Friday, June 08, 2007

Environmental Impacts Of The"Thirst for Corn"

Jun 7: A 10-page World Resources Institute (WRI) Policy Note entitled, Thirst for Corn: What 2007 Plantings Could Mean for the Environment, says that now that the ethanol industry has been jump-started by legislation, priorities should be directed less at the expansion of the industry and more at an evolution that offers the most benefits for the environment and energy security. The brief indicates that as a result, in large part from the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) -- legislative mandate for increased renewable fuels use that passed as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 -- the corn ethanol industry is expanding at an unprecedented rate in the United States.

The 115 ethanol plants operating in April 2007 have the capacity to produce 5.75 billion gallons per year (BGY) of ethanol, and an estimated 86 plants under construction are expected to produce an additional 6.34 BGY of capacity within the next 18 months. The cumulative total capacity -- more than 12 BGY by 2009 -- far exceeds the RFS blending mandate of 7.5 BGY by 2012, and has been the driving force behind skyrocketing corn prices in the last 12 months.

The brief points out, "Although ethanol is widely promoted as a green alternative to gasoline, there are many different ways to produce ethanol, using many different feedstocks, and some ways are greener than others. Production of the feedstock represents a significant share of the environmental footprint of ethanol production; to ensure sustainability of production, we need to pay close attention to the environmental impacts of producing those feedstocks and have policies in place to avoid or mitigate those impacts."

The brief provides a sophisticated analysis of the environmental and economic impacts of increased ethanol production from corn. WRI uses a national scale agro-environmental production model, which integrates the Regional Environmental and Agricultural Production model (REAP) -- a national agricultural production model developed and maintained by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and formerly known as USMP -- with the Environmental Policy Integrated Climate (EPIC), a plant growth and environmental impact model. The combined model allows projections indicating how increased corn demand will translate into regional changes in crops grown, tillage practices used, and crop rotations employed, and to then estimate the net environmental impacts of those changes. To measure environmental impacts WRI looked specifically at agricultural GHG emissions, which are often under-represented in the dialogue about greenhouse gas reductions, as well as at nitrogen and phosphorus loads into local waterways and rates of soil erosion, which have been the focus of most existing and pilot agricultural conservation programs.

The baseline agricultural production scenario for our analysis uses the USDA’s 2006 projected baseline for 2007 crop production patterns and a baseline ethanol production level of 6 BGY. Relative to that scenario, we explore how 2007 planting patterns are likely to respond to meet projected corn demands for 2008 ethanol production levels ranging from the baseline of 6 BGY up to 11 BGY.

The analysis results suggest that meeting projected demands for ethanol will require a substantial reallocation of land to corn production and that the shift to corn production will have significant negative environmental impacts if we assume that existing production practices continue under the current policy framework. The results of that analysis for each land-supply scenario are summarized and described in more detail in the briefing report.

Access the 10-page analysis and recommendations (
click here). [*Energy]