WASHINGTON, D.C. – Top industry experts called on editors at Reuters to correct a number of errors and omissions in a September 8 “special report” that misled readers on the climate benefits of U.S. ethanol production. Full text of the letter to editors, signed by the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, Fuels America, Growth Energy, National Corn Growers Association, and Renewable Fuels Association, is available here:
Dear Richard Valdmanis, Brian Thevenot, and Alix Freedman,
Reuters has an obligation to quickly correct the record regarding fundamental flaws in the latest “special report” by Leah Douglas about U.S. ethanol. Despite being provided with reams of data from a wide array of subject matter experts, including our own, the author appears to have selectively and purposefully ignored or omitted key facts that did not match a pre-existing narrative. Instead, the story quotes a few outlier biofuel critics without any context about how their conclusions have been repeatedly discredited by many of the nation’s most respected climate scientists. This kind of reporting is a disservice to your readers, who depend on Reuters for an unbiased take on important issues like climate change.
On its face, the central premise of the story is invalid – a fact pointed out to the reporter before this article was published. No credible climate analysis would ever draw conclusions based on a single sliver of the carbon lifecycle, especially when comparing completely different energy sources. That kind of baseless comparison is the hallmark of anti-climate propaganda, and it can be used to justify misleading statements about any clean energy source, be they wind, solar, or biofuels. Nor would any true scientist suggest that policymakers draw conclusions based on outdated, inaccurate projections that have been overtaken by real-world data for over a decade. That’s exactly what this article does.
In stark contrast to the Reuters analysis, it is well settled among climate scientists that a valid understanding of the climate impact of an energy source requires a full “well-to-wheels” lifecycle analysis. For example, the upstream carbon impact of electric vehicles (EV) is worse than petroleum, but EVs offer significant reductions downstream by avoiding combustion. Yet, that’s precisely the baseless logic that Reuters applied to ethanol by isolating a single stage of production.
The report ultimately attempts to explain away its misleading focus by claiming that it’s the “only view of ethanol emissions tied to individual processors.” This is simply untrue. The driving force behind the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (CA LCFS) is facility-specific carbon intensity scoring. The California Resources Board (CARB) data is easily accessible, and was provided to the reporter. Neither its existence nor its results (showing that the vast majority of ethanol facilities produce a lower-carbon product than petroleum) are mentioned in the report. Notably, CARB is not the only source of data for “ethanol emissions tied to individual processors.” DOE’s latest work at Argonne National Lab (2021) shows that corn ethanol is significantly less carbon intensive than gasoline. It provides a cross-section of different elements of the supply-chain (including production emissions), demonstrating a 30 percent reduction in ethanol production emissions from 2005-2019. This is not obscure technical analysis; it is openly discussed in a recent post (“Ethanol vs. Petroleum-Based Fuel Carbon Emissions”) on the DOE website.
Unlike the Reuters analysis, these data sources reflect basic realities of the carbon lifecycle for ethanol. For example, roughly 25 percent of the ethanol industry captures carbon dioxide. In contrast to petroleum refineries, much of the carbon released during ethanol production is pure, which makes it a valuable source of the food-grade CO2 needed to keep grocery shelves stocked with meat, frozen food, soda, and other staples. And in contrast to petroleum refineries, the biogenic carbon released during fermentation is carbon that was first drawn out of the atmosphere by growing plants.
Arguably the most inaccurate statement in the report is that “a growing consensus of academics has found that, considering all phases of the fuel’s life cycle, ethanol produces more carbon than gasoline – not less.” To make that claim, Reuters appears to have purposefully ignored the most widely cited and credible non-industry authorities on carbon lifecycle modeling (DOE/Argonne/GREET and CARB/CA GREET) in favor of the recent “Lark paper” publicly rebuked by government and academic scientists for “double counting” emissions, using “outdated and inaccurate projections,” “systematic overestimation of soil organic carbon changes,” “inconsistencies, ” and “deficiencies in modeling land transition.” In fact, the same group of climate scientists released a second critique in May 2022 offering an even deeper look at “various major deficiencies, problematic assessments, and misinterpretation of the existing literature,” adding that “the Lark paper is more problematic that what we initially evaluated to be the case.” DOE has publicly distanced itself (sharply) from this analysis in writing.
Again, your reporter was provided with all of this information well before publishing her story. After failing to mention any of this work, including an additional report shared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, your reporter points to a Purdue University model (GTAP) evaluated by EPA as evidence of industry influence merely because (unlike many researchers) Purdue discloses industry funding for industry-funded projects. However, she fails to mention that EPA references GTAP only as a secondary source of information, that EPA relied almost completely on the Forest and Agricultural Sector Optimization Model (FASOM) and the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) model, and GTAP is an economic model used to estimate global market-mediated effects, not production emissions.
Any fair evaluation of up-to-date source material also would have revealed that two of five “fuel production” facilities specifically cited in the report, in Nebraska and Missouri, do not even currently make fuel ethanol. They make alcohol for products like beverages and sanitizer – a process with different standards that should not be conflated with fuel production. For other facilities, it appears that Reuters simply cross-referenced federal emissions data with the nameplate capacity of various facilities, rather than utilize actual facility-level production data that would have offered a less warped view of carbon intensity. Further complicating the picture, Reuters did not make its actual calculations public, which means other errors may be hidden from view.
Moreover, Reuters paints a misleading picture when it comes to grandfathering. When the renewable fuel standards were adopted, a high percentage of ethanol capacity was not initially required to demonstrate alignment with EPA’s 20 percent GHG standard. However, plants that expand capacity must update their data, and you can see in the databases analyzed by Reuters that approximately 100 have gone through the ‘efficient producer’ process and meet the GHG performance standard. There are grandfathered plants that have not filed an efficient producer pathway petition, but that only demonstrates that they have never expanded. It is not a reflection of performance data, and to suggest otherwise by claiming these plants are worse than oil refineries is simply untrue. Over 90 percent of U.S. ethanol capacity is natural gas fired. You can clearly see in the Argonne and CARB data – not mentioned in the Reuters report – that all gas-fired ethanol plants meet the 20 percent GHG standard.
In short, the “regulatory documents examined by Reuters” are not new – they are public records that could only make headlines by being twisted beyond any reasonable context. That Reuters elected to leave so many key facts out of its report speaks volumes about the journalistic integrity of its ‘special’ reporting.
Advanced Biofuels Business Council
National Corn Growers Association
Renewable Fuels Association