EPA’s New Biofuel Standard: No Joy in Cornville

by Bill Chameides | May 11th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

Because of its impact on land use, growing corn for fuel offers no global warming benefits until about one hundred years, but even then those benefits fall short of meeting minimum requirements spelled out in U.S. law. (NREL)

In its newly proposed rules for biofuels, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concludes ethanol is a loser when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a finding that upset one Congressman so much that he won’t “trust anybody anymore.”

Corn Ethanol and Washington: The Backstory

The relationship between corn ethanol and the U.S. government has been long and checkered. For nearly three decades the government has subsidized [pdf] ethanol production (and by extension corn growers) by incentivizing its production, even though a gallon of ethanol is typically more expensive than a gallon of regular fossil fuel-based gasoline. (The government has also effectively blocked the import of potentially cheaper ethanol like Brazil’s sugar-based variety through high tariffs.)

The arguments in favor of ethanol have been two-fold — supposedly a winning formula for:

  1. national security – using ethanol displaces conventional gasoline and therefore lowers our dependence on foreign oil; and
  2. the planet – because the carbon in ethanol comes from plants that removed it from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, burning ethanol does not add more carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas pollutant, to the atmosphere.

The scientific community has never been entirely sold on these virtues. And many have suspected that the federal largess for corn ethanol has had more to do with putting extra dollars into the hands of farmers. The corn lobby is rather, shall we say, influential. And don’t forget that presidential campaigns always start in Iowa — a corn state if there ever was one. Can you imagine trying to win the Iowa caucuses on a campaign position against subsidies for corn ethanol?

Those Pesky Scientists — Giving an Earful About the Downsides of Corn

Scientifically speaking, the problem with corn ethanol is that growing corn, transporting it to a factory, and converting it to ethanol all require energy, the vast majority of which comes from fossil fuels that lead to greenhouse gas emissions. So every gallon of ethanol does not displace a full gallon of gasoline, and burning a gallon of ethanol does not avoid all the CO2 emissions from conventional fuel. The question for more than a decade has been: on which side of the balance sheet does corn ethanol lie. Does it end up saving gasoline or using more? Does it lead to less or more greenhouse gas emissions?

To answer these questions, scientists use a life-cycle or cradle-to-grave assessment. And here is my take on where these assessments lead.

The gasoline savings from corn ethanol appear to be significant. For example, in a paper published in Science in 2006, Alexander Farrell of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues estimated that corn ethanol cuts petroleum use by as much as 80 percent or more. (Note that the total energy savings of corn ethanol relative to all fossil fuel used, including natural gas and coal, were estimated to be much more modest.)

Will the new biofuels rules proposed by EPA spell trouble for the cozy relationship the corn states have had with the federal government? (NREL)

The stickier question has been whether corn ethanol saves any greenhouse gas emissions. As I described in a previous post, complications arise because the corn that that goes into ethanol is obviously not being used to feed humans or livestock.

In two separate papers published in Science in 2008, Tim Searchinger (from Princeton University) and Joseph Fargione (of The Nature Conservancy) et al. argued that taking cropland out of food production requires converting forest land to cropland (primarily in Brazil) to make up for the food deficit, a conversion that results in huge emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere. The authors calculated that it would take many decades of ethanol use to offset or pay back the greenhouse gas emissions from the destruction of those forests. In other words, from a global warming point of view, corn ethanol is not a winner.

Congress and EPA Take Biofuels into the New Millennium

With the Energy Policy Act of 2005 [pdf] Congress decided to get serious about energy independence, mandating a renewable energy standard requiring ever larger amounts of biofuels in the gasoline sold in the United States with ever larger increases in production from year to year.

In the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act [pdf], Congress amended the Renewable Fuel Standard to include even more biofuels and went one step further. It added language addressing climate change:

  • The new biofuels requirement mandated that corn ethanol must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.
  • EPA was charged with implementing the program.

Last week, EPA came out with new proposed regulations governing the renewable fuel standard. And lo and behold, they concluded the same thing that Searchinger and colleagues found last year: when land use changes are accounted for, corn ethanol ends up emitting a lot of greenhouse gases. EPA reported results for two scenarios:

  • Over a 30-year horizon, corn ethanol emits five percent more greenhouse gases than conventional gasoline when the ethanol is made using natural gas, and 34 percent more if it is made using coal.
  • Over what seems to me to be a rather long 100-year horizon, corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by only about 16 percent, when made using natural gas — or four percent shy of the Congressional standard. (Ethanol made using coal still emits 13 percent more greenhouse gas than conventional gasoline.)

Corn State Unhappiness?

The corn-producing states are used to special treatment from the federal government. Now, EPA’s proposed ruling threatens to shut them out of future biofuels markets.

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) was angered. Upon hearing of the proposal he stated: “I will not support any kind of climate change bill. … I don’t care. Even if you fix this. I don’t trust anybody anymore.” Somebody needs to find that man a binky.

Will that spell trouble for the Obama administration? Maybe so, if you listen to folks like Robert Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, who criticized the proposed rule for not comparing apples to apples (shouldn’t that be corn to corn?).

But wait a minute: the administration has moved to soften the blow by announcing a bunch of new federal handouts to the ethanol industry. Will that work? Maybe so if you listen to folks like … well …  Robert Dinneen, who praised the administrat
ion for sending “an incredibly important signal that biofuels are going to be a key component in his strategy to address energy, economic, and environmental challenges.”

Isn’t politics great.

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  1. Mark
    Jun 11, 2009

    Thank you Dr. Chameides for your comments. I whole-heartedly agree with your facts and conclusions. Soy blended diesel fuel is a far better fuel than ethanol, from my experience. The farm tractors we use for primary tillage will run one gear faster with 10 to 15% blend of bean oil to diesel. The blend of lubricity in the bean oil and BTUs in the diesel does seem to produce a better fuel. The best solution would be to move away from the 100 year old technology of internal combustion engines. Unfortunately College Professors have acquired tenure and Businesses have been built on present technology. Everyone is slow to change. There has been area returned to farmland. Over the last 30 years I have watched fence lines and farmsteads disappear. On an 80-acre farm we removed over 2 miles of fence that was a grass area 16 feet wide. That is 3.88 acres put back into production on just that farm. In the last 30 years I would guess there has been at least 4 farmsteads per square mile @ 6 acres each returned to farm ground. We do have to compliment the US Natural Recourses Conservation Service. On this 80 acre farm we have 26 acres of set-aside ground with filter strips along waterways. We have native grasses and wild flowers on the set-aside ground. All this has been done under the supervision of NRCS. When my Grandparents emigrated from Denmark to Iowa in the late 1800s, the advertisements posted in Denmark, included claims of timbers of oak, maple, and black walnut over a mile wide along every river. Those tree stands are all gone. Environmental and lifestyle issues are important to the farmers in the Midwest. I went to college for Farm management. The first day of business management class the instructor asked if the individuals in the class wanted to farm for the money or the lifestyle? I00% of the class said the lifestyle. At the same time farmers do have to make a living. Farming has shifted more toward the Big Business mentality today. I don’t know if the class would answer the “money or lifestyle question” the same today.

  2. Mark
    Jun 10, 2009

    I own a farm in Iowa and have sold corn to the ethanol plants. Quite honestly life was easier on the farm before ethanol. Typical to business, everyone grabbed a piece of the pie and production costs went up to offset higher corn prices. Let me say I am neutral on Ethanol. Facts as I know them; Corn has to be hauled in from the farm to the elevator anyway. The ethanol plants in Iowa are being built to service a “Corn producing area” usually a county or two. Most generally it is no further to an ethanol plant than an elevator. From the elevator the majority is hauled to the Missouri or Mississippi rivers and loaded on barges. Both weight and volume is removed from the corn by the distillation process. The savings in energy to transport the Brewers dried grain VS whole corn pays for the fuel used to distill the grain. Brewers dried grain is an excellent food source for people and animals. It is a much more condensed protein source. Again there is considerable savings in transporting Brewers Dried VS whole corn to other countries. People would have you believe corn used in ethanol production is never used as food. THAT IS A LIE. I would prefer fuel be made from other sources. I don’t like running ethanol in my vehicle. I prefer energy be made by advancements in the area of “Phase Conjugate Scalar Electromagnetic wave technology”, developed by Nicola Tesla. That’s a whole different conversation.

    • Bill Chameides
      Jun 11, 2009

      Mark, Thanks for the comments — it is not often that we get input from someone who is actually in the trenches doing the work. With regard to the corn ethanol/food issue, I am sure you are correct that corn used for ethanol is also used as food or feedstock. No argument. But, the data I have seen are pretty convincing that: 1. As ethanol production in the United States has increased, 2. cropland in corn increased, and 3. cropland in soybeans decreased, and 4. land set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program decreased. The decrease in soybean production encourages more soybean cultivation in Brazil and thus deforestation. That deforestation and the loss of land from the Conservation Reserve Program both lead to carbon emissions and those emissions should be included in a lifecycle assessment of the greenhouse gas impact of corn ethanol.

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