Ethanol Is Worse for the Climate Than Gasoline

A Story

Treehugger has been spotlighting this famous Andy Singer cartoon since 2007.

“Treehugger, Sustainability for All” received a boost from Slate in and around 2006 when I was a “starred-commenter” (don’t ask) at Slate’s “Moneybox (Daniel Gross)” and “Best of the Fray.”

Slate management decided to blow the place up and eliminated the comments sections such as BOTF which contained some the best commentaries on the internet at the time. Just a business decision! Slate had promised to keep the comments and maintain them. They Lied.

I was asked by one of the Treehugger’s editors in and around 2007 whether I would like to write for it. Still kind of neutral to this type of stuff. More recently, I was interviewing with Mandalay films to assist with a documentary (interviewed) on healthcare. Close but no banana . . . they decided not to do it. Kind of fun though . . . and a good feeling.

If you follow the link to “Slate,” you will find Slate’s Jack Schaefer whining about green sheet journalism, referring to Treehugger in 2007.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Carbon emissions may indeed be causing harmful climate change, and dramatic reductions by Americans may actually do some good. But in typical green journalism fashion, the feel-good TreeHugger copy gives equal emphasis to reducing your airline travel and installing an aerating shower head in your bathroom. (Carbon saving from canceling that New York to Los Angeles roundtrip: about a ton. Installing new shower head: about a thimble.)

Yellow journalism now comes in a new color: green. (

The Claim

So, is it true what Jack claims or was Andy Singer and Treehugger accurate, correct, right, etc.? According to a new study, “Ethanol Is Worse for the Climate Than Gasoline,” it appears Andy Singer was write right-on. But it does not take away from the argument of becoming more efficient in our energy expenditures.

What the experts say about Ethanol

Scientist and lead study author Tyler Lark analysis (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW–Madison) was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The new research by the University of Wisconsin Madison confirms Singer’s cartoon is accurate. But why, why is this true?

Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) specifies the use of biofuels in the United States. It also guides ~ half of all global biofuel production. However, outcomes resulting from this “keystone climate and environmental regulation” remains unclear. The standard is also part of the world’s largest existing biofuel program in the US. In spite of the magnitude of RFS, a limited empirical assessment of the program’s environmental outcomes was accomplished.

RFS Outcome

The results of the “Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)” was increasing corn prices by 30% in the US. Corn cultivation expanded by 8.7%, fertilizer usage went from 3 to 8%, and the water supply suffered from chemical runoff. RFS was causing enough domestic land – use – change – emissions, the resulting carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced following the RFS processes were no less than gasoline and likely 24% higher.”1

Given the findings, the author believes suggests weighting the tradeoffs against the benefits(?) of biofuels. This, and considering the future of renewable energy policies and the use of fuels like corn ethanol to meet climate mitigation goals. Quite frankly, the Ethanol experiment does not meet the standards due to how corn is grown on “farmland.”

“Accelerating a shift towards better renewable fuels and making improvements in efficiency and electrification” did not work out quite as expected. A bit redundant here. Worth saying in a different way with additional information and in detail.

More RFS Outcomes

“The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) increased corn prices by 30% and the prices of other crops by 20%. In turn, US corn cultivation increased by 2.8 million Hectares or Mha (8.7%) and total cropland by 2.1 Mha (2.4%) in the years following policy enactment (2008 to 2016). The changes led to increasing annual nationwide fertilizer use by 3 to 8%, water quality degradants by 3 to 5%, and caused domestic land – use – change – emissions. The resulting carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS was no less than such being caused by gasoline and likely 24% higher (Abstract 2).”

What was a great idea in the beginning was only a partial solution. The resulting over-planting of corn crop added to additional pollution of land, water, and air. This negates any gains from adding ethanol to gasoline which appears to have been questionable in the first place? The Renewable Fuel Standard mandating specific annual biofuel volumes is ending in 2022 and the EPA can set the other volumes then.

Summary of Findings

University of Wisconsin – Madison assessed the environmental impacts of corn ethanol3 and the policy governing it, using a combination of econometric analysis, land use data, and biophysical modeling.

“From a climate and environmental standpoint, corn ethanol is not a good biofuel solution. Instead, the findings align with the movement in bioenergy research. Or, the development of next-generation biofuels, such as those made from perennial, non-food plants grown on land less suited for conventional agriculture.”

In other words, do not grow corn or use valuable food – crop – land for biofuel plants when less arable land is available. Other and more knowledge farmer types at Angry Bear may have more to add to this.

Lead study author Tyler Lark, a scientist in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW–Madison.

“It basically reaffirms what many suspected, corn ethanol is not a climate-friendly fuel. We need to accelerate the shift toward better renewable fuels, as well as make improvements in efficiency and electrification.”

This finding by Tyler Lark and Holly Gibbs Great Lakes and the Nelson Institute is not without controversy. The president of the Renewable Fuels Association which is driving the use of American-made renewable fuels states “the authors of this new paper are assuming the worst outcomes.” Geoff Cooper accused them of “precariously stringing together a series of worst-case assumptions, cherry-picking data and disparate results from previously debunked studies. Geoff adds the conclusions are to create a completely fictional and erroneous account of the environmental impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Tyler Lark suggests more research into alternatives being grown on other than farmland.

And then there is the electric car . . .

Ethanol Is Worse for Climate Than Gasoline, Study Finds (

1 Lark, Tyler J., et al. “Environmental Outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 119, no. 9, 2022, p. e2101084119., doi:10.1073/pnas.2101084119

2 Environmental outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard | PNAS

3 At bioenergy crossroads, should corn ethanol be left in the rearview mirror? (