Mauren: Why are we still growing ethanol?


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Columnist Jacob Mauren questions why so much of Iowa’s corn crop goes to the production of ethanol. 

Jacob Mauren

Ethanol has long been a staple of Iowa’s agricultural economy, with more than half of the state’s corn going into the production of the biofuel. Promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative to pure gasoline, production boomed in the late 20th century into the 2000s. But with new research challenging ethanol’s supposed environmental benefits and the auto industry’s pivot to electric vehicles, we must ask ourselves if ethanol is a good option for our state moving forward.  

Recent research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that while ethanol does burn cleaner than gasoline, the process of cultivating and refining ethanol leads to overall higher carbon emissions. This deals a significant blow to what may be ethanol’s biggest selling point. If ethanol is not reducing carbon emissions and is, in fact, increasing them, why are we producing and burning it? 

This comes as the auto industry increasingly moves to the production of electric vehicles (EVs). Ford Motors recently committed eleven billion dollars to build battery and electric vehicle factories in Tennessee, and General Motors has pledged to have an electric-only vehicle line up by 2035. This will have a clear effect on the demand for ethanol and combustion fuels in general. 

So why are we so committed to ethanol? 57 percent of Iowa’s corn crop is dedicated to ethanol, which is almost seven and a half million acres of corn going to a fuel source that is more carbon-intensive than gasoline. This is land that could be used for windmills, solar power, habitat restoration, or at the very least, corn that feeds people. In fact, if we converted just 10 percent of the land used to produce ethanol to Iowa’s natural habitat, we would see 26 times the amount of prairie than is currently left in the state. 

The American taxpayer would also save money with a transition away from ethanol. Currently, the federal government offers a tax credit of 45 cents per gallon of ethanol that is blended into gasoline. This costs several billion dollars per year. There is no reason for us to subsidize an energy source that releases more carbon than gasoline. 

So while the governor continues to push for an increased focus on ethanol, Iowans should really consider if it is worth it. There is little reason for us to focus a notable chunk of our economy on a product that is not as efficient as we once thought, and that will become less and less relevant. In twenty years, I truly hope to see an Iowa that is prosperous and not one that is a step behind the rest of the country due to an outdated commitment to ethanol.