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Ethanol isn’t as green as you might think, researchers say

A corn field in Hamilton County, Nebraska. A recent study found that corn ethanol backed by the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard increased corn prices by 30%. (Courtesy: Taylor Siebert/Unsplash)

A study found that the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard has failed to meet greenhouse gas emission targets but increased corn prices by 30%.

The carbon intensity of corn ethanol supported by the U.S.’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is likely at least 24% higher than gasoline, according to a peer-reviewed study from University of Wisconsin researchers.

Researchers determined that the production of corn-based ethanol under the RFS policy “has failed to meet the policy’s own greenhouse gas emissions targets and negatively affected water quality, the area of land used for conservation, and other ecosystem processes.” The RFS also pushed prices for corn up by 30% and other crops by 20%, they said.

The study aims to support policymakers as they determine the future of the RFS, which is among the world’s largest biofuel programs. The policy was first established in 2008 and is now under review by the Biden administration.

The study, Environmental outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard, will be published in the March issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The work was supported by the U.S. Deptartment of Energy and the National Wildlife Federation, among others. The Bloomberg news service noted that the National Wildlife Federation is a vocal critic of the RFS.

The Renewable Fuels Association, which aims to expand demand for American-made biofuels, said the RFS is the “single most successful clean fuels policy in the U.S.” The group said ethanol has saved Americans money, reduced the country’s dependence on foreign fuels, and supported job growth.

Renewable Energy World has asked the Renewable Fuels Association for comment on the study.


  • John Engel is the Content Director for Renewable Energy World. For the past decade, John has worked as a journalist across various mediums — print, digital, radio, and television — covering sports, news, and politics. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife, Malia.

    Have a story idea or a pitch for Renewable Energy World? Email John at

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