March 27, 2023

Industry debunks ethanol myths

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. — Renewable fuel boosters did some “myth busting” and discussed ethanol’s role in gasoline prices during a June 17 National Corn Growers Association podcast.

“Over the years we have heard so many arguments against ethanol, and we wanted to get together to debunk some of the most common arguments that we hear or see,” said Jon Doggett, NCGA CEO.

“We’ve all seen or heard or read about all sorts of terrible things that ethanol does. I’m especially thinking about the contributions from those pesky keyboard warriors on social media and some questionable scientists who have made some wild claims even as of late.”

Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association CEO, discussed the myths and other ethanol issues in the Dusty Weis-produced NCGA podcast. Here are some of the issues addressed by Cooper.

Doggett: Let’s start with one of the easy myths — ethanol ruins my boat engine.

Cooper: I think it really stems from the fact that some of these gas stations that are located near big lakes and places where people take their boats out, or at marinas, they’ve got one of the biggest rackets going that I’ve ever seen. They sell what they’re now calling marine gas, or ethanol-free gasoline, and they scare boaters into buying this stuff for a dollar or more per gallon higher than what they would spend on E10.

The bottom line is E10 is approved for all inboard, all outboard marine engines, certainly any engines that have been made in the last 20 to 25 years all carry the manufacturer’s approval to use E10.

In fact, you’ve got some of the manufacturers, big ones, like Mercury Marine, Brunswick, that actually recommend the use of E10, they say it’s a superior fuel for many cases and many uses, and they also recognize that it’s better for water quality and better for the environment. I think a lot of this stems from the notion that ethanol is hygroscopic, meaning it does entrain water, and that’s a fact.

It doesn’t pull water out of the air, per se, but if you get moisture in your fuel tank the ethanol molecules are going to bond with that water, but it’s actually a benefit because if you get moisture in your fuel tank ethanol actually carries it out of the fuel system.

Doggett: Another one we’ve heard a lot about lately with the supply shortages, and the situation in Ukraine, the Renewable Fuel Standard increases food and gas prices.

Cooper: I say it’s absolutely ridiculous. All you have to do is go to your nearest gas station and you’ll find ample evidence there that renewable fuels are lowering the price of gasoline today. Ethanol in the last few days, the last few weeks, is selling for $1.50 a gallon less than gasoline at the wholesale terminals where gasoline is blended, $1.50 a gallon less.

So, obviously when you blend more of that low cost product with gasoline, it’s going to result in a lower cost for the finished fuel. We’re certainly seeing that at retail stations across the country today, the lowest priced fuel available anywhere in the country today is going to be the fuel with the most ethanol in it, and right now that’s E85, but even E15 blends, we’re seeing those priced 30 cents, 40 cents per gallon, less than E10 and oftentimes 60 to 80 cents below the cost of E0, the gasoline without ethanol.

The same thing could be said on the food inflation side. This is another battle we’ve been fighting forever, but we all know, and the data and the evidence show quite clearly, that there’s no relationship between the RFS and what consumers pay for food at the grocery store.

Doggett: Another myth is the production of ethanol requires so much fossil fuel energy that its energy benefit is only about 20%.

Cooper: It’s not a hard one to dispel. All you got to do is track the energy use throughout the process to produce ethanol. It’s pretty easy to do that. You sum up all of that energy use, and when you do that, currently the energy balance, or the energy ratio, the return, is about three to one currently. That means for every BTU, or every unit of energy that you invest in the process to make ethanol, you’re getting three units worth of usable energy in the form of ethanol back out.

The energy used in the process is really not that much crude oil or petroleum; it’s not an oil dependent process. Yes, tractors and combines use diesel, trucks moving corn and ethanol around use diesel, but when you look at how much they’re using on a per bushel produced basis, or a per gallon basis, it’s tiny.

In fact, Argonne National Lab said for every barrel of petroleum used in the ethanol production process, you’re getting 20 barrels of ethanol. Most of the energy that we use in the process, most of the fossil energy, is in the form of natural gas, whether that’s embedded in the fertilizer at the farm level, or natural gas used at the ethanol facility.

Doggett: The other myth about the cost of gas made with ethanol is actually higher per gallon because ethanol reduces gasoline’s energy per gallon. So, if I’m using a high blend of ethanol in my car, am I going to lose a lot of my mileage advantage?

Cooper: We’re talking about E15 being 30, 40 cents a gallon cheaper than E10. We’re seeing huge discounts for E85. But then you get the naysayers saying, “Well, because of that lower energy content, that lower BTU value, you’re getting worse mileage, and so you might not be saving any money.”

There’s really two issues there, and the first one is with low-level blends, like E15, you’re really not losing any fuel economy or seeing much reduced mileage.

The University of California Riverside just completed a study that took 20 vehicles and compared the emissions, primarily, but also looked at the fuel economy in those vehicles when they’re using E10 and E15. They found on average, across those 20 vehicles, when you’re using E15 you got 1.3% lower mileage. That’s less than you’re going to notice if your tires aren’t properly inflated.

In four of those vehicles we actually saw better mileage on E15 than we saw on E10, and why do you think that is? Because they had higher compression ratios, because they had direct injection and they’re able to take advantage of that slightly higher octane value that you get with E15 than E10.

If we had high octane fuels like E25 or E30, and automakers were optimizing or tuning their engines to take full advantage of that octane, you’d see no difference in mileage per gallon, and you’d be getting the same mileage on fewer BTUs, and that’s really the definition of energy efficiency.

Doggett: How much do the American taxpayers support ethanol through the subsidies?

Cooper: The ethanol industry is not subsidized today, and again, that’s a myth that just will not die. We hear it every day. I can’t tell you how many times we see comments on Twitter or Facebook that, well, nobody would be using ethanol if not for the subsidy. And it’s like, what subsidy are you talking about?

There was for many years a blender’s tax credit that did allow gasoline blenders who used ethanol to take an excise tax credit and claim that on their annual taxes. It was a strong incentive to get those blenders to increase their use of ethanol and blend it into the fuel supply when they otherwise probably would not have done so.

That tax credit expired more than 10 years ago. It expired at the end of 2011. It expired because the ethanol industry and our friends in the corn world agreed that that program had served its purpose, and it had done what it was intended to do.

That’s what subsidies are for, to help infant industries get on their feet. That program did that with the ethanol industry, it was no longer needed, and so we let that program expire. Yet today we continue to hear this notion that, well, the ethanol subsidy is the only thing that makes ethanol economical. That’s nonsense.

Doggett: What is your favorite myth to debunk?

Cooper: The food-versus-fuel argument is a really easy one to debunk if you can get just two minutes of someone’s attention, and it gives us a chance to tell a good story, and I like to do that.

I like to hopefully educate people and tell them something they don’t know about the ethanol industry. It gives us a chance to talk about those co-products. It gives us a chance to talk about the tremendous gains in efficiency that we’ve seen throughout the process, whether we’re talking about corn yields, whether we’re talking about more efficient nutrient use on the farm, whether we’re talking about what’s happening at the biorefineries.

It really gives us a chance to explain to people that this is a high-tech, highly efficient industry and process, and there is no competition between food and fuel. The industry has risen to the occasion, and we’re able to meet demands for all uses.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor