You are here

Ethanol has to tread lightly to survive

Sometime by next summer at the latest, the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to set the fate of the ethanol industry when it decides whether corn-based ethanol has a small enough carbon footprint to continue being sold under a government mandate known as the Renewable Fuels Standard.

That's because the same 2007 energy bill that set the mandates for ethanol use by oil companies also requires ethanol to use produce at least 20% less greenhouse gases than gasoline. It's called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Meeting the standard is hardly the only problem the biofuels industry faces. In an economy that has depressed fuel prices, more than a tenth of the U.S. ethanol industry and a third of the biodiesel plants are idle, Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association said at the group's annual summit in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday. And as the ethanol industry's capacity has expanded, it is coming close to being able to provide 10% ethanol for all of the nation's gasoline, bumping up against an EPA limit of 10% ethanol in gasoline that the industry wants raised to perhaps 15%.

Yet the Low Carbon Fuels Standard is a major hurdle.

"It compels the EPA to look at both the direct and indirect effects of ethanol in greenhouse gas emissions," says Brian Jennings, Executive Vice President of the American Coalition for Ethanol in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

That means that EPA could also look at whether or not converting land in the U.S. to corn production for ethanol, instead of for food or feed alone, means that more greenhouse gases will be released if rainforest is destroyed somewhere else in the world to grow food to replace what is lost for ethanol production.

"EPA has struggled on how to quantify this and whose model is right," Jennings said during an interview in Des Moines Tuesday, where he spoke at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association summit.

"If the rule comes out and it applies the indirect land use in a way that disqualifies corn ethanol from the Renewable Fuels Standard, the practical result is that we [the United States] would be forced to use more petroleum," Jennings said.

If corn ethanol doesn't qualify for the Renewable Fuels Standard, would it shut down the industry?

"It would come close," Jennings said. "The Renewable Fuels Standard is about market certainty and this would pull the rug out from that market certainty."

Jennings contends that ethanol production is getting more efficient, at a time when oil companies have to find their raw material for gasoline in ever more expensive and energy-intensive sources such as the oil sands of Alberta, Canada.

A recent analysis by University of Nebraska researchers published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, shows that greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol production are 48% to 59% less than from gasoline.

But Jennings and others in the ethanol industry are worried that if the EPA gives too much weight to the effects of U.S. ethanol production on rain forests in Brazil and elsewhere in the tropics, the industry won't meet the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

The issue gained national attention last year when the journal, Science, published an analysis by Tim Searchinger, a visiting scholar at Princeton University who has worked as an attorney at Environmental Defense.

Searchinger and his colleagues concluded that more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere than is saved by using biofuels.

The analysis has come under attack from many scholars who have worked on biofuels research for years, including Robert C. Brown, a Ph.D mechanical engineer who heads Iowa State University's Office of Biorenewables Programs.

Brown has studied the idea that growing an acre of corn replaces an acre of rainforest, There's ample evidence that it doesn't and he shared some of it at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association meeting Tuesday.

He has looked at the prices for soybeans and beef in Brazil and compared them with the rate of deforestation in that country. His analysis shows "there's no correlation at all," he said.

In recent history, as the ethanol industry has expanded, rainforest loss has far outpaced it. Over the past 10 years, the world lost 500 million acres of rain forest, while the U.S. biofuels industry has diverted less than 20 million acres to ethanol production.

"Something else is responsible for the epidemic of deforestation," Brown wrote last fall in a column in the Des Moines Register.

In addition, every year the planet loses about the same amount of cropland that's in biofuels production, from soil degradation and other factors.

"This is the kind of evidence that has to be presented and understood," Brown said Tuesday. "Just because somebody came up with the notion of an acre for an acre, doesn't mean it's real."

Sometime by next summer at the latest, the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to set the fate of the ethanol industry when it decides whether corn-based ethanol has a small enough carbon footprint to continue being sold under a government mandate known as the Renewable Fuels Standard.

Read more about

Talk in Marketing

Most Recent Poll

What is the moisture content of the corn you’re harvesting?