A tank trailer at the Fire Service Institute on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. Credit: Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

While ethanol has been hailed as an environmental boon, whether the use of ethanol as a fuel has a positive effect on the environment has been contested, even beyond spills.

Implemented by Congress in 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard is meant to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expand the renewable fuels sector and reduce the reliance on the import of oils.”

According to a Government Accountability Office report from 2009, “experts believe that increased corn starch ethanol production may [contribute] to additional water depletion, and will lead to an increase in fertilizer and sediment runoff, impairing streams and other water bodies.”

Ethanol production might also increase the cultivation of previously preserved land and result in “leaks in underground storage tanks” and “increased emissions of certain pollutants when ethanol is used in most cars.” The full report can be read here.

According to a 2014 report of the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on environmental and health issues, the EPA provides numbers that show the implementation of ethanol actually increases carbon emission.

An August 2016 report by the EPA’s inspector general office shows that the EPA has not provided Congress with an assessment of the impact of biofuels since 2011, which it is supposed to do every three years.

And a December 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the Renewable Fuel Standard is “unlikely to meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection acknowledges that the “migration of spilled ethanol from the surface through soil to groundwater is also of concern, due to possible groundwater contamination and discharge to surface water, as well as methane generation.”

This is in addition to the damage caused by spills.

Between 2011 and 2015, ethanol spills occurred between 607 and 741 times each year nationwide, averaging about two a day.

Type of work:

Johnathan Hettinger focuses on pesticide coverage for Investigative Midwest. Growing up in central Illinois, Johnathan saw and had family members working in all aspects of agribusiness, from boots-in-the-field...

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