Ethanol Information for Citizens
Like all industrial facilities, ethanol refineries undergo rigorous environmental review and permitting prior to construction. This page gives a basic explanation of ethanol and outlines the process for building an ethanol refinery, from project design to construction and operation. Also included is information on the public participation process and on individual projects and facilities.
Ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol) is a clear, colorless liquid made by fermenting and distilling some type of vegetation, most commonly corn. One bushel of corn makes two to three gallons of ethanol. It is used to fuel vehicles classified as “flexible fuel” (can be powered by gasoline, ethanol, or a blend). Most ethanol produced currently is corn-based.
“Cellulosic” ethanol can be made from woodchips, grasses, corn stover (leaves, stocks or cobs), and the non-edible parts of plants. Cellulosic ethanol is not yet widely commercialized, but public and private institutions in Minnesota and many other states are researching this process.
Federal law mandates mixing an increasing portion of biofuels into the national fuel supply. By 2022, the U.S. gas supply must include 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels, including 15 billion gallons from corn-based ethanol and 21 billion gallons from advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol.
Ethanol facilities with proposed construction projects or capacity increases of five million gallons or more per year are required to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). The EAW provides an analysis of a project’s potential effects on the environment. The process considers a number of elements including air quality, water quality, water quantity, noise, traffic, solid waste, cumulative impacts from the proposed project, and other issues.
Environmental review can be a one- or two-step process - the shorter, less detailed EAW or the longer, more complex and detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The environmental review process operates according to the rules of the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), but is carried out by a designated local government unit or a state agency. For industrial projects such as ethanol plants, as well as many other types of projects, the MPCA leads the review.
For general information on how the environmental review process works, go to the Environmental Review page. The EAW and EIS Web page lists projects that currently have an EAW or EIS on public notice, as well as projects that were recently on public notice.
Like most industrial facilities, ethanol refineries must have permits from the MPCA. Permits establish specific limits and requirements to protect human health and the environment. They are issued for a specific period, usually five years, after which they expire and must be renewed. Permits are regularly reviewed and updated as they expire, allowing the MPCA to incorporate new information about the impacts of pollutants to the environment in subsequent permits.
Ethanol facilities typically require wastewater discharge permits that include industrial stormwater requirements. These permits (issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and State Disposal System, or NPDES/SDS) are often drafted while the EAW is being developed because the review process helps to inform the permit process. As ethanol facilities change their operations, their water permits may require modifications or changes. If the changes to the permit involve effluent-limit changes or other major modifications, the permits are required to go on public notice. It is important to note that if environmental review is required for an ethanol facility, no permits can be issued until the review process is complete.
Information on monitoring requirements, effluent limits, and permit requirements is available at:
Minnesota is a delegated authority to issue NPDES permits on behalf of the EPA. Here is a link to general information from EPA regarding the NPDES program:
The U.S.EPA has a primer for NPDES permits called “Water Permitting 101.”
New ethanol facilities must have air emissions permits before construction and operation. Typically, new ethanol projects conduct modeling and air emission risk analysis (AERA) as part of the air permit process. The type of modeling and analysis used for a facility depends on a variety of factors including the proposed fuel source, proximity to people and businesses, type of equipment to be used, and feedstock.
Air permits for existing ethanol facilities may require modifications and updates as operations change. Major permit modifications must go on public notice. Air permits currently on public notice may be found on the Public Notices Web page. Permits for existing facilities are listed at Air Permits Issued in Minnesota.
Ethanol Facility Guidance
The MPCA developed a guidance document for those proposing ethanol facilities in Minnesota. The guidance may give interested citizens insight into how ethanol facilities are proposed, permitted, and regulated.
- Planning and Constructing an Ethanol Plant in Minnesota: A Guidance Document (file size = 1.8 MB)
Public participation is an important part of the environmental review and permitting processes. Involvement by citizens can occur in many ways. For new projects, citizens can review EAWs (if required), draft permits, or speak to the MPCA Citizens’ Board if the project is presented to the Board. Citizens may provide information, comments, or ask important questions regarding individual projects or policy concerns. Citizens can also contact the MPCA with questions about proposed and existing facilities. Public comment opportunities for existing facilities may occur for permit modifications or with expansions. For some of these projects, public meetings might be held to answer questions or to provide project information. Public notice periods for permits or EAWs are typically 30 days.
The MPCA’s files are open to the public (subject to the restrictions of Minnesota statutes and decisions of the Office of the Attorney General). Persons wishing to review files are asked to schedule an appointment with the file manager. For review of ethanol air quality files contact Kelli Stiles at 651-757-2755; for ethanol environmental review or water-quality files contact Mary Dezurik at 651-757-2307 or Lenny Richards at 651-757-2667. For additional information or guidance visit the Information Request Web page.
How to get involved with the MPCA Citizens’ Board
The MPCA Citizens' Board considers and makes decisions on varied and complex pollution problems that affect Minnesota. These decisions are intended to protect state’s water, air and land resources in order to provide for the maximum enjoyment and use of these resources by Minnesotans. The Board’s regular monthly meetings are on the fourth Tuesday of each month at the MPCA’s St. Paul office. Board meetings are public and interested parties may sign up to address the Board on specific decision items. For more information about the Board or for upcoming agendas, contact Vicki Schindeldecker at 651-757-2025 or visit the Citizens' Board Agenda Web page.
Information on ethanol projects in Minnesota is available on the main ethanol page.