Editorial Roundup: South Dakota

Yankton Press & Dakotan. June 17, 2024.

Editorial: Biofuel Emissions Study Raises More Questions

A recent study by a nonprofit environmental group raises more questions about the climate benefits and impact of ethanol.

According to a South Dakota Searchlight story (via the Minnesota Examiner), the report, which was produced by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), indicates that the amount of pollutants released into the air by U.S. biofuel refineries came out to about 12.9 million pounds. This rivals the 14.5 million pounds emitted annually by the nation’s oil refineries. The information was derived from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission inventories.

These pollutants include formaldehyde, which, as the Searchlight story put it, is “a widely recognized carcinogen, especially when emitted in gaseous form.”

The amount of formaldehyde released by biofuel plants in 2022 was estimated to be three times the amount expelled by petroleum refineries.

“Despite its green image, the biofuels industry releases a surprising amount of hazardous air pollution that puts local communities at risk — and this problem is exacerbated by EPA’s lax regulation,” according to Courtney Bernhardt, EIP’s director of research.

This isn’t the first time that the advantages of ethanol — which has long been hailed as an important fuel additive that could address everything from environmental and climate change issues to expanding the nation’s fuel supply — has been called into question.

Some critics have noted that the impacts of ethanol production also have to factor in the amount of fuel burned by farmers to produce corn for the ethanol plants (not to mention also citing the number of acres devoted to growing corn for fuel as opposed to corn for food).

In 2016, a review published by the Yale School of the Environment stated, “Higher-ethanol blends still produce significant levels of air pollution, reduce fuel efficiency, jack up corn and other food prices, and have been treated with skepticism by some car manufacturers for the damage they do to engines.”

A 2022 study partially funded by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy reported that ethanol may create more harmful emissions than regular gasoline. In reporting on the five-year study, the Axios new site said, “Ethanol produces more carbon emissions than gasoline because of the amount of farmland that’s required to grow the corn crops and the tillage associated with it.”

The new EIP report takes a somewhat different tact, focusing on the emissions from the biofuel plants rather than the emissions created by the production of corn for the ethanol plants.

However, there are also arguments in favor of ethanol production. Not surprisingly, the biofuel industry is leading that charge: The Renewable Fuels Association declares on its website, “Grain-based ethanol cuts greenhouse gas emissions significantly — by 44 to 52% compared to gasoline, according to the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.” Whether those figures factor in the crop production emissions is not clear.

Either way, we face a new round of questions about biofuel production, which has become a staple of the regional farm economy. While we shouldn’t expect one report to change that fact, it’s worth noting and it’s important to continue studying all the ramifications of this energy source.