While recent Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and same-sex marriage have held the nation’s attention, another decision slipped under the radar. In late June, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s program to raise the maximum ethanol content of gasoline from 10 to 15 percent, thus clearing the way for more ethanol production. The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, meanwhile, includes more than $1 billion of support for the ethanol industry. While these developments at the federal level are bullish for ethanol, many states are calling bull.
The fact that most ethanol is made from corn means that an increase in the ethanol content of gas could create, or exacerbate, a variety of problems, like higher food prices and elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Ethanol production has also been linked to the spread of a dangerous form of E. coli.
But while federal support for ethanol appears to be as unstoppable as it is misguided, some individual states have shown the kind of backbone that could lead us toward a smarter energy policy. In June, Florida repealed its Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandated that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol. And in May, Maine lawmakers approved a bill banning ethanol in gas, and asked the federal government to do the same.
The Maine House Republicans posted the following on Maine.gov:
“[E]vidence is mounting that ethanol is a failure in virtually every way. It takes more energy to produce it than the fuel provides. Food supplies around the world have been disrupted because so much of the corn crop now goes to ethanol. It costs taxpayers billions of dollars in subsidies at a time when our nation is already $12 trillion in debt. Even environmentalists have turned against it; research shows that ethanol production increases the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.”
Maine’s Democrats have voted and spoken against ethanol as well. Indeed, “bipartisan” doesn’t begin to describe the diversity of opposition to ethanol. Ethanol fuel’s many problems have drawn together an orgy of strange bedfellows, including the petroleum lobby, environmentalists, foodies, food processors, auto enthusiasts (cars don’t like ethanol, either), and citizens of all political bents—basically everyone outside of the corn belt and D.C.’s Beltway.
Currently, 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used to make ethanol. Raising the allowable amount of ethanol in gasoline, as the Supreme Court’s recent action greenlights, will likely increase demand for corn, drive up its price, and collaterally make food more expensive.
Already, the increased demand for corn created by ethanol policy in recent years has led to more land being cleared for agriculture. This activity, and the intensive tillage of the industrial farming system that produces most corn, has resulted in widespread loss of topsoil: We’ve only got about 60 years’ worth of topsoil left at the current rate of loss, by some estimates. The vast and expanding monocultures of corn that blanket the Midwest are part of this problem.
Topsoil sequesters carbon dioxide. The more topsoil that’s lost, the less carbon dioxide is sequestered, and the more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere. Thick, healthy soils are also an important natural reservoir of water; thin soil is less able to retain rainfall and irrigation, which increases the demand for water.
When the energy costs of production, processing, and transport are added up, ethanol is a net loss, according to T.J. Rogers, CEO of solar panel maker SunPower Corp. “Ethanol is a total waste,” Rogers told Watchdog.org, echoing the words of the Maine Republicans. “The bottom line is that it takes between 1 and 1.3 gallons of gasoline-equivalent energy to produce 1 gallon of ethanol.”
Meanwhile, on the food-safety front, a mushy yellow byproduct of ethanol production called distillers grains, which is widely used in cattle feed, turns out to be a rich source of E. coli 0157, the pathogen behind several recent recalls of E. coli-tainted beef. Though links between distillers grains and specific cases of food-borne illness have yet to be established, it has been demonstrated that the higher the percentage of distillers grains in cows' diets, the higher the level of E. coli 0157 in those cows.
It’s frustrating to see ethanol policy, which is clearly destructive and unproductive on so many fronts, entrenched on the federal level. But the recent rebuffs to ethanol in Florida and Maine are hopeful signs that fighting it out at the state level can be an effective means of change.
Again, the Maine House Republicans:
“We’re not so naïve as to think a resolution from the Maine Legislature will light a fire under Congress. Ideally, Congress should repeal the ethanol laws because they are doing more harm than good. Our objectives are more modest but will still encounter opposition; the Midwest ethanol lobby has powerful advocates on Capitol Hill and billions of subsidy dollars are at stake. But if Maine sparks other states to act, we could coerce Congress to stand up to the special interests.”
As the Farm Bill bobs and weaves its way through the halls of Congress, it’s probably too much to hope that the more than $1 billion allocated to ethanol support will suddenly dry up. But given the broad opposition to ethanol policy—owing to the fact that it’s basically insane—I like the states’ chances of defeating it, step by step. As we’ve just witnessed with same-sex marriage, sometimes when the states lead, the federal government follows.
This is a Web-only exclusive of Flash in the Pan, a nationally syndicated weekly food column by Ari LeVaux.
Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.