10-year study finds Renewable Fuel Standard falls short


A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | November 12, 2015

A ten-year study conducted by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture on the Renewable Fuel Standard has called into question the benefits of dependence on corn ethanol.

The study used both economic analysis and agricultural modeling to determine whether the RFS has so far met its economic and environmental goals.

“Corn ethanol has resulted in a number of less favorable environmental outcomes when compared to a scenario in which the traditional transportation fuel market had been left unchanged,” the study reads.

Examining the life cycle emissions of corn production including land use change through practices like excessive tilling which release carbon into the atmosphere,  the study finds that corn ethanol may be an inefficient means of reducing total carbon emissions. Citing a University of Minnesota study, the report also links increased corn production due to the RFS to heightened levels nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and ammonia. Corn ethanol production releases over 800% more particulate matter and sulfur dioxide than would be released through conventional gasoline production.

The study also examined the perceived economic benefits of the corn ethanol industry, which has received $50 billion in taxpayer subsidies since 2005. An analysis of the profitability of corn ethanol without subsidies showed that the industry is unlikely to survive without mandated fuel volume requirements.

“A rational investor interested in collecting a reasonable return would not have invested in a new ethanol facility after October 2008,” the study reads.

The study has implications both for corn growers and policy makers in Iowa. It concludes by recommending investment-based solutions to help get more environmentally and economically friendly energy sources off the ground like wind and solar, which do not have the built-in infrastructure of mature technologies like those related to ethanol production. It suggests that the $50 billion in taxpayer funding of corn ethanol could have been better spent on these sorts of energy sources.

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