by Judith Curry
“I don’t know whether I can make the environmental argument, or the economic argument” – Tom Vilsack
The AP has an extensive article Push for ethanol had disastrous outcomes. Excerpts:
The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America’s push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
With the Iowa political caucuses on the horizon in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made homegrown corn a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming. And when President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline, Bush predicted that it would make the country “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”
But the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.
As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.
Five million acres of land set aside for conservation – more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined – have vanished on Obama’s watch.
Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.
Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.
The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its economic benefits to the farming industry.
All energy comes at a cost. The global warming consequences of drilling for oil and natural gas are well-documented. In an effort to reduce those harms, however, Obama’s administration has allowed so-called green energy to do not-so-green things.
The government’s hopeful predictions for ethanol have proved so inaccurate that scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases.
That makes the hidden costs even more significant.
“This is an ecological disaster,” said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group, a natural ally of the president that, like others, now finds itself at odds with the White House.
The administration accepts the cost because it believes that supporting corn ethanol will encourage development of cleaner, greener biofuels.
Shortly after Davenport spoke to The Associated Press, he got an email ordering him to stop talking.
“We just want to have a consistent message on the topic,” an Agriculture Department spokesman in Iowa said.
That message was laid out by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who spoke to ethanol lobbyists on Capitol Hill recently and said ethanol is good for business.
“We are committed to this industry because we understand its benefits,” he said. “We understand it’s about farm income. It’s about stabilizing and maintaining farm income which is at record levels.”
But the numbers behind the policy have become so unworkable that, for the first time, the EPA is soon expected to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply. Meanwhile, an unusual coalition of big oil companies, environmental groups and food companies is pushing the government to go even further and reconsider the entire ethanol program.
Writing the regulations to implement the ethanol mandate was among the administration’s first environmental undertakings. But President Obama’s team at the EPA was sour on it from the start.
As a way to reduce global warming, they knew that corn ethanol was a dubious proposition. Corn demands fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. Ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.
Plus, digging up grassland releases greenhouse gases.
“I don’t remember anybody having great passion for this,” said Bob Sussman, who served on Obama’s transition team and recently retired as EPA’s senior policy counsel. “I don’t have a lot of personal enthusiasm for the program.”
The EPA’s experts determined that corn ethanol was only modestly better than gasoline when it came to carbon dioxide emissions.
Sixteen percent better, to be exact. And not in the short term. Only by 2022.
By law, though, biofuels were supposed to be at least 20 percent greener than gasoline.
When the Obama administration finalized its policy, corn ethanol scored 21 percent better than gasoline, barely crossing the key threshold.
“You adjust a few numbers to get it where you want it, and then you call it good,” said Adam Liska, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska. He supports ethanol, even with its environmental trade-offs.
The Obama administration’s predictions were soon proved wrong. In September 2010, corn passed $4, on its way to about $7, where it has been most of this year.
In 2008, the journal Science published a study with a dire conclusion: Plowing over conservation land releases so much greenhouse gas that it takes 48 years before new plants can break even and start reducing carbon dioxide.
In his recent speech to ethanol lobbyists, Vilsack was unequivocal about ethanol’s benefits to the air and water:
“There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry,” he said.
But the administration never actually conducted air and water studies to determine whether that’s true, even though those studies were required by law.
In the Midwest, meanwhile, scientists and conservationists are sounding alarms.
From 2005 to 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than 1 billion pounds. More recent data aren’t available from the Agriculture Department, but even conservative projections suggest another billion-pound increase since then.
Nitrogen fertilizer, when it seeps into the water, is toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes “blue baby” syndrome and can be deadly.
Agriculture Department officials note that the amount of fertilizer used for all crops has remained steady for a decade, suggesting that the ethanol mandate hasn’t caused a fertilizer boom nationally.
But in the Midwest, corn is the dominant crop, and officials say the increase in fertilizer use – driven by the increase in corn planting – is having an effect.
The Des Moines Water Works, for instance, has posted high nitrate levels for many years in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, which supply drinking water to 500,000 people. Typically, when pollution is too high in one river, workers draw from the other.
“This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us,” said Bill Stowe, the water service’s general manager.
The nitrates travel down rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico, where they boost the growth of enormous algae fields. When the algae die, the decomposition consumes oxygen, leaving behind a zone where aquatic life cannot survive.
This year, the dead zone covered 5,800 square miles of sea floor, about the size of Connecticut.
Larry McKinney, the executive director of the Harte Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, says the ethanol mandate worsened the dead zone.
“The government is mandating ethanol use,” he said, “and it is unfortunately coming at the expense of the Gulf of Mexico.”
Obama administration officials know that the ethanol mandate hasn’t lived up to its billing.
The next-generation biofuels that were supposed to wean the country off corn haven’t yet materialized. Every day without those cleaner-burning fuels, the ethanol industry stays reliant on corn and the environmental effects mount.
The EPA could revisit its model and see whether ethanol is actually as good for the environment as officials predicted. But the agency says it doesn’t have the money or the manpower.
With the model so far off from reality, independent scientists say it’s hard to make an argument for ethanol as a global warming policy.
And the administration rarely tries to make that argument anymore. What was once billed as an environmental boon has morphed into a government program to help rural America survive.
USDA: 2013 record corn harvest
ABCNews has a story USDA: 3013 Corn Harvest Record 13.9B Bushels. Excerpts:
This year’s corn crop has soared to a new national record, breaking expectations in many states that received too much rain early on and a summer dry spell that brought back drought concerns.
Exceptional harvests were found around the country, thanks to adequate rain and cooler temperatures at the time corn pollinated. At least 18 states will set records for the amount of corn produced per acre, among them are Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio.
But with great abundance comes lower corn prices.
Corn users, including ethanol manufacturers, see higher profits with lower grain prices.
Improved profit has led some ethanol makers to reopen plants that had been closed because they weren’t making money.
Cargill Inc. announced Monday it had restarted production at a plant in Fort Dodge, Iowa, idled since 2011 and Three Rivers Energy in Coshocton, Ohio, resumed production last month at a plant it bought in receivership that had last operated in 2008.
Livestock producers who buy corn-based feed for cattle, chickens, and hogs also benefit from lower corn prices.
Consumers, though, won’t see food prices significantly affected.
The unintended consequences associated with corn ethanol makes this a classic case whereby the ‘cure’ is ineffective and worse than the ‘disease’ at which it is targeted. The rationale for corn ethanol was to ‘prime the system’ for cellulosic ethanol that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Wikipedia sums up the issues:
According to Michael Wang of Argonne National Laboratory, one of the benefits of cellulosic ethanol is it reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 85% over reformulated gasoline. By contrast, starch ethanol (e.g., from corn), which most frequently uses natural gas to provide energy for the process, may not reduce GHG emissions at all depending on how the starch-based feedstock is produced. According to the National Academy of Sciences, there is no commercially viable bio-refinery in existence to convert lignocellulosic biomass to fuel. Absence of production of cellulosic ethanol in the quantities required by the regulation was the basis of a United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decision announced January 25, 2013 voiding a requirement imposed on car and truck fuel producers in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency requiring addition of cellulosic biofuels to their products. These issues, along with many other difficult production challenges, lead George Washington University policy researchers to state that “in the short term, [cellulosic] ethanol cannot meet the energy security and environmental goals of a gasoline alternative.”
The politics of the situation are aptly described by this para from the AP article:
Congress and the administration could change the ethanol mandate, tweak its goals or demand more safeguards. Going to Congress and rewriting the law would mean picking a fight with agricultural lobbyists, a fight that would put the administration on the side of big oil companies, which despise the ethanol requirement.
So the ethanol policy cruises on autopilot.
Looks like ‘greens’ and oil companies need to join forces to fight against big ag and corn ethanol policies. And all this in the name of urgent actions needed to reduce carbon emissions. Lets lose the ‘urgent actions needed’ and take the time to develop a range of policy options and thoroughly investigate the possibilities for unintended consequences. I’m sure there is a better way to support U.S. agriculture that is beneficial both to the farmers as well as to the world food supply, without unnecessarily raping the environment.