E15 ethanol is not a good solution for Iowa farmers.

President Donald Trump captured a lot of headlines earlier this month when he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to do something he’d been promising since before he took office: to begin a process to allow year-round use of E15 ethanol, which is gasoline that contains 15 percent grain alcohol.

His announcement rejoined a decades-long debate that began after the 1970s Arab oil embargoes encouraged the development of alternative fuels.
Grain alcohol had been tried twice before, once as a stand-alone fuel for the first automobiles in the early 1900s and later as a blend with gasoline from the 1920s through World War II. (The alcohol-gasoline blend was abandoned after the war because pure gasoline was more powerful, plentiful and less expensive.)

But things changed after the oil embargoes and President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 Russian grain embargo, which left U.S. farmers with a glut of grain. 

During the 1980s, Midwestern corn growers put the two together and reintroduced ethanol as a patriotic alternative to foreign oil. 

The impact on the price of corn was addictive, and corn growers have been trying to expand the ethanol market ever since.

Meanwhile, the petroleum industry launched efforts to contain and roll back ethanol’s market share.

Each side found scientists to argue its case. 

Key issues included whether it took more energy to produce a gallon of fuel-grade grain alcohol than it returned as a power source, whether the 10 percent mixture of alcohol with gasoline damaged internal combustion engines, and whether using ethanol as a fuel was better or worse for the environment.

Over time, ethanol advocates mostly won those debates, at least as far as a 10 percent mixture of grain alcohol with gasoline was concerned. 

But when corn growers proposed increasing the blend to 15 percent, the debates resumed. And from what I’ve seen, the science is not yet as clear about E15 as it was about 10 percent ethanol blends. 

In any case, oil producers now have new ways of finding and refining their product, including the process known as “fracking.” And they are pushing back as strongly as ever against E15.

This time, there are other factors that were not as obvious during earlier debates.    

If you look at the overall economics of agriculture in Iowa, it’s easy to make an argument against growing more corn. 

It’s been obvious for some time that Iowa’s two-crop rotation — corn and soybeans — is a short-term hedge against what is increasingly seen as long-term problems involving land productivity and water quality in Iowa.

Plus, rural Iowa’s two-crop economy is becoming increasingly unstable. It made sense when Iowa farmers were literally feeding the world with exports, but competition from South American and Asian producers has changed that.

If you don’t believe me, ask rural bankers how optimistic they are about making loans to put in next year’s crop at a time when the cost of production has outpaced commodity prices. 

At this point, it does not appear that E15 or any other market-driven solutions can overcome recently imposed trade barriers anytime soon.  

And even if they did, Iowa would still be left with a two-crop economy that continues to erode the quality of our land and water. 

What Iowa really needs is to develop new uses for its still fertile soils before it’s too late.  

According to a new United Nations report on climate change, there isn’t a lot of time left. 

But there are plenty of other crops that Iowans could be growing that make more environmental sense than the two we grow now.

More about that in coming weeks.  n