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Research: Ethanol Fueling Climate Change

Illinois has more than 72,000 farms. (
Illinois has more than 72,000 farms. (
November 17, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The federal mandate to add ethanol to fuel has led to a big increase in climate-disrupting pollution, according to a new study.

The Renewable Fuel Standard requires about 17 billion gallons of ethanol, derived mostly from corn, to be blended into gasoline every year. Since 2007, that has led to the conversion of more than seven million acres of grassland and forest to agricultural production.

According to Seth Spawn, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, that conversion is releasing massive amounts of climate pollution into the air.

"We found that expansion caused emissions of almost 30 million metric tons of carbon per year," he notes. "That's roughly equivalent to emissions of 20 million cars."

Illinois farmland covers nearly 27 million acres, which is about 75 percent of the state's total land area and has over 72 thousand farms. The state is a leading producer of soybeans, corn and swine.

Study co-author Tyler Lark says the conversions to cropland in the U.S. are similar to the clearing of tropical rainforest in Brazil. However, he notes that the carbon released there is mostly from trees and is easier to recapture.

"The emissions we see here in the U.S. are primarily from soil carbon stores, which can take hundreds of years or more to replenish and may never be fully restored," he laments.

Cropland expansion under the ethanol mandate also has led to the loss of natural habitat for monarch butterflies, ground-nesting birds and many other species of wildlife.

National Wildlife Federation president Collin O'Mara says the findings of the study send a clear message to lawmakers and the EPA.

"We have to act with purpose and urgency to fix the ethanol mandate and to confront climate change to protect our health, our environment, our economy and wildlife," he says. "We have solutions and it's absolutely time to use them."

He adds that delay will only make the problems worse and much more costly to solve.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL