Ethanol Hearing

(In addition to earning a Ph.D in agronomy/soil science, Thicke is an organic farmer and was the Democratic nominee for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2010. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Today I attended the hearing put on by Governor Branstad to bash the EPA for proposing to change the rules on the Renewable Fuels Standard for ethanol.  It was an all-day pepfest for ethanol.  I came late, but I think was the only one to talk about the "other side" of ethanol.Here are my remarks (although the footnote explanations and references don't come through):

 Ethanol: The Rest of the Story

Francis Thicke, Ph. D.  

The original idea behind biofuels was good: to create a farmer-owned industry to produce home-grown fuels - preferably for on-farm use -- with the expectation that over time feedstocks would transition from erosive and nutrient-leaky row crops (corn and soybeans) to more sustainable perennial cropping systems.  It didn't go that way.  Today, few Iowa ethanol plants have local ownership, and we have made no progress in converting to more sustainable feedstocks.  In fact, we are going backwards on sustainability by beginning to also harvest corn stover for ethanol production, leaving the soil even less resilient and protected.  Corn ethanol production has become an extractive industry: extracting wealth from local communities while degrading our soil and water resource base.

It is not just Big Oil that has concerns

It is disingenuous to frame the debate on the Renewable Fuels Standards (RFS) as a struggle between farmers and Big Oil.  Indeed, Big Oil - in the form of the oil refining industry -- now owns some of Iowa's ethanol plants, as do multinational grain corporations.  

What is not widely known is that the livestock industry has taken a strong stand against the excesses of the RFS.  In an April, 2013 press release, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council said: "Cattlemen and women are self-reliant, but in order to maintain that we cannot be asked to compete with federal mandates like the Renewable Fuels Standard for the limited supply of feed grains...something is broken and needs to be fixed."   The changes to the RFS proposed by EPA are in line with changes called for by the livestock industry, in order to help achieve a better balance in the use of America's feed grains.  Incidentally, I have noticed that there are no representatives of the livestock industries on the program today to speak against EPA's proposed RFS changes.

Clearly the ethanol industry created its own problems by overbuilding production capacity and as a result producing ethanol in excess of the blend wall.  Unfortunately, Iowa's politicians were cheerleading the overgrowth of the ethanol industry - echoing the ethanol industry's exaggerated talking points while providing state subsidies for building more ethanol plants.  Disappointingly, our politicians did not have the vision or foresight to say "enough already" before we got too many ethanol plants built.  

The ethanol industry has become a runaway train.  Iowa politicians from both sides of the aisle have jumped onto the train - fueled by lobbyists and exaggerated industry claims -- oblivious to where the tracks are leading.  Now they are all lined up to cry "foul" when EPA is trying to bring back a bit of reality and balance to the RFS.

Collateral Environmental Damage

• For every gallon of ethanol produced from corn, two gallons of soil are lost to erosion.

• Soil erosion from corn production averages 5.9 ton/acre/year.   Research shows that soil regeneration occurs at an average rate of only about 0.24 ton/acre/year .  Therefore, corn production for ethanol is causing soil to erode 25 times faster than the average rate of soil regeneration - clearly not a sustainable proposition.

• Corn production on tile-drained soils is a major contributor to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  According to the US Geological Survey, corn and soybean production account for 52% of the nitrogen making its way to the Gulf to fuel the Dead Zone .

• Locally, streams and lakes are overloaded and degraded by runoff, leached nutrients and sediment from soil erosion, much of which can be attributed to growing corn for ethanol production.  The Des Moines Water Works has installed the world's largest nitrate removal equipment to remove nitrate from drinking water, at a cost of $7000/day.  Those costs are in part attributable to corn ethanol production.

Net Energy Gain of Ethanol

• The ethanol industry claims that ethanol supplies 10% of the U.S. gasoline usage: 13 billion gallons out of 130 billion gallons annually.  While that factoid is technically true, it obfuscates the fact that the net energy gain from ethanol production is much, much less.  

• Thermodynamically, ethanol contains just 2/3 of the energy of gasoline,  which means that 13 billion gallons of ethanol have the energy equivalence of just 8.7 billion gallons of gasoline.  

• To calculate the actual net energy gain from producing ethanol, it is also necessary to account for all the fossil fuels required to grow the corn and to process it into ethanol.  The ethanol industry's own numbers are that "Ethanol production generates 67 percent more energy than it takes to produce ," which means that "embedded fossil fuels" account for 60% of ethanol's energy, and the net energy gain from making ethanol is just 40%.  

• As pointed out above, 13 billion gallons of ethanol have the energy equivalence of 8.7 billion gallons of gasoline.  If we also deduct the embedded fossil fuel energy required to make ethanol (multiply 8.7 billion by 0.4), we find that the 13 billion gallons of ethanol produced annually have a net energy equivalence of just 3.48 billion gallons of gasoline, or just 2.67% of the annual 130 billion gallons of gasoline used in the U.S.

• To circumvent the need for those 3.48 billion equivalent gallons of gasoline through increased automobile efficiency (instead of using ethanol) would require just a 2.67% increase in automobile mileage.  According to the EPA, the average mileage of passenger vehicles on the road in the U.S. is 21 mpg.   To increase mileage by 2.67% would require the average mileage to increase to just 21.56 mpg.

• In other words, if we increased our average passenger vehicle mileage by about half of one mpg - which could be achieved by keeping all existing cars' tire pressures at optimum levels -- we could save the amount of energy equivalent to all the ethanol produced in the U.S. -- without the attendant environmental degradation associated with ethanol production.

• We could do much better than that.  We already have the technology to double our automobile mileage.  I drove to this hearing in an 8-year-old car (four-passenger) averaging 43 mpg.  Average passenger vehicle mileage in Europe and Japan is 45 to 50 mpg.  We could easily double our fuel mileage and thereby cut our annual gasoline use from 130 billion gallons to 65 billion gallons, without using any ethanol.

• Why are we putting so many resources into inefficiently producing ethanol for gas-guzzling cars when we could achieve orders of magnitude greater gains by using already-available technologies for fuel efficiency?  Is it because the RFS is a corn policy, rather than part of an energy policy?

• Some will argue that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of gasoline than to produce a gallon of ethanol, so why worry about the poor energy return on corn ethanol.  It may be true that gasoline production is even less efficient than thermodynamically than ethanol production.  However, it is probably a given that we will eventually pump out of the ground every barrel of oil that can be economically extracted.  But it is not a given that we must degrade our soils and water to produce ethanol from corn.

EPA is Not Calling for Major Changes

• The sky is not falling for corn ethanol.  EPA's proposed changes to the RFS are not that radical.  They are just a needed adjustment for changing realities that would be prudent in any other business planning.  As EPA's fact sheet put it:  'The proposal seeks to put the RFS program on a steady path forward -- ensuring the continued growth of renewable fuels while recognizing the practical limits on ethanol blending, called the ethanol "blend wall."'

• Corn ethanol was always meant to be a stepping stone to advanced biofuels.  The negative reaction to the RFS adjustment is an indicator we've lost track of the ultimate vision for renewable fuels production in Iowa.

  • thank you for providing substance

    on an issue we mainly here in sound bites from Iowa politicians. I wish our elected officials could have a reasonable conversation, rather than supporting the ethanol industry in a knee-jerk way.

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