Study Suggests Corn Ethanol Can’t Get There From Here
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:
- The tripling of corn prices might reduce export potential (exacerbating overall trade imbalance) in a rapidly expanding grain market?
- Cellulosic ethanol would not arrive (which may be irrelevant considering that corn ethanol has hogged up the entire market)?
- 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)?
- The inevitable blend wall would create a glut of ethanol?
- Ethanol refiners would export their excess product rather than reduce oil imports with it (taking the wind out of the energy independence argument) ?
- The demand for land to capitalize on high corn prices might increase soil erosion and reduce wildlife habitat?
- The diversion of food crops to fuel would be a contributor to rising global food prices?
- 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?”