Friday, July 20, 2007

The Rush To Ethanol: Not All BioFuels Are Equal

Jul 18: The future of biofuels is not in corn, says a new report released by Food & Water Watch, the Network for New Energy Choices, and the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment. The corn ethanol refinery industry, the beneficiary of new renewable fuel targets in the proposed energy legislation as well as proposed loan guarantee subsidies in the 2007 Farm Bill, will not significantly offset U.S. fossil fuel consumption without unacceptable environmental and economic consequences.

Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said, "Rural communities won't benefit from the Farm Bill becoming a fuel bill. In the long run, family farmers and the environment will be losers, while agribusiness, whose political contributions are fueling the ethanol frenzy, will become the winners.”

Scott Cullen, Senior Policy Advisor for the Network for New Energy Choices said, "Rising oil prices, energy security, and global warming concerns have led to today's 'go yellow' hype over corn ethanol. But all biofuels are not equal. Expansion of the corn ethanol industry will lead to more water and air pollution and soil erosion of America's farm belt, while failing to significantly offset fossil fuel use or combat global warming."

The report entitled, The Rush to Ethanol: Not all BioFuels are Equal, is a comprehensive review of the literature on the environmental and economic implications of pinning our hopes on corn ethanol to reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Among other findings the report concludes that corn is the least sustainable biofuel feedstock of all raw materials commonly used. The report indicates, "The capacity of corn ethanol to offset U.S. fossil fuel use is extremely limited. Dedicating the entire U.S. corn crop to ethanol production would only offset 15 percent of gasoline demand. Conversely, modest increases in auto fuel efficiency standards of even one mile per gallon for all cars and light trucks, such as those passed by the Senate last month could cut petroleum consumption by more than all alternative fuels and replacement fuels combined."

The report also finds that, "Corn ethanol is the wrong biofuel for combating global warming. The most favorable estimates show that corn ethanol could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent to 28 percent, while cellulosic ethanol is estimated to offer a reduction of 87 percent compared to gasoline."

The groups indicate that both the farm and energy legislation being debated in Congress contain provisions that will set biofuels policy for years to come. They said, "While the politicians promise that America will be driving on switchgrass-based ethanol instead of gasoline in the next decade, the majority of the subsidies will go to corn-based ethanol refiners in the near term." They made recommendations on U.S. biofuels policy including proposed reforms to ethanol provisions of the 2007 Farm Bill.

For example, they say biofuels promotion policies should be tied to a sustainable fuel standard; ethanol funding should focus on research and development of cellulosic ethanol; no coal-fired ethanol refineries should be eligible for federal subsidies; and loan guarantees for refineries should be directed to locally owned facilities that benefit farmers and rural communities.

The report also cautions that there are concerns even with the large scale development of cellulosic ethanol. It is indicated, for example, that removing agricultural residues beyond what is needed to maintain and replenish soil organic matter (SOM) will exacerbate erosion; converting protected lands, such as those enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, to energy crops will significantly compromise the ecological benefits of land conservation; planting switchgrass has conservation value relative to corn row cropping, but is not a substitute for (in terms of wildlife protection and soil conservation) diverse, native habitats on protected lands; and technical processes for breaking down cellulose for ethanol refining likely would place increasing pressure on water resources.

The report concludes, "Ethanol is not the silver bullet that will solve the problems of rising oil prices, dependency on foreign oil, or greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels, if produced sustainably, should instead be considered in the context of a comprehensive transportation model transformation based on energy efficiency and conservation, and focused on reducing fuel demand."

Access a release and link to the complete 78-page report and a report summary (click here). Access the Food & Water Watch website for additional information (click here). Access various eNewsUSA Blog posts regarding corn and ethanol issues (click here). [*Energy, *Biofuels, *Agriculture]