I will be the first person to admit that when the legislation mandating the addition of ethanol to motor fuels was passed by Congress nearly 10 years ago, it sounded like a good idea.

A renewable fuel that promised cleaner air, lower emissions, and reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil — while creating domestic jobs and buttressing U.S. agriculture.

After all, Brazil at the time was in the midst of shifting its economy to run on homegrown ethanol derived from sugar cane. If Brazil can do it, why can’t we?

Thus, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) became law, and was backed not only by the Bush administration but by then Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaigns.

Unfortunately, corn-based ethanol failed miserably in delivering all those promised benefits.

For one, the environmental contributions of ethanol were suspect. According to a highly regarded 2008 report published in Science magazine, ethanol actually increased greenhouse gas emissions, since plowing fields to cultivate increased acreage of corn released more CO2 than ethanol offset.

For another, even the more optimistic calculations failed to prove that ethanol delivered much in the way of net energy. By the time the energy costs were calculated for planting, fertilizing, harvesting, storing, shipping and processing corn in dozens of ethanol plants that were built in the wake of the RFS — not to mention the logistics of blending ethanol into the national gasoline supply and transporting it across the country — ethanol didn’t appear to be the answer to creating energy independence.

That’s why the environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group and Friends of the Earth, publicly oppose the federal ethanol mandate. And their opposition only hardened after the massive diversion of corn impacted feed costs and food prices significantly for consumers.

Not to mention the negative impact on animal agriculture.

By every measure available, the ethanol program should have been scaled back, if not shut down totally.

Supporters aplenty

Ah, but not only do politicians need to curry favor in farm states like Iowa to win presidential primaries, there is a substantial lobby still banging the drum for mandatory addition of ethanol to the U.S. gasoline supplies. Now that lawsuits have forced the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the RFS, has announced that it will issue 2016 ethanol standards this week, a quick check of who’s cheering for ethanol reveals that this is all about profit, plain and simple:

  • The Renewable Fuels Association, whose President and CEO Bob Dinneen applauded EPA “for reaching an agreement that will provide all stakeholders some certainty.”
  • The American Coalition of Ethanol, which said in a statement that, “We look forward to working with EPA to make sure that the new Renewable Fuel Standards proposal supports the commercial deployment of advanced biofuels as called for by Congress.”
  • Growth Energy’s CEO Tom Buis, who said that, “Our producers have faced ambiguity for too long” but noting that EPA is “back on a path to certainty for the biofuels industry . . .  to continue to thrive and advance alternative fuel options for American consumers.”
  • The American Coalition for Ethanol’s Executive Vice President Brian Jennings, who said that the group’s priority would be to “continue to ensure EPA holds oil companies legally responsible for making cleaner and less expensive fuel choices available to consumers.”
  • The National Biodiesel Board’s Vice President Anne Steckel, who noted that “biodiesel is the most successful EPA-designated advanced biofuel to date” and the Obama administration “should be doing everything it can to promote biodiesel . . . cutting greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50%, creating jobs and reducing our dependence on global petroleum markets that wreak havoc on our economy.”

That sounds fantastic. Who isn’t in favor of cutting emissions, creating jobs and reducing dependence on imported oil? I mean, that’s like asking voters, do you support efforts to lower taxes, improve efficiency and reduce waste, fraud and abuse in government?

If only it were all true.

But it’s not.

Understandably, those who have invested in ethanol plants are eager to maintain the federal subsidies that make its production profitable. And farmers whose bottom line has been boosted by the fact that some 40% of all the corn they grow is soaked up by ethanol production want to keep a good thing going.

However, neither the energy sector nor the food industry can claim that turning corn into liquid fuel is somehow economically additive, environmentally sustainable or remotely beneficial to consumers.

But EPA will promulgate new mandatory standards, the ethanol industry will celebrate a Merry Christmas and the rest of us will have to begin again to build an even stronger case that turning food into fuel is a bad idea for everyone other than the 1% who are currently cashing in. 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.