February 25, 2009

Reports show little land use changes for ethanol

Two studies released this week address the land use issue surrounding corn-based ethanol.

One study reported that corn ethanol production of 15 billion gallons per year in 2015 (as in the Renewable Fuels Standard) is unlikely to result in the conversion of non-agricultural lands anywhere.

Instead, increasing crop yields and the corresponding increase in ethanol coproducts for feed use would erase the need to expand global cropland to meet corn-based ethanol requirements outlined in the RFS.

Thomas Darlington, who is with Air Improvement Resource Inc., wrote the report and noted that land use changes would be considerably smaller than other studies have estimated – and he takes the time to explain in the report errors of these other studies. In general, some earlier studies ignored yield improvements and expanded coproduct production (like distillers grains). Click here (.pdf) for the full report.

It is amazing how many researchers still “forget” to count the distillers grains that also come from the ethanol plant!

Darlington also noted that if U.S. corn exports are constant (or increasing, like they did last year), even with growing demand for ethanol, then international land use changes should NOT be assigned to corn ethanol.

In other words, if the U.S. continues corn exports as it always has, then it is not appropriate to say corn ethanol will result in deforestation, etc., in other parts of the world.

This is important because some are trying to argue that corn ethanol results in as much or more greenhouse gas emissions as regular old gasoline. To achieve that conclusion, however, people figure if one acre of corn in the U.S. goes to ethanol than an acre in a rain forest somewhere must be burned and plowed for crop production.

Some of these folks - a couple of environmentalists even - believe it is better to use more oil and gasoline than ethanol (click here and here). Crazy, I know. Kind of makes you question their true motives.

And don't forget this good study from the University of Nebraska.

Second, a study from the University of Illinois found that a modern ethanol plant does not meaningfully change farmland use, neither the amount of land farmed nor the mix of crops planted. The study's findings are in contrast to “theories” that increased production of corn ethanol results in the conversion of unused farmland into corn production.

Rod Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, who sponsored the study, said the research demonstrates that the often cited link between new ethanol plants and the conversion of non agricultural land to corn is highly questionable. “Corn ethanol is not a central driver in the conversion of non-corn farmland to corn production,” he said.

Farmers had land to convert to corn production and didn’t. Instead, increased demand was met by production improvements.

The study examined the area around an ethanol plan in Rochelle, Illinois. It looked at relevant farming data - including satellite imagery and farmer surveys - one year prior to the plant opening through to two years after.

For more, click here.

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