Ethanol and corn industries expressed criticism towards a draft report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory board. The report suggested that using corn-starch ethanol as fuel may not offer significant climate benefits compared to gasoline.

The extent to which ethanol reduces emissions in comparison to gasoline remains a topic of debate among scholars. It has also caused a division within the administration of President Joe Biden regarding the implementation of a tax credit for sustainable aviation fuel.

In an August draft report, a working group from the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) found that substituting corn ethanol for gasoline or diesel may have minimal to no climate benefits.

Ethanol has been touted as a renewable substitute for gasoline, but its climate benefit has been a source of contention among experts. As of late, the debate has escalated with the release of a draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) that suggests that the climate benefit of corn-starch ethanol over gasoline may be minimal or nonexistent. In response, ethanol and corn industry groups have criticized the report, while others question whether it’s time to rethink the promotion of ethanol as a climate solution.

The report by the SAB working group has generated criticism from ethanol and corn industry groups, who argue that their industries present a benefit to the environment and to the economy. However, according to the report, corn-starch ethanol may only have a “reasonable” chance of having “minimal or no climate benefits” when compared to gasoline or diesel.

“We adamantly disagree,” said Geoff Cooper, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, citing findings by the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory that ethanol is 44% lower in emissions than gasoline.

“We encourage the SAB to conduct a more expansive and inclusive examination.”

Chris Bliley, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at Growth Energy, a biofuels lobby group, said the draft comment “cherry picks certain data from a few anti-ethanol critics.”

Neil Caskey, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, said the science showing ethanol’s climate benefits over gasoline is settled.

Members of the SAB working group said new studies suggest ethanol may be less climate-friendly than previously thought and EPA should conduct further research.

“This is not a settled issue in my mind,” said Peter Thorne, professor of public health at the University of Iowa and a member of the working group.

While the report has yet to be finalized, its conclusions have already sparked debate, as it could potentially influence future policy decisions on sustainable aviation fuel. The Biden administration aims for sustainable aviation fuel to make up 3 billion gallons of jet fuel by 2030, and some policymakers propose using biofuels like corn ethanol to achieve this goal.

The report’s findings underscore the complexity of measuring the greenhouse gas emissions involved in ethanol production. Experts disagree on how to account for emissions from land-use changes, fertilizer usage, and other factors in ethanol’s life cycle. Critics of corn-based ethanol argue that using land for crops takes up land that could otherwise sequester carbon, and that corn-ethanol production can contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss.

In contrast, other experts contend that corn-starch ethanol offers a pathway to reduce transportation emissions, and can be produced sustainably through better farming practices. They note that corn ethanol has a lower carbon intensity than gasoline and contributes to the reduction of dependencies on fossil fuels. Ethanol supporters also argue that its production generates economic benefits in rural areas, as ethanol production supports farmers and rural industries.

The findings of the SAB working group emphasize the ongoing divide among experts on ethanol’s climate benefit, which highlights the need for comprehensive assessment and transparent reporting of greenhouse gas emissions in biofuel production.

Policy decisions should carefully weigh the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of biofuels like corn-starch ethanol and assess whether they present a viable and sustainable solution to transportation emissions. Ultimately, it is important to continue to research and innovate emerging biofuels to achieve a cleaner and more efficient transition away from fossil fuels.