March 11, 2009

"Mr. President, Tear Down This Blend Wall!"

So says USDA Chief Tom Vilsack. What he's referring to is the so-called Blend Wall for ethanol in gasoline. The EPA currently sets a limit of how much ethanol can be mixed into gas and then sold at your local gas station -- 10%. That limit is effectively the sales ceiling for ethanol -- once ethanol producers hit that "wall," refiners won't buy another drop.

With fuel consumption and oil prices both tanking which has led to a cratering of demand for ethanol, ethanol producers and their main suppliers -- corn farmers -- are desperate for a government handout. At first they asked for some of that stimulus money in the form of a direct bailout -- Vilsack didn't bite. No loans, no grants, no nothing. At the same time, Vilsack has said he wants to "maintain the infrastructure" of ethanol production while moving away from corn as the primary feedstock. The problem is that you can't do that without supporting the current ethanol industry, which is fueled by lots and lots (and lots) of that selfsame primary feedstock -- corn.

It's hard to imagine just how much corn is required to make a usable amount of ethanol. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has a great quote that sums it up: "The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year." A year of food for a fill-up? In 2007, the US produced 6.5 BILLION gallons of the stuff. Do I really need to go on?

Fine, I will. Let's look at those 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol. That's a lot of gallons. It must be a big chunk of our annual gasoline use, right? Wrong. We used 142 billion gallons of gasoline last year. We grew all that corn -- corn that could have fed over two hundred million people for a year -- and all we got was less than 5% of the fuel we need. There's a t-shirt in there somewhere -- I just know it.

Meanwhile the climate impact from corn ethanol is staggering. Any study that attempts to take factors into account other than the energy content of corn vs. the energy content of gasoline shows corn ethanol to be a lousy option that offers no climate benefits. That's because you simply can't look at corn ethanol in isolation (which is how the corn farms and the ethanol lobby do it). Corn requires lots of fossil fuel-based fertilizer, pesticides, and diesel fuel to grow and harvest. Ethanol is also moved around by truck (rather than pipeline) so you need to take transportation into account - transport from the field to the factory and from the factory to the distributor and from the distributor to the gas station. That's a lot of trucking.

According to a new study out of Duke, the greenhouse gas contributions of just farming the corn entirely offset any carbon advantage from burning ethanol instead of gasoline in cars. Their conclusion: you're better off leaving the soil fallow. But you can't fully estimate the full effect of corn ethanol unless you take land use into account. Let me repeat that in All Caps: YOU HAVE TO TAKE LAND USE INTO ACCOUNT. And the land use issues are huge.

It's not just a question of using food for fuel. You have to calculate how many farmers will switch to corn from other less-profitable crops. You have to determine how much ecologically fragile land will be plowed under in the demand for corn. You have to look at how countries like Brazil will respond to US increases in corn production. Answer: they will burn down their rainforests so that they can grow the food crops we're not growing. A team from Woods Hole Research Center determined that expanding corn ethanol production will thus cause a big jump in greenhouse gas emissions. And Lester Brown points out the same may be true for non-food crops like switchgrass (a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol), "if it is that profitable on marginal land, imagine how profitable it would be on prime crop land."

So here we are with our backs to the blend wall. I should note that Vilsack and industry shills like retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who now works for the new ethanol lobby group Growth Energy, are not in fact asking the President to change the blend wall. They are asking the EPA. In the past, the EPA has evaluated the "safety" of mixing ethanol in gasoline based on damage the ethanol might do to a car engine and/or its catalytic converter. And that's why, as Ob Fo noted yesterday, Vilsack thinks "that this is something that can be done within existing regulations without a great deal of time spent reviewing the science." Indeed, Reuters reports that "many believe the EPA has the authority to allow a temporary jump to 12 or 13 percent" without any meaningful review. That "authority" flows entirely from the EPA's past car engine research.

And there's the rub. Is it possible that EPA scientists will ignore the carbon issue in the course of considering a change in the blend wall? The controversy over corn ethanol's climate impact is fairly well recognized. For all the lobbying (with even climate-friendly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supporting the change), the EPA could still punt and say that the new data on climate impacts require them to look at the blend wall more closely. The EPA is, after all, on the verge of making its official "endangerment" finding, as required by a recent Supreme Court case, that carbon dioxide must be regulated as a pollutant. Any blend wall decision could be mooted by that finding.

This whole ethanol mishegas is what happens when a shortsighted energy policy based on "reducing our dependence on foreign oil" (rather than reducing our dependence on carbon period) meets one of the all-time greatest government giveaways (in this case to industrial agriculture) - aka the corn ethanol boondoggle. As Ezra Klein memorably put it, corn ethanol "is agribusiness's get-rich-quick scheme masquerading as an energy policy." And boy, are we paying for that profligacy now.

Photo by natjoschock used under a CC license

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