May 6, 2010

‘Theory’ on indirect land use change gets weaker

“Indirect land use change theory” are five words that still have ethanol supporters and farmers scratching their heads. After all, the Nebraska Corn Board said in a news release today, it seems arbitrary to assign a land use change penalty involving carbon emissions to renewable ethanol when no such penalty is assigned to oil.

Indirect land use change theory and its accompanying penalty are included in calculations by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) as part of its low carbon fuel standards and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its Renewable Fuels Standard. The theory comes from the notion that using corn for ethanol will require soil to be tilled in other parts of the world to plant more corn.

(For some history, click here.)

“We have a problem with the indirect land use change theory because it is only a theory, the science is shaky and real-world evidence suggests the theory is off base,” said Kelly Brunkhorst, director of research for the Nebraska Corn Board.

Brunkhorst explained that a recent update to one of the models used to calculate land use change cut by more than half the original land use change penalty on corn-based ethanol.

By half!

“This was one update and the penalty was cut by more than half. What happens as the model continues to use more current data? How will regulators keep up? How will they justify the use of this theory?” Brunkhorst asked.

The model Brunkhorst referred to is the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) model developed by Purdue University. GTAP was used by the California ARB to help set its low carbon fuel standards.

The recent update included more current information on the ethanol co-product distillers grains, which is fed to livestock, and the addition of acres devoted to the Conservation Reserve Program and pastures – two significant land uses in the United States that were left out of the original model. (How can you forget to include some 580 million acres of pasture land?? What else has been forgotten?)

“While this update is positive, it continues to show that we need more statistical research and better science before we can attempt to blame corn ethanol for land use changes in other countries,” Brunkhorst said. “While ARB needs to update its figures, ultimately we believe that indirect land use change should not be a consideration for any fuel standards.”

At the same time, the California ARB should reconsider its position that there are no indirect penalties from oil production.

“It is difficult to comprehend that the California ARB believes there are no side affects to the continued exploration, development and use of petroleum,” Brunkhorst said. “Just look at the Gulf right now, look at what happens regularly in Nigeria, the tar sands in Canada. Oil has indirect impacts daily, and they are quite profound.

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