Robert White: Ethanol is One of Our Most Environmentally Sound Energy Options
The Associated Press wrote a factually flawed, biased article on ethanol and what they perceive to be the negative environmental impact of increased corn demand. The article uses disproven myths, skewed data, and outright fabrications to suggest that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and biofuels have not lived up to their promise. Here are the facts.
The AP article claims, "But rather than insisting that farmers report whenever they plow into virgin land, the government decided on a much murkier oversight method: Washington instead monitors the total number of acres of cropland nationwide. Local trends wash away when viewed at such a distance."
Current law strictly prohibits the conversion of sensitive ecosystems to cropland. The provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) require that corn and other feedstocks used to produce renewable fuels for the RFS may only be sourced from land that was actively engaged in agricultural production in 2007, the year of the bill's enactment. Feedstocks grown on land converted to cropland after 2007 would not qualify as "renewable biomass," and therefore biofuels produced from these feedstocks would not generate RIN credits for the RFS.
Additionally, EPA is required to annually evaluate whether the RFS is causing U.S. cropland to expand beyond the 2007 level of 402 million acres (the year the RFS was expanded). Each and every year, EPA has found that cropland has been below the 2007 baseline; and the 2012 cropland total was at its lowest point (384 million acres) since EPA began this annual analysis.
The AParticle claims, "The government's predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases."
In fact there are plenty of independent scientists who have found ethanol significantly reduces GHG emissions relative to gasoline. Other scientists have looked at the full range of ethanol's impacts on air, land, and water compared to gasoline and concluded that ethanol is superior. In just the last few years, scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, Purdue University, University of Nebraska, Michigan State University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Duke University, and University of Illinois-Chicago have published work documenting the GHG and environmental benefits of using ethanol. Even Richard Plevin of U.C. Berkeley, who is quoted in the article, was co-author of a paper entitled "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals."
The AP article claims, "It didn't take long for reality to prove the Obama administration's predictions wrong. The regulations took effect in July 2010. That September, corn passed $4, on its way to about $7, where it has been most of this year."
Corn prices have been above $7 a bushel only 49 days out of the 311 days so far this year-or 16% of the time. That's a far cry from "most of the year." In fact, corn prices have spent more days (66) this year under $5/bushel, and have recently traded as low as$4.20 a bushel.
On Dec. 19, 2007, the day President Bush signed the EISA into law, corn prices closed at $4.34 per bushel. By comparison, corn prices closed a recent trading session on Nov. 7, 2013 at $4.21 per bushel.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently issued a World Agricultural Supply and Demand (WASDE) report showing a 2% decrease in planted acreage compared to last year while at the same time estimating that the 2013 corn crop will achieve a new record of 13.99 billion bushels.
As you can see the story ignores the facts, but the larger problem is its utter lack of context. You can't count angels on the head of a pin for one industry and ignore others. Ethanol is certainly not a scorched earth industry, but if you want to see one, go and look at the fracking operation in North Dakota, or the ecological disaster awaiting Canada from leveling forests for tar sands!
Ethanol is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and as second generation biofuels come online this will only get better. It's time we take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Ethanol's carbon footprint is marginal, where conventional fossil based fuels' impact on the environment continues to be very significant. Our energy solutions need to be clean and inexpensive and this is exactly what ethanol is and other liquid fuels are not.
White is the Renewable Fuels Association's director of market development. He lives in Olathe.