“Rethinking the Ethanol Standard”

In a recent article by Merrill Matthews, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, the merits of the Federal Government’s mandate regarding the Renewal Fuel Standard (RFS) was questioned.  The RFS requirements were first established in 2005 as part of the Energy Policy Act and was expanded in 2007 under President Bush and Congress.  Essentially the RFS holds that virtually all gasoline in the US include ethanol.

The first RFS, usually referred to as RFS1, required that 4 billion gallons of biofuel be used in 2006. This requirement rose to 7.5 billion gallons in 2012 and now for 2017 the requirement will be nearly 19 billion gallons of biofuel. 

When Congress first embraced ethanol, legislators were convinced that adding it to gasoline would stretch fuel supplies, be less expensive, be better for the environment, and reduce our reliance on oil imports.  As it turns out, many of these initial assumptions no longer seem to be true. 

At Water Management we noted that very little attention was being paid to the effect that this Ethanol Standard was having on our water supplies.  We have learned that the amount of water it takes to produce ethanol varies according to how much irrigation is needed for the corn, particularly since row crop agriculture for corn is the most water consuming stage of ethanol production.  It is estimated that producing the corn to meet the ethanol mandate for 2017 will require over 3 trillion gallons of water.

The major problem with this is that most of this irrigation water is drawn from groundwater aquifers in a region that is already water stressed. Conflicts over water allotments have occurred in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies under the Great Plains and supplies 30% of the nation’s groundwater for irrigation, is in danger of running dry.

In summary at Water Management, we agree with Mr. Matthews and think that it is time to “Rethink the Ethanol Standard” because corn ethanol consumes 10 to 324 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol (the range is due to different irrigation requirements), while gasoline consumes just 3.4 to 6.6 gallons.

One addition water fact: Once produced, ethanol absorbs water, and since pipelines contain water, the ethanol, or the gasoline mixed with ethanol can’t be transported through pipelines that have been used previously for petroleum products. As a result, ethanol must be moved by truck or rail and be mixed with gasoline just before distribution to retailers.

To learn more about Merrill Matthew’s position or to Better Understand Ethanol’s Impacts on Our Water Resources go to the links below.