Ethanol Greenwash: Not Clean, Not Green

Ethanol Greenwash: Not Clean, Not Green

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By Kate McMahon

GreenwashingIt took the ethanol industry a mere two weeks to start chasing the oil spill ambulance. Ethanol lobbyists hit the media and government circuits to claim that ethanol is the only currently viable way to reduce oil consumption. In an opportunistic letter to President Obama shortly after the oil spill, one ethanol lobby group, the Renewable Fuels Association, stated “the juxtaposition of a green American farm field and the copper-toned oil slick spreading across the Gulf is striking.” But in reality, ethanol was causing problems in the Gulf long before the oil disaster.

Table of Contents

President’s Column

Introduction: A Crude Awakening

Behind the Scenes:
Severin Skolrud

Ethanol Greenwash:
Not Clean, Not Green

Ending Corporate Control in Congress

Trading Away Peoples’ Rights

Costing Oceans an Arm and a Leg

Toxic Dispersants in the Gulf

Global Solutions for a Global Crisis

Clean Energy Future:  Available Now

The Gulf of Mexico is under severe stress due to a marine Dead Zone. The Dead Zone appears every year when agricultural runoff from the Corn Belt enters the Mississippi River and travels down to the Gulf, where the nitrogen-rich runoff creates algae blooms. When the algae blooms die, they are eaten by bacteria that consume nearly all of the available oxygen in the water, which suffocates fish and other marine life.

Research shows a strong correlation between the rise in corn ethanol production and the growth of the Dead Zone. This is because corn production, which requires massive amounts of fertilizers, has been expanding rapidly to meet demands for ethanol. The Dead Zone has been growing year by year, and now reaches the size of Massachusetts in the summer.

In spite of this, Growth Energy, another ethanol lobby group, plastered ads on TV claiming that, because “no beaches have been closed due to ETHANOL spills [ethanol is] America’s Clean Fuel.” According to that faulty logic, just because no beaches have been closed due to coal or nuclear spills either, these dirty fuels are America’s Clean Fuels too. Growth Energy quickly poached media attention after the Deep Horizon disaster by increasing its ad spending significantly, plastering the metro station by the U.S. House of Representatives with the same slogan.

Not surprisingly, the ethanol lobby neglected to mention the harmful impact ethanol spills have on local watersheds and wildlife in the ads and in the letter to President Obama. In 2006, 30,000 gallons of ethanol spilled into waterways in Minnesota when a train transporting ethanol derailed. In 2008, a biofuel refiner dumped waste into a river in Missouri and eliminated an entire population of endangered mussels. Just last year, 75,000 gallons of ethanol spilled when a train derailed in Illinois, contaminating soil and ground water and resulting in the largest fish kill in Illinois history. Unlike the oil plaguing the Gulf, ethanol spills cannot be cleaned up. And pollution isn’t the only problem with this dirty fuel. Ethanol plants use four gallons of water to produce each gallon of ethanol. And that figure doesn’t include the copious amount of water needed to irrigate ethanol crops.

The sad part of this story is that the ethanol industry and the oil industry, separately claiming to provide salvation for the energy-hungry masses, are often one and the same. Despite the friendly green logo, BP is investing intensely in biofuels from sugarcane, which involves massive deforestation and ecosystem destruction in the Amazon and surrounding areas and aggravates global warming. BP has also invested in other dubious biofuels ventures: it provided $500 million in funding for a partnership with the University of California Berkeley to develop biofuels through synthetic biology – an emerging form of extreme genetic engineering by which novel organisms are created. Unfortunately synthetic biology is far from green. Amyris Biotechnologies (a start-up from UC Berkeley whose CEO was a former BP executive) is about to open a biofuels plant in Brazil that would turn sugarcane into diesel with the help of synthetic yeasts. Genetic engineering is an unregulated and untried field with potentially devastating effects if synthetic DNA should escape or mutate. We have a right to be skeptical of the promises made from genetic engineers. Genetically modified corn and soybeans were forced on the public with the promise of reducing herbicide and pesticide use, but herbicide and pesticide use has only increased.

Ethanol stickerInstead of providing clean energy, biofuels are simply the latest scheme by dirty fuel interests to glean taxpayer dollars out of Washington. What the ethanol lobby also didn’t mention in its ads or letter to President Obama is that more than $5 billion dollars in tax credits goes to the oil industry each year for obeying federal purchasing mandates for ethanol. Dirty ethanol simply funnels money to the dirty oil industry. In fact, the ethanol lobby has been spending millions of dollars to lobby Congress to extend the ethanol tax credit for the oil companies. The loud corn ethanol lobby is why federal handouts for corn ethanol represent 76 percent of the subsidies for the entire renewable energy sector, including cleaner options such as wind and solar. These numbers are of course, in addition to the billions of taxpayer dollars that are handed out for corn, agribusiness, and dirty oil each year.

The oil spill should spur Congress to action to support actual clean energy, rather than continue to bow to dirty fuels that claim to be clean. We hope you will stick the ethanol sticker we created for this campaign on your car, bike or water bottle, and help us stop dirty fuel industries from tricking elected officials into supporting dirty dead ends. You can purchase it here.

Thanks to Angellah Petruso of San Pedro, California for the winning bumper sticker slogan. Thanks also to Ryan Polich for volunteering his artistic skills in designing the bumper sticker. Ryan is a graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Seattle with his wife, who is also a graphic designer. Friends of the Earth was introduced to him by his ever-informed parents, and he hopes to continue being a friend of the Earth in any way he can. You can see Ryan’s portfolio at and contact him at [email protected].