In The Tank
Mother Jones|March/April 2021
Ethanol’s clean promise has only led to dirtier air.
By Tom Philpott

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN campaigned on an ambitious plan to tackle climate change with a “clean energy revolution,” including incentives to phase out gas-powered cars in favor of electric ones. The growing consensus among climate experts is that to slash carbon emissions quickly enough, we need to eliminate as much air-fouling combustion as possible while expanding wind and solar energy to power the grid. But a key aspect of Biden’s agenda contradicts this push: He’s vowed to “promote ethanol and the next generation of biofuels,” declaring them “vital to the future of rural America—and the climate.” Biden tapped longtime ethanol champion Tom Vilsack—former governor of Iowa, the fuel’s Saudi Arabia—to run the Department of Agriculture, a post he held under Obama.

In doing so, Biden is doubling down on a bad idea that has flourished since the days of President George W. Bush. Shortly before declaring the nation “addicted to oil” in 2006, Bush pushed through a bipartisan law with a “renewable fuel standard” that effectively mandated a dramatic ramp-up in corn ethanol production. As a result, the portion of the massive US corn crop devoted to the fuel rose from 11 percent in 2004 to 38 percent in 2015, where it has held steady. Today, corn-based ethanol has replaced about 10 percent of “climate change causing petroleum” at the gas station, boasts the website of the American Coalition for Ethanol, the industry’s main lobbying group, adding that ethanol production “supports 360,000 jobs in rural communities.”

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