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By Nathanael Greene on Oct 27, 2010 with no responses

ORNL Report Tells Us Nothing About Corn Ethanol Land-Use Change

I was surprised when I recently heard that ORNL researchers were about to release a report  that concluded there had been little land-use change induced by US corn ethanol policies. A recent Climatewire article blared the headline “Corn-based ethanol doesn’t result in land-use change elsewhere — study” and quoted the authors:

“The results of this study provide little support for estimates that assume large land use conversion or diversion of corn exports due to ethanol production in the U.S. over the past decade,” said the report’s co-authors, ORNL research economists Keith Kline and ‘Debo Oladosu.

But then I looked at the slides that the authors had released and was shocked to see that the study doesn’t actually tell us anything about how land use has changed as a result of our policies.  The study doesn’t even attempt to compare land-use with the policies to what would have happened without the policies.

ORNL’s own conclusions acknowledge the limitations of their study. But despite this, they willfully bury these key caveats and misstate what can be reasonably concluded based on their study. While they reiterate that analysis of empirical data over the period 2001-2008 has led them to certain conclusions, they acknowledge that “understanding the interactions of policy with baseline trends”, they say, “is crucial to improve estimates of policy effect on land use”. They then go on to say that while analysis of this data can illustrate how the economy actually adjusted to biofuel policies that increased demand (and supply) of corn for ethanol [in the past], “more detailed analysis of policy effects on prices is needed”.

What they should have said is that since they didn’t look at any baseline without policy or any price-demand interactions, they actually can’t say anything meaningful about the land-use change induced by US policies. My colleague Sasha has a great post that goes into the limitations of this report in more detail.

Once the full report comes out, we’ll see if anything useful can be concluded from it. In the meantime, watch for the mounting efforts by the corn ethanol industry to spin this molehill of a report and the authors’ unsupported  conclusions into a mountain that they’re not.