March 12, 2009

Indirect land use and ethanol: An unproven theory

The talk over land use has heated up since California's Air Resources Board (ARB) published proposed rules on its "Low Carbon Fuel Standard" last week.

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is one step in the state's plans to reduce its carbon output. Although that may sound nice if carbon output is a concern for you, ARB's methodology is a bit perplexing and actually favors gasoline over much of the corn-based ethanol available in the state. In fact, most ethanol would not meat the state's goals to reduce carbon emissions, which it measures in grams of carbon per magajoule of of energy the energy source delivers.

In all actuality, corn ethanol fairs much better than gasoline - but where ARB pulls the rug is when it assigns a "land use change" factor to ethanol. This factor is based on assumptions that don't always make sense. If we use an acre of corn in the U.S. to produce ethanol (and feed - researchers tend to forget about distillers grains), does that mean an acre of rain forest will be burned and plowed somewhere else?

The answer is 'no' - real-world experience tells us that. (Check out this post at the MidwestCornGrowers blog.)

But an unproven theory is better than real world experience or common sense?

For example, if U.S. exports remain the same or increase, is it fair to say acres being plowed up somewhere else is the fault of U.S. corn-based ethanol? That's what one study noted - a study that concluded we could get to 15 billion gallons of ethanol without any land use changes at all.

Growth Energy has a very good paper on the subject - to get to that paper, follow this link to a news release it issued.

It cites two problems with ARB's theories:
  • First, the facts show that using corn for ethanol has not led to sharp decreases in grain exports and is unlikely to in the future. According to USDA projections, exports for corn and soybeans are likely to remain steady or grow slightly through 2015.
  • Second, the theory claims that producing ethanol from corn drives deforestation in the Amazon. However, data from Brazil's National Institute of Space Research shows that even while U.S. ethanol production has dramatically increased, deforestation in the Amazon has significantly decreased.
Here's a post on DTN - note that it says ARB is trying to pass this off as science when it is really just a theory.

And in a report from Brownfield, an Iowa State researcher said the argument on land use change is misplaced.

Dr. Robert Brown, the director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University says the theory of “indirect land use” is simply conjecture and should not be used to set fuel emissions policy...that it is an unproven theory.

As an example of the confusion over indirect land use, Brown noted that 500 million acres of rain forest have disappeared in the past decade. In that same time period, 20 million acres of agricultural lands were devoted to biofuels production.

"There’s 480 million acres of rainforest that have disappeared for reasons other than biofuels production, in the worst case scenario," Brown said.

Click the link above for more - including a good interview with Brown.

And don't forget that farmers are doing more with less every year.

Or that more than 100 scientists chimed in noting California's proposal may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions and worsen the state's dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

For some common sense from the Renewable Fuels Association, click here, or click here for a report on the Huffington Post.

Plus - what about all the new jungles cropping up around the world? What? You haven't heard about that? Neither had I - until this post.

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