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By Russ Finley on Mar 13, 2012 with 10 responses

Study Suggests Corn Ethanol Can’t Get There From Here

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A new study published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal by the American Chemical Society, has this to say about “the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) aims to increase annual U.S. biofuel (secondary bioenergy) production by more than 3-fold” :

While EISA energy targets are theoretically achievable, we show that meeting these targets utilizing current technology would require either an 80% displacement of current crop harvest or the conversion of 60% of rangeland productivity. Accordingly, realistically constrained estimates of bioenergy potential are critical for effective incorporation of bioenergy into the national energy portfolio.

I can hardly wait to see the critique of this study that will be cobbled together by the RFA and Growth Energy–the dynamic duo of corn ethanol lobbying organizations.

And this from Bloomberg:

Global inventories of wheat and soybeans are falling more than forecast, while U.S. corn reserves head to a 16-year low, as farmers fail to keep pace with rising demand for food, livestock feed and biofuel.

Global food prices tracked by the United Nations rose for a second consecutive month in February on higher costs for cereals, cooking oils and sugar.

One of the most common arguments you’ll find in defense of corn ethanol is that farmers are being paid not to grow corn. According to the Des Moines Register, the 2012 farm bill is expected to end direct payments.

The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to not convert what has become wildlife habitat back into marginally productive wind and water erosion prone farmland. Record high commodity prices and less financial incentive to preserve wildlife habitat are the ingredients for a perfect (dust) storm. According to the USDA:

  • CRP prevents the erosion of 325 million tons of soil each year, or enough soil to fill 19.5 million dump trucks;
  • CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and two million acres of riparian buffers;
  • Each year, CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorous from flowing into our nation’s streams, rivers, and lakes;
  • CRP provides $1.8 billion annually to landowners-dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs; and
  • CRP is the largest private lands carbon sequestration program in the country. By placing vulnerable cropland into conservation, CRP sequesters carbon in plants and soil, and reduces both fuel and fertilizer usage. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.

The USDA predicts record setting acreage planted with corn this year. Even corn ethanol’s biggest supporter, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, seems to fear a mass exodus from the program as farmers pull out the stops to capitalize on the record high prices for corn. Last week he held a press conference to encourage enrollment in the program:

To encourage producers to sign up their most environmentally valuable acres FSA will increase the Signing Incentive Payments (SIPs) to $150 per acre from the current level of $100 per acre. The incentive is offered on most continuous practices and will include wetland restorations, pollinators and upland bird habitat.

I don’t know what he’s worried about. According to the corn ethanol lobby, indirect land use change is a myth propagated by the likes of big oil.

The Association of Fish & Wildlife Agency claims that conservation farm bill programs are “critical to the more than $95 billion in economic activity annually contributed by hunting and angling.”

Ninety-five billion? Could the act of paying farmers to not grow crops on marginal land be one of those rare government subsidies that actually pays off?

Who could have predicted that:

  1. The tripling of corn prices might reduce export potential (exacerbating overall trade imbalance)  in a rapidly expanding grain market?
  2. Cellulosic ethanol would not arrive (which may be irrelevant considering that corn ethanol has hogged up the entire market)?
  3. It would not be possible to produce enough ethanol to supply the needed quantity of E85 gas pumps across the continent (turning the flex fuel logo on cars into the equivalent of a dunce cap)?
  4. The inevitable blend wall would create a glut of ethanol?
  5. Ethanol refiners would export their excess product rather than reduce oil imports with it (taking the wind out of the energy independence argument) ?
  6. The demand for land to capitalize on high corn prices might increase soil erosion and reduce wildlife habitat?
  7. The diversion of food crops to fuel would be a contributor to rising global food prices?
  8. It might be physically impossible to meet the EISA energy targets without “an 80% displacement of current crop harvest or the conversion of 60% of rangeland productivity?”
  1. By JohnJames on March 13, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Your article seems to be a bit vague but I will try and help out your readers. First off, I don’t remember anybody saying ethanol is the solve all for our transportation energy needs. It has potential to be a  part of the solution though and has already contributed to a reduction in imported oil. Besides saving consumers around $.89/gallon by just being part of the fuel market, American ethanol displaced the need for 485 billion barrels of imported oil in 2011 with a value of around $50 billion. 

    A move to E15 which has been deemed safe by our EPA for vehicles 2001 or newer would solve our ethanol glut problem and continue save American families even more money at the pump each year. Along with those benefits, E15 would also continue to decrease the amount of ghg emissions and create thousands of additional good paying American jobs which our country so desperately needs. 

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    • By Robert Rapier on March 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      Besides saving consumers around $.89/gallon by just being part of the fuel market, American ethanol displaced the need for 485 billion barrels of imported oil in 2011 with a value of around $50 billion. 

      Could you link to the study supporting your first claim?

      Regarding your second, in 2011 there were 300 or so million barrels of ethanol produced. It would be a neat trick to see how that displaced 485 billion barrels of imported oil. Of course you meant million, but 300 million barrels of ethanol also can’t displace 485 million barrels of oil. It is not possible. It could displace maybe 200 million or so. I am sure you are basing your numbers on that Urbanchuk study, which makes so many ridiculous leaps of logic that I don’t take it seriously. The most serious, of course, is that it simply ignores most of the barrel of oil. If a barrel of oil produces 20 gallons of gasoline, then Urbanchuk assumed that 25 or 30 gallons of ethanol would displace a barrel of oil. Absurd reasoning.

      RR

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      • By JohnJames on March 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm

        No tricks, just facts. But thanks for asking ROB.

        http://www.card.iastate.edu/publications/synopsis.aspx?id=1160

        http://ethanolrfa.3cdn.net/c0db7443e48926e95f_j7m6i6zi2.pdf

        Where would you rather purchase your fuel from? Midwestern farmers or radical dictatorship gov’ts? I choose the American farmer.

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        • By Robert Rapier on March 13, 2012 at 7:16 pm

          Where would you rather purchase your fuel from? Midwestern farmers or radical dictatorship gov’ts? I choose the American farmer.

          That’s a different argument than your first two arguments. Yep, as I guessed, you are relying on the Urbanchuk study. I presume you are aware that both of those studies have been highly criticized? The Urbanchuk study is a joke. I have addressed it here more than once.

          I can dig up the criticisms to the other study if you really want to see them. If I recall correctly, the main issue is that they assumed total inelasticity of supply. In other words, if the ethanol was not there, then nothing would be there and no additional gasoline capacity would have been developed. In fact, I think one of the major criticisms was from a professor at Iowa State.

          So whether you believe ethanol is the way to go, one should not rely on shoddy studies to support that view. And I say with 100% confidence that the Urbanchuk study is very poor. Of course it was bought and paid for by the ethanol lobby, so that can certainly explain some of his leaps of logic.

          RR

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    • By Russ Finley on March 18, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Your article seems to be a bit vague but I will try and help out your readers. First off, I don’t remember anybody saying ethanol is the solve all for our transportation energy needs.

      Riiight …vague.

      I never said that anybody said “ethanol is the solve all for our transportation energy needs.” That’s called a strawman argument.

      A move to E15 which has been deemed safe by our EPA for vehicles 2001 or newer would solve our ethanol glut problem…

      You may have missed my post on this topic:

      …an increase to 15 percent “…would only buy some four years before the industry is back to bumping against the blend wall.”

      Source: http://www.consumerenergyreport.com/2012/02/23/e15-update-when-will-it-receive-final-approval/

      E15 would also continue to decrease the amount of ghg emissions

      E15 being produced today creates more life-cycle GHG emissions than regular gasoline:

      Bottom line, while corn ethanol technically can be produced with lower GHG emissions than gasoline today, what the industry is actually producing today is causing more climate pollution than gasoline.

      Source: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/slyutse/as_i_discussed_here_last.html

      …and create thousands of additional good paying American jobs which our country so desperately needs.

      The job creation capacity of corn ethanol is also highly over-rated:

      Growth Energy Job Estimate Is 5-to-10 Times Too High

      Source: http://www.ewg.org/agmag/2009/11/kernalnomics-the-ethanol-lobbys-inflated-jobs-claims/

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  2. By David Brown on March 13, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    One aspect of ethanol production that never seems to get any publicity is its dependence on the three basic plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potash) that make up the fertilizer necessary for producing corn and other crops providing the basic input.  These materials are not renewable and a large portion of the fertilizer used in the United States comes from other countries.   When these materials have been depleted, ethanol will no longer be a renewable fuel and the world’s food supply may also be greatly reduced.   Why the rush to destruction to produce an overpriced, inefficient fuel.  Wholesale ethanol is usually no less expensive than wholesale gasoline based on relative energy content.

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  3. By larryhagedon on March 13, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    I am sure the gullible and those biased against ethanol will buy this article. In fact it is so filled with errors of logic and fact as to be somewhat humorous. 

    The good news is that it will have zero influence on those who know the facts and choose to ignore the article and simply do what this author says cant be done.  

     Doers do while naysayers sit on their hands.  

    In reply to David Brown, N,P and K are all recoverable and recyclable with modern bio technologies. 

    That wont happen today tho. In fact, it will take many years for new plant construction to catch up with todays bio technologies, much less tomorrows.   

     

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  4. By Russ Finley on March 15, 2012 at 1:39 am

     

    I am sure the gullible and those biased against ethanol will buy this article. In fact it is so filled with errors of logic and fact as to be somewhat humorous. 

     

    Riiight …somewhat humorous. Your failure to list these errors of logic and facts suggest one of two things:

     

    1.      You were too lazy to list them.

     

    2.      They don’t exist.

     

    The good news is that it will have zero influence on those who know the facts and choose to ignore the article and simply do what this author says cant be done.

     

    What facts would you be referring to and what exactly did this author say can’t be done?

     

    Doers do while naysayers sit on their hands.

     

    I suspect that I use a lot less fossil fuel than you do for my personal transport needs.

     

    In reply to David Brown, N,P and K are all recoverable and recyclable with modern bio technologies. 

     

    A link to a source explaining how this is accomplished would be nice.

     

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  5. By perry1961 on March 15, 2012 at 4:50 am

    “Who could have predicted that:

    1. The tripling of corn prices might reduce export potential (exacerbating overall trade imbalance) in a rapidly expanding grain market?

    5. Ethanol refiners would export their excess product rather than reduce oil imports with it (taking the wind out of the energy independence argument) ?”

     

    Russ, which export contributes best to the trade imbalance, feed corn or ethanol? Which provides more jobs for Americans? This is akin to the argument over exporting refined oil products. Anything that adds jobs to the economy and and improves the trade balance is a plus in my book.

     

    I suppose we COULD triple ethanol use by using 80% of the corn crop today. OR, we could continue using the same 40% for the next 20 years and give harvests a chance to double in size. If the EPA doesn’t want to up the blend wall, there’s plenty of demand for ethanol around the world. It’s an excellent oxygenate, if nothing else. And there’s no shortage of smog filled cities.

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  6. By chuck on March 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    If ethanol is viable,why does it cost more to drive a car on e85 vs gas?Go to fueleconomy.com and check out all the flex vehicles you want.Ethanol needs to cost about 65%of what gas does to break even.This program is killing the middle class at the grocery stores.reaking even should not be good enough,the gain should be signicant to justify burning up a food source.Fueleconomy.com is a govermant webb site set up to give consumers the facts vehicle milage and cost to use.

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