More Ethanol Means Dirtier Air
And Obama’s EPA just gave this corrosive and un-green fuel another bailout.


Robert Bryce

Between 1999 and 2009, U.S. ethanol production increased sevenfold to more than 700,000 barrels per day, but during that same time period, U.S. oil imports actually increased by more than 800,000 barrels per day. Furthermore, and perhaps most surprising, is this: During that same time period, U.S. oil exports — yes, exports — more than doubled to some 2 million barrels per day. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that, in the last decade, oil imports closely tracked U.S. oil consumption: As U.S. oil demand grew, imports grew; when consumption fell, imports dropped. Ethanol production levels had no apparent effect on oil imports or consumption.

Thus, despite more than three decades of subsidies that have cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, the ethanol industry cannot point to any decline in oil imports during the time period when the industry experienced its most rapid growth.

Maddening as that is, the real outrage of the corn-ethanol scam involves air quality. In 2007, the EPA admitted that increased use of ethanol in gasoline would increase emissions of key air pollutants, including volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, by as much as 7 percent. On Wednesday, the agency again acknowledged that more ethanol consumption will mean higher emissions of key pollutants.

That admission is driving environmental advocates like Frank O’Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch, to distraction. On one hand, explains O’Donnell, the agency is saying that more ethanol will mean higher emissions of nitrogen oxides. Yet the ethanol bailout comes “at the same time that the EPA is setting tougher standards on smog.” Indeed, the EPA is implementing new rules on ground-level ozone that could affect dozens of cities. What contributes to the formation of ozone? You guessed it: nitrogen oxides.

Donald Stedman, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Denver, has been studying ethanol’s impact on air quality for two decades. In a recent interview, he told me that his assessment of the EPA’s decision is much the same as O’Donnell’s: “More ethanol means worse air quality, period.” He adds that corn ethanol “doesn’t do anything to reduce greenhouse gases.”

Evidence that the Obama administration is more worried about the farm lobby than urban air quality came within minutes of the EPA’s announcement. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement praising the move, saying that the increased use of ethanol “is an important step toward making America more energy independent.”

Here’s a tip: Whenever you hear the phrase “energy independence,” think “rip-off.” The EPA’s decision is yet another unfortunate win for the farm lobby and another loss for consumers and clean-air advocates.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future (PublicAffairs).