Columbia Economist Wrong on Ethanol

Cindy Zimmerman

Dr. Noah Kaufman is an economist who has worked on energy and climate change policy in both the public and private sectors. Under President Biden, he served as a Senior Economist at the Council of Economic Advisers. He also just published a commentary about ethanol earlier this month in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) website called “A Chance to Phase Out Support for Corn Ethanol in the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

He claims that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) “has failed to achieve its goals of materially reducing greenhouse gas emissions or improving energy security for Americans,” based on flawed science instead of facts. He repeats the worn out lie that “Corn ethanol produced in the United States is referred to as a ‘first-generation’ biofuel, which provides few emissions benefits and competes with food crops… also puts upward pressure on food prices.”

And then there is, “The country’s fuel supply infrastructure and vehicle engines are not universally compatible with gasoline that consists of more than about 10 percent ethanol, which is the composition of most gasoline sold in the United States today. … [D]omestic ethanol production has roughly stalled since this 10 percent ‘blend wall’ was approached a decade ago.” conveniently ignoring E15, a fuel comprised of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline, is legally approved for use in model year 2001 and newer cars, light-duty trucks, medium-duty passenger vehicles and flex-fuel vehicles.

At the end this commentary of false accusations, Kaufman admits there is little to no cost to the RFS. “When producers have been allowed to increase or decrease how much ethanol they blend into gasoline in recent years, they have chosen to continue blending ethanol around current levels.[6] That is because producers use ethanol to add oxygen to gasoline (it is a “fuel oxygenate”), which improves performance and reduces certain pollutants (CARB 1998). While it’s possible the country would be better off using the land that is used to produce ethanol for more societally productive purposes,[7] under current conditions, weakening the RFS mandates probably would not cause a large immediate change in ethanol use, or in fuel or food prices in turn (EPA 2022a).”

For a more detailed rebuttal of Kaufman’s commentary, check out this blog post by Renewable Fuels Association Chief Economist Scott Richman, who calls it “superficial and misguided” and “reiterated myths about ethanol that might be found through a simple internet search.”

Commentary, Opinion, RFA, RFS