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Revamp policy: Stress sustainability

Friday, September 18, 2009

Des Moines Register, Craig Cox

Published November 3, 2008

Two recent reports in the Register make it clear that we need to overhaul our biofuels policy.

First, Philip Brasher reported that the ethanol industry is lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure corn ethanol benefits from the 2007 congressional mandate requiring us to use more biofuels. To benefit from the mandate, a biofuel must reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent compared to using gasoline. The industry wants EPA to ignore the large amounts of greenhouse gases that will be released if new land is plowed under as biofuel production ramps up. If those emissions are counted, corn ethanol likely won't pass the 20 percent reduction test.

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Second, Perry Beeman reported that emissions from ethanol plants themselves account for 15 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions from major sources in Iowa. The 7.6 million metric tons that ethanol plants emit each year are equivalent to emissions from almost 1.4 million cars, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. But emissions from the ethanol plants themselves are just the beginning. Growing the corn needed to supply ethanol plants uses a lot of fossil fuel, and the application of nitrogen fertilizer releases nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Scientists are warning that if EPA properly accounts for greenhouse-gas emissions, using corn ethanol may be worse than using gasoline. Moreover, the biofuel mandates and subsidies do nothing to address the increased risk of soil degradation, water pollution and habitat loss as we ramp up production to supply crops for food, feed and fuel.

Iowa and the United States have placed a large bet on corn ethanol. Every gallon of ethanol produced costs federal taxpayers 51 cents in subsidies. That means the 9 billion gallons of ethanol the 2007 energy bill mandates for production this year cost us $5.1 billion in tax breaks to the companies that blend ethanol with gasoline. The Energy Information Agency reported in April 2008 that 79 percent of all federal subsidies for renewable fuels - including solar, wind and geothermal - went to support ethanol production.

Is this the right balance for an energy policy that will move us away from fossil fuels, reduce global warming and protect our environment?

Corn ethanol just can't get us where we need to go. Even if we used all of the corn harvest projected for this year to produce ethanol, we would displace only 15 percent of the gasoline we use each year. Many are hoping that cellulosic biofuels will deliver on ethanol's original promise. Reports from industry and academia tout a dizzying array of different and competing futures for biofuels while skeptics raise red flags about the economics and environmental performance of cellulosic ethanol. Hope may turn out to be hype.

Getting to a renewable-energy future is critical to our state and our country. We need to overhaul our biofuels policies now if we hope that future includes truly sustainable biofuels.

We need to:

1. Phase out the mandate to use more corn ethanol.

2. Set standards for all biofuels that include protection of soil, water and habitat in addition to greenhouse-gas reductions.

3. Let science and market competition devise the best fuels, feed stocks and technologies to achieve those standards.

4. Replace the ethanol blender's tax credit with credits to ethanol producers that are achieving environmental-performance standards.

These four actions would create incentives for existing ethanol producers to ramp up their environmental performance and would create public policy that gets us what we need: less dependence on fossil fuels, less global warming and a cleaner environment.

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