By Bruce Parker, Vermont Watchdog
A poll of registered voters in Vermont, conducted by the Center for Regulatory Solutions, has found that most Vermonters oppose adding higher amounts of ethanol into gasoline. According to a survey of 600 registered voters taken earlier this month, 67 percent of respondents said they disagree with the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that incrementally increases corn-based ethanol used in the E10 gas blend sold at gas stations, and 45 percent of Vermonters who disagree with upping ethanol content said they strongly disagree.
The federal government began putting corn ethanol into gas in the 1970s, but in 2005 and 2007 Congress established the RFS program to help end America’s dependence on foreign oil and to fight suspected global warming.
Now the standard at filling stations, E10 gas is made up of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is weighing a decision to increase the amount of ethanol in gas, and regulators propose upping the ethanol content to 15 percent, a blend called E15. The EPA is expected to issue rules for new increases at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris next week.
In the survey, Vermonters expressed many reasons for opposing ethanol. Ninety-one percent of respondents cited the fact that ethanol production decreases the nation’s water supply, and 89 percent said they were concerned that it increases the cost of food and groceries.
On environmental issues, 89 percent said increasing the amount of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply would negatively affect the environment; 81 percent said it would worsen suspected climate change.
Respondents’ political leanings were surprisingly nonpartisan, with 33 percent of respondents identifying as Democrats, 18 percent as Republicans and 33 percent as independents.
Once popular with environmentalists, ethanol has fallen out of favor in the green movement. Al Gore withdrew his famed support of the fuel in 2010 despite having cast a tie-breaking Senate vote in favor of it in 1994. Middlebury College Professor Bill McKibben, a global-warming activist in Vermont and leader of the anti-carbon group 350.org, called ethanol “the worst idea of all time.”
Ethanol proponents, citing a 2012 study by the Argonne National Laboratory, say the fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent compared to conventional gasoline. Opponents, citing a 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences, say ethanol-fueled vehicles damage air quality 80 percent more than those powered by regular gas. Both camps have launched ad campaigns this month in advance of the climate summit.
An important focus of the ethanol debate is the fuel’s production, which has changed agriculture in the United States. In 2000, corn growers set aside just 5 percent of their crop for gasoline. That number has grown to 40 percent today, crowding out corn as food for people and livestock. Moreover, a single gallon of ethanol can require up to 880 gallons of irrigation water in some parts of the country, whereas conventional gas uses just three gallons of water during production.
Another hot topic in the ethanol debate is the cost both to taxpayers’ wallets and in vehicle performance.
The U.S. Congressional Budget Office, in its 2014 report on the RFS, estimates the volume increases called for under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will increase the price of E10 gas by 13 cents per gallon for 2017. That added cost is exacerbated by the fact that ethanol contains one-third less energy than conventional gas, meaning drivers using E10 can expect a 4 percent reduction in average gas mileage, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
On Nov. 4, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging the EPA to maintain the E10 level with no increase.
The letter, signed by the Vermont Democrat and 182 other members of Congress, said moving to the higher E15 blend would go beyond what automobiles, marine engines and small engines “can safely accommodate.” Auto industry trade group AAA says only 5 percent of vehicles on the road today are approved for E15.
In the poll, 72 percent of Vermonters said they think ethanol damages their engines; a full 86 percent said it diminishes the performance of their automobiles.
Matt Dempsey, spokesman for the Center for Regulatory Solutions, said, “The people of Vermont understand just how costly corn ethanol is,” adding, “Whether it’s in Vermont or across this country, the opposition is growing and the EPA should listen.”
Bruce Parker is a reporter for Vermont Watchdog, firstname.lastname@example.org