Unintended Consequences of Corn Ethanol

If you’ve been to the gas station to fill up your tank recently, you may have noticed that the fuel you pump is E10 gasoline, a mix of gasoline and ten percent ethanol. Have you ever considered what having ethanol in our fuel might mean for the environment?

Our current fuel system is a result of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a law that mandates a certain amount of ethanol be used in our transportation fuels. Ethanol is a biofuel most commonly made from corn. This law has been around for a decade, enacted originally with the goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. And while this may have seemed like a win for the environment, the RFS has actually had serious unintended consequences for our land, water and climate.

A report released in November of last year by the National Wildlife Federation and the University of Wisconsin found that the federal corn ethanol mandate is directly contributing to climate change. Yes, you read that correctly… a program meant to cut climate pollution is actually driving it up. According to the research, in the years following enactment of the current ethanol mandate in 2007, more than 7 million acres of habitat were plowed under to plant corn and soy, leading to the release of climate pollution equivalent to the annual emissions of 20 million new cars on the road.

Surprisingly, New York was highlighted in the report as being among the top ten states where carbon emitted per acre of lost habitat was the highest. And Western New York exhibits one of the highest rates of expansion onto particularly carbon rich land, such as forests and wetlands. This means that New York now joins the ranks of Corn Belt states like the Dakotas, Missouri and Iowa in leading the nation in greenhouse gas emissions due to land conversion.

In addition, increasing the amount of land dedicated to intensive corn agriculture also escalates the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which run off into freshwater bodies and pollute drinking water. This runoff also causes toxic algal blooms, which has led to contamination of drinking water, massive fish die-offs and beach closures.

Unfortunately, algal blooms are becoming a common occurrence in the Great Lakes. Lake Erie has seen massive algal blooms in recent years with devastating impacts on wildlife, as well as tourism, fishing and recreation industries. In 2014, the largest toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie caused a drinking water supply shortage that affected half a million people.

The conversion of land to cropland also means a loss of important wildlife habitat, especially native grasslands. This directly affects wildlife that New Yorkers love and depend on: waterfowl use these grasslands as breeding grounds, and pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies rely on the prairie as habitat.

Recently, ten New York groups including Environmental Advocates of New York, Adirondack Mountain Club, and Renewable Energy of Long Island, as well as the National Wildlife Federation, delivered a letter to our Senators and select members of Congress urging RFS reform. The letter cited the negative impacts the law has had on the wildlife, water bodies, and people of New York.

The current ethanol mandate is harming public health and the environment. We need our legislators to understand that corn ethanol is not the way forward towards a sustainable future. The amount of corn ethanol required by the federal government should be significantly lessened and the conversion of native habitat to cropland should be prohibited. We can’t continue to push forward with “renewable” fuels that negatively affect our land and water and don’t meaningfully lower greenhouse gas emissions. For more information, please visit www.ethanol.nwf.org.