Does the ethanol mandate increase CO2 emissions?

That may seem counter-intuitive, because burning ethanol merely puts back into the air the carbon dioxide (CO2) that corn crops recently pulled out of it, whereas burning gasoline liberates carbon that had been stored in geologic deposits for millions of years.

But other factors come into play, such as the fossil energy inputs required to produce the corn, turn it into ethanol, and deliver the ethanol to market. 

In addition, as EPA argues in its proposed rule to implement the renewable fuel standard program established by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), expanding corn production into forest and grass lands can release substantial amounts of carbon stored in soils and trees.

Similarly, when U.S. farmers grow corn in areas previously used to produce soy beans, for example, farmers in Brazil have an incentive to convert forest land into soy plantations.

As you might expect, EPA’s use of life-cycle analysis, although required by EISA, drives the ethanol lobby and its congressional allies up the wall. They claim it is ridiculous to link increased corn production here to increased CO2 emissions in developing countries.

But, as my colleague, agricultural commodity analyst Dave Juday, demonstrates, the numbers paint a very clear picture. With Dave’s permission, I reproduce below an email he sent around earlier today.

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With regard to GHG and the EPA’s RFS [renewable fuel standard] 2 rule, … the concept of “indirect land use changes” (ILUC) get criticized for being faulty, but it actually is pretty sound.  

Consider, if ethanol drives up US corn  plantings (which it did) and drives down US soybean plantings and production (which it did, because the US – the largest producer and exporter – has only so much farm land and not much tillable acreage to expand) and thereby raises the world price of soybeans, it raises the incentives to grow soybeans elsewhere in the world.  It just so happens Brazil – which is the world’s second largest producer and exporter – is the most likely place where additional soybeans will be grown on virgin land because that is where the virgin land is. 

The real weak link in this GHG lifecycle emissions concept is the ability to measure and value the carbon emissions and sequestration and the process by which “value” gets assigned to practices and manufacturing processes.  Yet, as might be expected from ethanol advocates, it is the simple, fundamental, and rational economic concept that is argued against.    Consider the perspectives shared by a lobbyist and a US Senator on the issue of “indirect land use changes” driven by US biofuel policy:

  •  Basically, the EPA has determined that the production of ethanol in America is forcing land use changes in Brazil and other foreign countries to destroy their valuable rain forests to produce farm commodities to make up for reduced exports of these commodities from the United States. Mr. Chairman, I have been in Washington for a long time, but I have never heard of a more bizarre concept. — Tom Buis, CEO, Growth Energy
  •  Every chance I get, I’m going to bring this issue up. It’s so obvious that the EPA’s rationale doesn’t meet the common sense test.  It’s ridiculous to think that Brazilian farmers are looking to see what Iowa farmers are doing to determine how they run their own business, and quite frankly it’s plain unfair to farmers. —  Honorable Charles Grassley, US Senator (R-IA)

Addressing these comments above is one of those cases where a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words:


SOURCE: USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service: Production, Supply, and Distribution Online

Added: May 29, 2009

Lisa Lerer delves into the “life cycle analysis” controversy in the May 26 issue of Politico.  Farm state Democrats are threatening to oppose the Waxman-Markey bill if, as required by EISA, EPA considers the indirect impacts on land-use changes abroad when determining the life-cycle CO2 emissions of domestic ethanol production. 

The same lawmakers enthusiastically supported the EISA renewable fuel program as a global warming policy when they thought it would rig the market in favor of corn farmers. Now they’re threatening to derail Obama’s cap-and-trade initiative if EPA follows the law they helped enact. 

Obama campaigned on a platform of CHANGE, but he may find that in Washington still, Pork Rules and Corn Is King.