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EPA officials show interest in refining indirect land use

Agriculture.com Staff 09/04/2009 @ 8:00am

At the request of Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) two high-ranking EPA officials came to Iowa Thursday to learn first-hand how their agency’s rules could affect farmers and the biofuels industry.

They got a tour of Iowa State University’s brand new BioCentury Research Farm near Boone, where round bales of last year’s switchgrass are waiting to be turned into cellulosic ethanol. They climbed into a combine and tractor at Rick and Martha Kimberley’s farm near Farrar. And they saw the Renewable Energy Group’s 30-million gallon biodiesel plant at Newton.

“I think we learned a lot,” EPA’s Gina McCarthy told Agriculture Online after stepping outside the spotlessly clean biodiesel plant. “It helps us put a face on the agricultural issues and the challenges we face together.”

McCarthy is EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. With her was Margo Oge, who heads the office of transportation and air quality.

It’s no exaggeration to say the two women hold the future of the biofuels industry, and even the future price of corn and soybeans, in their hands.

Oge is in charge of writing the final rule for a new renewable fuel standard that requires all biofuels to have lower carbon emissions than fuel from petroleum. The change is required by a 2007 energy bill that also ramps up federal support for biofuels.

When EPA released the first draft of that rule last May, neither ethanol nor biodiesel made the cut. The 2007 Energy Bill exempts existing corn ethanol plants, but ethanol from new ones has to be 20% greener than gasoline. EPA found Midwest corn-based ethanol to be only 16% greener. Soy biodiesel has to be 50% greener and older plants aren’t exempt from the rule. EPA said in May that soy biodiesel is only 22% greener than diesel fuel.

The reason is that EPA included “indirect land use” in computer modeling used to estimate the carbon footprint of biofuels. That’s the concept that when corn or soybean production is diverted from food to fuel in the U.S., grassland and rainforests in tropical countries like Brazil are converted to grain and oilseed farming. Burning off the forests and plowing up tropical savannah puts so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it can take up to 166 years for the benefits of ethanol to counteract that, according to one theory advanced in Science magazine.

Thursday, McCarthy and Oge heard why that hypothesis misses the mark. And the polite but documented criticism came from some of agriculture’s most influential leaders  – Dean Oestreich, chairman of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Ted Crosbie, vice president of global plant breeding for Monsanto, and Jeff Stroburg, CEO of the Renewable Energy Group.

EPA hasn’t accounted for the future effect of rapidly advancing crop yields due to biotechnology, both Oestreich and Crosbie said.

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