Ethanol Increases Pollution- According to New EPA Study


While the ethanol industry has been pummeled by the COVID-19 shutdowns, small refinery exemptions, state requests to waive the RFS, and numerous other problems, a new study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could be among the most damaging issue yet.

When the RFS was created, it included a requirement to assess the environmental impacts of renewable fuels to ensure environmental standards were maintained and there would be no “backsliding”. A long overdue Anti-Backsliding Study (ABS) was released and it will likely be used by anti-ethanol forces to dismantle the RFS and make higher blends of ethanol impossible. Why? The study came to a simple but potentially devastating conclusion; ethanol provides no benefit to air quality and in fact increases pollution.

This should come as a shock to the ethanol industry, which has prided itself on producing a clean fuel. While we strongly reject EPA’s findings, it nonetheless is not a shock to us at the Urban Air Initiative (UAI). We have been concerned for years about this study and the science used for it. In fact, we’ve made numerous attempts to intervene and educate in an effort to get the EPA to use the most up to date science and fuel data.

So how can the EPA say ethanol in E10 make vehicle emissions worse compared to E0 gasoline? How can ethanol by itself burn clean but make gasoline burn worse? It all comes down to how test fuels are blended. Add to that the manipulation of data, and ethanol comes out as the bad guy.

For years, the Urban Air Initiative has raised concerns over how EPA, with help from the oil industry, created test fuels that make it appear ethanol added to gasoline raises vehicle emissions. In 2014, UAI sued the EPA over flaws in the MOVES Model. It was dismissed on a technicality because the emissions model had not yet caused harm. In 2017, we then submitted a detailed Request for Correction to EPA showing several critical issues with how test fuels were blended and how emission factors were inputted into EPA’s model. This prompted UAI Technical Director to be added to the EPA MOVES Model review group. Then in 2018, the Sierra Club sued the EPA saying ethanol causes health issues and the overdue ABS was needed. UAI filed an amicus brief to rebut these erroneous assumptions, pointing out that if the MOVES model used updated science, it would show ethanol reduces emissions and improves public health. When the court ruled the EPA needed to move forward with the ABS, and there were no changes made to the MOVES Model, we knew this study would have serious ramifications for the ethanol industry.

In the ABS, the comparison of E10 with pre-RFS E0 concludes E10 increases ozone, and E15 is even worse. States developing a compliance plan to either maintain air quality standards or if in violation, get back into compliance must use the MOVES model as they approve fuels to use. The result could be banning ethanol blends, either seasonally or all year as is being considered in Colorado.

Secondly, the next opportunity to use this study against ethanol will show itself when decisions need to be made about the future of the RFS. Unless this study is corrected, it gives EPA all the justification needed to reduce and even eliminate ethanol as an eligible renewable fuel for an RFS of the future. Environmental groups that have never embraced corn ethanol will now have even more data, an EPA study to support their cries for eliminating the RFS all together and promoting electric vehicles. It’s already happening, days after the release of the ABS, the National Wildlife Federation asked the EPA to waive RFS volumes because of environmental concerns.

The ethanol and agriculture industry need to use the same grassroots power that has been harnessed for the E15 rule, the fight against refinery waivers, and so many other issues and demand EPA be held accountable for its blatant disregard for accurate fuel and emission testing. We have to united as an industry and find ways to apply pressure to push for change. If we don’t, there will be no RFS, no higher ethanol blend programs, and quite frankly, no future.