Editorial: Ending the folly of corn-based ethanol

Published Dec. 6, 2013

Renewable fuels are important to America's future, but growing corn for fuel instead of food never made sense environmentally or economically. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is finally embracing common sense in planning to reduce how much ethanol it requires in the nation's fuel supply. That's a good start toward ending the folly of corn-based ethanol.

The trouble started in 2007 with the well-intentioned Renewable Fuel Standard, which required blending specific and rising amounts of ethanol, much of it derived from corn, into the nation's gasoline. Six years ago, few could have predicted that today's motorists would drive less — and in cars that burn less fuel — or that fracking would create massive new supplies of domestic energy, drastically reducing dependence on foreign oil.

All of those things mean America is in danger of hitting the "blend wall," when federal rules would require the production of much more ethanol than the nation's fuel supply could absorb. With this possibility came a bad idea: Suck up the excess by jacking up the proportion of ethanol in a gallon of gas from 10 percent to 15 percent. Too many cars aren't designed for that blend, and marine engines and lawn equipment in particular could suffer. So the EPA made a smart decision and backed off the ethanol requirement.

Corn-based ethanol is bad for the economy and may be bad for the environment as well. According to an Associated Press investigation last month, the push for ethanol persuaded farmers to plant more and more corn, wiping out millions of acres of conservation land, which released carbon dioxide that had been captured in the soil. Some of the fertilizer sprayed on the corn flowed down the Mississippi River and made the Gulf of Mexico's huge dead zone even worse.

The EPA's proposed rule change, now subject to a comment period, is hardly banishing ethanol. It is simply accepting reality and telling refiners they can cut the amount of renewable biofuels they must blend into the nation's fuel supply by 3 billion gallons next year. This would be the first downward revision since the 2007 law passed.

Ideally, Congress would stop using the power of government to provide a windfall to corn-based ethanol interests, creating the artificial demand that is not driven by the market. But at least this is finally a step in the right direction. Development of renewable fuels needs to continue, but corn-based ethanol is a failure that hurts the progress of other, more promising biofuels. The sooner Congress realizes this, the better for the planet and the pocketbook.