Renewable Fuels Association Blasts University of Minnesota Study on Corn Ethanol

  • Published on February 14th, 2009

Last week, the University of Minnesota published a study that found corn ethanol to be just as bad for the environment as gasoline. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should careen to a stop along the corn ethanol highway and turn completely down the paths of cellulosic ethanol and other forms of alternative fuels, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

RFA, the national trade association for the ethanol industry, published its own analysis of the U of M report, refuting its findings and claiming that it was based on “baseless” assumptions.

The report’s erroneous finding that modern corn ethanol actually increases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to gasoline is completely predicated on the baseless assumption that additional corn demand for increased ethanol production will cause conversion of large amounts of grassland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Thus, like several other highly controversial studies published recently, the conclusion that corn ethanol does not offer climate change benefits relative to gasoline is based almost entirely upon insufficient and extremely uncertain analysis of potential land use changes.

The University of Michigan’s study comes to the conclusion that corn ethanol is worse for the environment than straight gasoline by using the notion that vast swathes of grassland or forest will be converted to farmland to accommodate the growing need for corn. The idea is that changing over the land will release more emissions than its worth. But RFA says that there is no concrete evidence to support that land use will change due to corn ethanol, and that the University of Minnesota’s study contains no supporting data itself on land use change and no mention of any of the benefits of converting an area over to farmland:

The supporting information provided online contains no detail on the baseline used, the amount of land assumed to be converted, the types of CRP grassland converted, and other important factors.

RFA further says in its analysis that if U of M were to take out the land use emissions from its report, it would come to the same conclusions that come from other ethanol life-cycle analyses: that corn ethanol provides a 30 percent decrease in greenhouse gas omissions compared to gasoline.

>>Read the latest on ethanol at Green Options

RFA’s analysis of the U of M study also finds issue in the study’s comparison of ethanol to gasoline, saying that it doesn’t take into account the fact that by using ethanol, the United States will have less cause to turn to more marginal sources of gasoline.

Modern corn ethanol is displacing some of the need for gasoline from marginal sources of oil with high carbon intensity (this will be especially true for future ethanol from all sources). Thus, the climate impacts of modern and future ethanol should be compared to the climate impacts of gasoline refined from today’s marginal sources of oil (such as Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan heavy crude, etc.) as well as future marginal sources.

The list goes one. The U of M study doesn’t make note of the benefits of ethanol in reducing vehicular particulate matter emissions – which has already been noted to be a clear good thing about any type of ethanol, regardless of CO2 emissions. And RFA also points out that the university’s study ignores the reduction of other toxic compounds – like benzene – that come with using ethanol over gasoline.

On the University of Minnesota’s Web site, the university’s study is hailed as the “first comprehensive analysis of the environmental, economic and energetic costs and benefits of ethanol and biodiesel.” So which is it? Comprehensive or inconclusive? Whatever the answer, the situation just adds more fuel to the debate around corn ethanol.

Photo Credit: aero nerd at Flickr under a Creative Commons License

About the Author

My name is Amanda, and I'm a recent grad from Michigan State University. At MSU I was involved in the environmental journalism program and have written for the school's environmental journal and E, The Environmental Magazine. I'm delving into freelancing now, and will spend the summer in NYC as an intern at NYC Parks and Recreation.


  • Considering that only 1% of the corn grown in this country ever makes it into a human mouth in unmodified form, the old and tired food for fuel argument needs to die. Currenly up to 87% of all corn grown in the U.S. is used for animal feed. No other country will accept our corn for feeding it's people because it is GMO and they consider that unfit for human consuption.

    All the corn used for animal feed should be used to make ethanol first(currenly only 11% is)because it removes all starch from the corn and leaves a much higher quality animal feed. The starch in corn creates a lot of problems in the degestive tracts of animals, especially cows. Studies have shown that just 30 lbs of distillers grains produce 17% more meat in 30% less time and 40% more milk than every 100 of corn. So actully, ethanol is just a very valuable byproduct of producing high quality animal feed.

    As for energy, you currently get 8 units of energy out for every 1 unit of energy in while making ethanol from corn and corn is not the most efficient crop to use. Compare this to gasolines negative 20% energy returned on energy invested.

    As for cost, Brazil currently makes ethanol for 50 cents a gallon. We should learn from them. They are also operating a 4.6 million gallon/year pilot plant that makes ethanol from cellulose for 50 cents a gallon. In the US they tell us celluslosic ethanol is not quite a reality yet. Did you know that if you count all the taxpayer subsidies given to oil companies you have been paying between $5 and $15 a gallon for gas?

  • @Bob

    The U.S. gov't laws against imported agriculture (especially corn, but also peanuts, sugarcane, and so on) along with agriculture subsidies do far more to cause starvation in poor countries than using food for fuel.

    IMO, the effect of food-for-fuel is so small in comparison, we should focus all our attention on ending agriculture import bans, tariffs, quotas, along with subsidies. These policies are relics from the past that need to end a.s.a.p. Politicians are unwilling to confront the issue however (like drug war reform) and every 5-10 years, another agriculture bill passes through congress with hardly any objection.

    One of these bills passed not too many years ago, I remember watching cspan at the time, and included in the Ag. bill was funding for foot stamp programs and huge amounts of pork spending. So any politician that spoke up against the bill was labeled as opposing the food stamp program. *facepalm*

    But I agree with Bob, the author should do more to offer her own analysis and opinion. I like corn ethanol, I think with imported corn it could drop to $0.50 per galleon. I don't buy the argument it is a net-energy loss. Maybe at first, but not anymore. Plus efficiency will likely continue to increase. (If we let the market-pricing do the job and stop subsidizing the whole process)

  • I need the author of this article to compare the different views and prove the truth of the positions.

    At the end of the article I hadn't learned anything.

    I still think making food out of fuel raises the price of that food and causes starvation in countries that depend on a low price for that produce.

    I still think that corn to ethanol uses too much energy to make it.

    When I read something I like to learn something. In this article all I learned was that an organization that is paid for by the ethanol producers is defending the ethanol producers.

    Did I learn that they had a point? No.

    Did I learn that they didn't make a point? No.

    I know the corn-ethanol producers don't like it when people say corn-ethanol is bad, but everyone knew that already.

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