September 1, 2011

The Genesis of Corn-Fed Cars

Patti Truant

Patti Truant

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

Iowa Corn Indy 250

Also contributing to this story is Dennis Keeney, PhD, MS. | Over the next six months, this bimonthly blog series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol,” will initiate a conversation about ethanol and the current environmental and economic impacts of its use.  This first post addresses the progression of ethanol use in the U.S., and the forces that have gotten us to where we are today.

This June at the “Iowa Corn Indy 250,” flags touting “Iowa Corn” and t-shirts promoting “Corn Power” were a common sight at the Newton, Iowa racetrack. The slogans are no surprise, given two facts: first, that the race is sponsored by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, and second, fellow racing giant NASCAR’s  announcement last year that they will partner with American ethanol producers to fuel its fleet with a gasoline blend containing 15 percent corn ethanol.

At a time when the buzz about corn ethanol seems to have died down on the coasts, its advocates are speaking up, and production in the Midwest continues to ramp up to record levels in light of government subsidies and mandates that spurred the growth of the industry over the last decade. Today, 40 percent of the corn crop in the U.S. goes to ethanol production.

The most prevalent renewable fuel in the U.S., corn ethanol is touted as green, clean and efficient by its promoters, namely corn lobbies including the National Corn Growers’ Association and the Renewable Fuels Association. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both have supported increased domestic production and use of ethanol to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil. However, while working to promulgate federal regulations to increase ethanol use, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (along with other government bodies and academic institutions) has also been investigating concerns regarding water and land impacts, energy balance, corn prices, and materials incompatibility. Still more questions have emerged regarding ethanol fuel efficiency, greenhouse gas production, pressure on food prices, indirect lands use change, and water quality degradation, to name a few. (We’ll examine some of these in more detail in future posts.) While cellulosic ethanol—ethanol made from non-food plant materials—may offer some improvements over corn ethanol, considerable investment and research is still needed to make it a competitive and viable biofuel.

But how did we get here in the first place?  While ethanol from grains, primarily corn, has long been proposed as a liquid transportation fuel, it was relatively recently that it actually showed up in our gas tanks. The story starts innocently enough in 1957 when U.S. scientists discovered a way to make high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). By 1974, HFCS, produced by the corn wet milling process, dominated the sweetener market.  Ethanol is another product of the wet milling process, and the main HFCS manufacturer, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), began a campaign to promote ethanol as auto fuel.

After the fuel additive MTBE was phased out in the early to mid-2000s because of health concerns and groundwater contamination, ethanol was a ready-made replacement oxygenate for gasoline.  Legislation passed under President George W. Bush, aiming to help the U.S. get off of foreign oil, further increased the demand for ethanol.  Notably, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 calls for 36 billion gallons per year of renewable fuel use (a mix of corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel) by 2022. (We currently produce 13 billion gallons annually.)

Ethanol today is big business, with corn industry lobbyists working to increase the amount of corn at the pump. In 2009, Growth Energy and a group of ethanol manufacturers petitioned the EPA to allow blends of up to 15 percent ethanol in regular gasoline (surpassing the prior limit of 10 percent ethanol, or E10). Producers said that in order to fulfill the increasing requirements under EISA, they need to increase the percentage of ethanol in regular gasoline. The EPA partially approved the waiver, saying that most newer model vehicles (2001 model year and newer) could safely run on 15 percent ethanol, or E15. This move sets the stage for future introduction of E15 on the market, but currently E15 is not yet approved for sale. First, retailers have to meet conditions set by EPA to address fuel quality and prevent misfueling into non-approved vehicles. Even with the caveats, the decision has auto companies nervous, as they do not want to be held responsible for damage to engines not built to run on ethanol blends.

This friction between the auto industry and the corn lobby will be one of the many fascinating developments to watch as corn ethanol continues to find its footing in our economy. We’ll continue to examine other developments in our blog series,  “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol;” the next post will look at behind-the-scenes politics contributing to the entrenchment of the ethanol industry.

>> next post An Ethanol Timeline: How We Got Here >>

Patti Truant, MPH, is a doctoral fellow at the CLF who has studied the public health impacts of biofuels use at the U.S. EPA.  Dennis Keeney, PhD, MS, is a visiting scholar at the CLF and professor emeritus of Agronomy and Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, where he served as the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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