Study: E85 Hurts Environment Up To 33 Percent Worse Than Conventional Gasoline

A comprehensive study has revealed that E85 ethanol blended fuel produced from dry mills has a significantly worse environmental impact than does straight petroleum-based gasoline.

Conducted by research teams from the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Minnesota, and the Technical University of Troyes, France, the study covered 19 American corn-belt states, and analyzed the full effect from 12 different environmental factors.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology and reported also by, factored different environmental impacts aggregated by weights developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It went so far as to include consideration for such aspects as eutrophication and extensive irrigation required for growing corn.

One simple definition for eutrophication is, “an increase in the rate of supply of organic matter in an ecosystem.”

Overall, the study concluded the environmental impact from E85 is 23 percent higher on average than gasoline. If greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land use are also factored into the equation, the impact rises still further, to an average of 33 percent. This latter conclusion was arrived at when the researchers accounted for greenhouse gas emissions resulting from such factors as using fossil-fueled equipment to harvest the corn, convert it into ethanol and then ship the end product to its final destination.

To reach its overall findings, the study also compared a range of environmental impacts from gasoline to ethanol produced in 2005 and considered aspects such as feedstock production, feedstock shipping to the refinery, refining/conversion as well as shipment of the final fuel to the refueling station and use in the vehicle.

The researchers used the Argonne National Laboratory’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model. This is a model that examines the amount of fuel required for the average gasoline and flex-fuel vehicle over a distance of about 0.62 miles (1 kilometer). It takes into account the extent to which crude oil is imported and refined domestically, and compares E85’s benefits against its drawbacks.

Where E85 is believed to be better as a fuel is in such aspects as potential ecological toxicity, effect on global warming and fossil energy consumption. Its outweighing drawbacks include land use, eutrophication, irrigation/water use and a much lower energy content per measured unit than gasoline, with the net result being, as mentioned, that pros are outweighed by cons.

In short, the study concluded E85 simply shifts the environmental impact elsewhere, rather than actually reducing it.

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  • Jon

    I can’t see why biofuel is still promoted as an environmentally friendly option. Policy should be changed as soon as possible to prevent lasting harm to the planet.

  • MrEnergyCzar

    E85 saves a few soldiers from having to fight in the oil war arena…


  • Brent

    The war going on in the Middle East is not about the oil MrEnergy. E85 is not the answer to the problems going on there and will never be. So nice try to spin and twist at our hearts.

    Great article, glad the truth about ethanol is finally being exposed.

  • TrasKY

    This argument makes sense to me, although I would like to know more about the method used for including land use. To measure the environmental impact of corn farming vs. land allowed to lie fallow, or wild pasture of forrest is very different than measuring it against the environmental impact of that land being used to build a neighborhood of McMansions or being used to farm cattle or as a CAFO.

  • Capt. Concernicus

    E85 has never been the solution to our oil addiction. It certainly doesn’t improve the MPG’s in any of the cars that have the capability to use it.

    I’d like to know how many people who own FFV actually fill up their tanks with E85.

  • Carl

    I have read that Butyl alcohol has a higher energy content,
    is less corrosive and a lower affinity for water.
    Butyl alcohol is also better for your engine.
    Why are we making Ethyl alcohol ?

  • chheng

    I do have a 09 Camry Hybrid and get about 37-42 mpg in city driving delivering pizzas and a 11 Ford F150 that gets 15-17 mpg. Can’t find an e85 gas station in my city, nearest one is 100 miles away what’s the point then??? Wish there was a hybrid truck that gets decent milage just for hauling stuff every now and then.

  • techMan

    Please read the article closely…it was based on dry mill grains. In another words ethanol from corn. This is not the technology that will be used in the future. Liquid fuels will be made from non-food crop cellulosic materials. There is significant research into the development of biobutanol. This is a drop-in replacement fuel for gasoline. Ethanol from corn will likely never be a long-term solution as a replacement for gasoline. Biofuel from non-food cellulosic material has entered the preproduction stage. So, why did researchers study corn ethanol. Why no mention of biobutanol or ethanol from non-food material? How about an agenda? Only asking.

  • Mike Jones

    E85 is one of our answers to energy. A small one. But it has to be made with processes that are more efficient than corn. Since conventional gas can’t be made without fossil fuel, we need a liquid backup that’s semi-compatible with our current architecture to survive in case petroleum supplies get cut off quick.

    However, we should be moving quickly towards an architecture that uses batteries that run on any kind of electricity, which is more versatile in that it can be generated with clean processes.

  • David Lyttle

    The study was limited to corn as the feed stock which is a poor choice to begin with. There are many other ways to produce ethanol that uses cattails, algae and waste products. All of these sources product many times more ethanol than corn and their use would have an immediate positive impact on the environment. Also the study includes the use of petroleum for harvesting and distribution. A better approach would be to use ethanol and biodiesel in place of petroleum in all phases of the production, then measure the environmental impact.

    The real question that needs to be asked is what the resulting price at the pump will be for consumers?

    Another question is who provided the funding for this study? What was their motive? Judging from the ads for GM products, it looks as if GM and their good friends in Big Oil may be in the mix. So ask yourself, why would big oil not want Ethanol to have a fair chance? How you spend your money is up to you. Could it be they want to make sure you spend it with them? Think about it and don’t let a jaded hit-piece like this article do your thinking for you.

  • Mike C.

    The only reason I can think of why we don’t use Butyl is the corn belt doesn’t grow whatever grassy crop needed to produce it. This stuff seems great and requires a lot less resources to grow/harvest it. You can run 85% butyl alcohol without modifying your engine at all from 100% gasoline. E85 requires extensive engine mods.

  • K C

    Very little corn gets irrigated, so why did the study use an assumption of irrigation on corn? And why consider indirect land use as if we are cutting down forests for additional corn? Fact is the acreage of cropland in the USA is less now than at any point in the past 50+ years.

    This study seems to me to be flawed at best, and propaganda at worst. Did big oil pay for this study?

  • greg45

    This is definitely a very suprising stat to me. I thought it was definitely better for the environment. Unsure what to think about this at all.