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Iowa Ag Secretary worried about unfriendly ethanol rule from EPA

Agriculture.com Staff 02/24/2009 @ 2:56pm

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey returned to his state from Washington, DC, this week worried that the Environmenal Protection Agency could issue a rule within a month that would, in essence, make U.S. ethanol plants responsible for destruction of tropical rain forests in Brazil.

And, as much as it sounds like the logic of Alice and Wonderland, the ruling could even make gasoline seem more environmentally friendly than ethanol.

Northey is worried about a concept that’s not new. It was written into a 2007 energy bill that mandates more use of biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel. But the law also requires that, starting this year, biofuels must show that they're not putting out more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide than existing petroleum-based fuels. That requirement is called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

For months, supporters of the ethanol industry have worried that the Low Carbon Fuel Standard would include the concept of indirect land use. That's the assumption that when an acre of corn is produced for ethanol, an acre of new cropland has to come into production somewhere else to replace it. Environmentalists have assumed that this pressure on land use means that rainforests will be cut down or grasslands plowed up. In both cases, that can release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The state of California is already using the indirect land use concept to calculate the carbon output of ethanol.

If indirect land use isn’t included in looking at ethanol's carbon footprint, then studies of all of the energy it takes to raise corn and produce ethanol show that the biofuel has a positive effect on the environment, Northey said Tuesday. Northey said he has been concerned that the EPA may be using old numbers that underestimate corn yields and ethanol plant efficiency.

"Generally, as those numbers are used, even if they're not perfect, they show ethanol has an advantage over gasoline," Northey said.

Northey said he's been told that EPA is likely to include indirect land use when it calculates the carbon output of ethanol.

"It's a concept that I believe is far from being proven and could absolutely reverse policy," Northey said, adding that it would be a blow to an ethanol industry that's already suffering from low fuel prices and economic uncertainty.

Europeans have also looked at the issue of indirect land use, Northey said, "and decided there was no way for them to come up with solid, defensible numbers."

Northey was attending a meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Washington.

The group already addressed the issue of the low carbon fuel standard last fall, he said. The group supports measuring the output of greenhouse gases from biofuels. But it opposes using indirect land use.

In a policy adopted in September, it said, "We are also concerned that indirect land use change costs not be unfairly imposed on biofuels without being imposed on other parts of the economy that may have similar impacts. Our preference is to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from land use change in a more balanced and scientific way, by dealing with only the direct impacts of various economic activities."

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