Biofuels can contribute now to a cleaner energy future

Smart agriculture policy that has a role for ethanol can help advance Biden’s agenda on all fronts

Farmers harvest a field of corn near Salem, S.D., in 2013. A robust domestic biofuels industry, including ethanol, would benefit farmers and our rural economy as well as the environment, public health and the nation’s energy security, Daschle writes.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)
Farmers harvest a field of corn near Salem, S.D., in 2013. A robust domestic biofuels industry, including ethanol, would benefit farmers and our rural economy as well as the environment, public health and the nation’s energy security, Daschle writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)
Posted February 9, 2021 at 5:00am

Growing up in South Dakota, agriculture has always been in my blood.

For nearly three decades, I had the honor of representing South Dakota — where agriculture is the leading industry, with a $21 billion annual impact on the economy — in Congress. During nearly 20 years in the Senate, I worked across the aisle with Republican colleagues, many with dramatically different viewpoints on policy, to pass a wide range of agriculture-related legislation. Highlights included working with Bob Dole to pass the “clean octane” amendment to the 1990 Clean Air Act, and 10 years later, teaming up with Richard Lugar to introduce what would become the first renewable fuel standard.

It became clear to me early on that a robust domestic biofuels industry, including ethanol, would not only be good for farmers and our rural economy but also for the environment, public health and the nation’s energy security. Unfortunately, confusion and misinformation — about ethanol’s effects on food prices and vehicle performance — have hindered the realization of these benefits.

Called “the world’s most important food crop” in one Washington Post article, corn has a unique ability to help with climate change, absorbing one-third more carbon from the atmosphere than most other plants. Only 3 percent of plants have this characteristic, but they account for 23 percent of all terrestrial carbon fixation.

Experts at USDA and Argonne National Laboratory have concluded that corn ethanol produced with precision agriculture and other conservation practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 76 percent compared to gasoline. Other experts predict that over the next several years, high-octane, low-carbon, or HOLC, fuels, such as ethanol, will be classified as ultra-low carbon fuels, surpassing the greenhouse gas benefits of vehicles running on electricity produced from coal and natural gas.

I’m encouraged to see the Biden administration already addressing the nation’s many crises. On his first day, President Biden launched a blitz of executive actions targeted at four priorities:  the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, racial justice and climate change. Smart agriculture policy that supports clean-burning, high-octane, low-carbon renewable fuel can help advance the president’s agenda on all fronts. 

Fortunately, the administration doesn’t need Congress to act in order to set a national high-octane gasoline standard using ethanol’s “clean octane.” The statutory authority has been in place since the 1990 Clean Air Act, reaffirmed by Congress in the 2005 law that established the first renewable fuel standard.

The transportation sector, almost completely dependent on gasoline and diesel, is the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Adding electric vehicles into the fleet will help over time, but improving the quality of the gasoline we use now — more than 100 billion gallons annually — would reap immediate benefits. Higher octane fuels would allow automakers to dramatically increase fuel economy and reduce carbon emissions, benefiting both the environment and public health.

The best way to increase gasoline octane is with HOLC fuels (mid-level ethanol blends such as E30) that replace the toxic compounds now used by refiners, which emit high levels of ultrafine particle pollution, especially in new direct-injection engines. A recent Harvard study associated air pollution with higher COVID-19 mortality rates, providing even more reason to switch to HOLC fuels. 

I know that South Dakota and other corn-producing states in the Midwest can play a critical role in getting us there. Now is the time for the Biden administration to make it so with a new fuel economy and greenhouse emissions rule that includes a national “clean octane” standard. The anticipated review and tightening of the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule is an opportunity to demonstrate our renewed commitment to science and put us on a path toward reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Taking this critical step would improve the health of our environment, our lungs, and our economy — all at the same time.

Tom Daschle is a Democrat who represented South Dakota in Congress from 1979 to 2005 and served as Senate majority leader from 2001 to 2003. He is the founder and CEO of The Daschle Group, a Public Policy Advisory of Baker Donelson.