gasoline Program. It has been limited due to those archaic regulations and the petroleum industry that refused to provide a suitable blend stock to accommodate the ethanol.  

The author reveals a lack of knowledge of the fuel industry.  Among his falsehoods is saying the previous administration exempted small refineries from having to produce E15.  Again, there is no requirement nor was there ever, to produce E15, or for that matter any ethanol blend. And ethanol is an additive, mixed with gasoline long after refiners turn filthy, often imported oil into a toxic carcinogenic product. The exemption he referred to was to waive the requirement that refiners augment their slate of toxic products with a modest amount of renewables under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

There is no such thing as an ethanol requirement, and certainly not a corn ethanol requirement. Those that do comply with the law choose ethanol as the most efficient way to do so, they make a huge profit off it and it cleans up their gasoline by replacing toxic carcinogens used to increase octane.

Another of his false statements is Mr. Hendrickson’s claim that small refineries are shutting down and will go out of business as a result of the new E15 regulations. We just established that there is no requirement to make this fuel so how is that an accurate statement? Of course, the source for this appears to be the refining industry itself, quoting the head of the refiners who are most interested in maintaining their 90% market share of fuels should tell you all you need to know.

And cost?  Again, with a little research, or seeking the input of anyone from the ethanol industry, he would have learned ethanol blends dramatically reduce the cost of gasoline.

This idea that we grow corn for the singular purpose of converting it to ethanol is flawed in that there is no recognition that the process extracts and converts the starch from the corn, leaving behind a high protein feed that is returned to the feed market where it was headed, to begin with.

A bushel of corn produces ethanol, CO2, and distillers grains. The net corn usage out of the 5.5 billion bushels used for ethanol production is roughly 3.3 billion. In other words, we are returning 33% of the corn back, and in terms of feed value, much more than that.

An extension of this common misperception is to claim some large percentage of the total corn crop is being used for fuel, implying it would otherwise be used for food. On the contrary, if the ethanol market did not exist, much less corn would be grown.

As for land? With USDA reporting a new national average of 177 bushels per acre, an increase of 3.3%, we are growing more corn on less land than ever. Iowa reports instances of a whopping 205 bushels per acre so the trend is an upward one for sure. The demand for ethanol has ushered in a new era of efficiency, inspiring farmers to maximize land and resources.

Further multiplying the value of corn are constantly emerging technologies to extract more protein while still retaining protein value for feed. This can then be added to other forms of feed to increase efficiency and reduce the overall volume. Likewise for corn oil — constant improvements in the process continue to produce more high-value co-products.

Mr. Hendrickson, you should have spoken to the Christian farmers and ethanol producers we work with that volunteer time, money, and technology to help feed people around the world and improve their nutrition. You insult them and do readers a disservice with your article.

The true moral obscenity is the war, drugs, premature deaths, and costs linked to our dependence on oil. 

Douglas Durante is the Executive Director of Clean Fuels Development Coalition

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