I don’t want to think about the number of trees sacrificed or how close EPA’s Internet portal came to crashing this week as literally thousands of public comments were filed by the October 11 deadline on whether EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson should use her statutory authority to temporarily waive through calendar 2013 the ethanol Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) – the federal mandate on how much ethanol must be blended with gasoline on an annual basis.
Eight governors formally petitioned Jackson to take the action, citing the 2012 drought, its lingering effects, the decimated corn crop, dwindling corn stocks and spiking prices as a virtual knock-out punch to their livestock and poultry industries based on skyrocketing feed prices. They governors are supported by the national livestock/poultry industries, the feed industry, nearly 200 members of Congress, numerous environmental, consumer and hunger groups and the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). Five governors and the ethanol industry argue a waiver won’t do anything to help corn prices moderate, corn-based ethanol produces dried distillers’ grains (DDGs), so EPA should just leave the ethanol RFS mandate alone. The only winners in this policy tug-of-war are the consultants/analysts cranking out study after expensive study making the case for either side.
I personally worked on half a dozen sets of comments, and with a lone exception, the arguments made are totally focused on the industry economics of U.S. ethanol versus U.S. food production. Once we’re over this waiver hurdle, it will be time, I think to broaden this “discussion” so the whole food versus fuel issue based on government-created/mandated markets is viewed globally.
About 99.9999% of all U.S. ethanol is refined from corn – the main ingredient in 95% of all livestock/poultry/pet foods, not to mention human food products – therein lies our biggest domestic problem. Ethanol is a necessary biofuel. It and its descendants will lead us closer to energy independence. But as one set of comments I read put it: “The U.S. priority on food security…must be at least as high as the priority placed on future energy security.”
The debate is not exclusive to the U.S. The European Union (EU) proposes to limit the number of acres of cropland used to grow biofuels feedstocks, i.e. corn and soybeans, and this proposal is effectively a 180-degree flip in EU biofuels policy. European farmers enjoying higher prices for crops grown for biofuels are up in arms. Again, a purely self-centered economic reaction to what should be a holistic policy debate on biofuel impact on global food availability and price, fuel quality and alternative feedstocks, the environment – it takes three gallons of water at the refinery to produce one gallon of ethanol; 2011 U.S ethanol production consumed nearly 42 billion gallons of fresh water – and the impact of biofuels production on less-developed nations trying to get a handle on conventional food, environmental and fuel challenges.
The key here is not to bludgeon the ethanol industry, it’s a vital industry. However, we must transition biofuels production to non-food feedstocks, including wastes. Cellulosic ethanol – a fuel refined from plants and plant waste and not edible corn – has long been touted as the answer by a lot of folks, but the technology has been slow in coming even with millions of federal dollars spent on research. However, in 2013, seven U.S. cellulosic ethanol refineries are supposed to come on line; by 2014, these facilities should be producing about 185 million gallons of ethanol a year. A far cry from the 13.9 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol refined this year, but a start is a start. Analysts say there’s enough “biomass” available globally to produce 93 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year by 2030.
The call for a global consensus on the future who/what/where/when/why of world biofuels production – including some very necessary process advances in refining to make it as environmentally friendly as it is engine friendly – has long been a low rumble from responsible multinational food companies which understand only environmentally sustainable biofuels can be the future, and if done correctly, good things can happen to the company bottom line.
This policy debate will rev up in 2013 when all those newly elected and reminted members return for the 113th Congress if only because livestock and poultry groups have vowed to kill the RFS. No matter who’s in the White House or which party controls Congress, the debate over the future of U.S. biofuel production will broaden and deepen if only to reduce federal spending and close down the political no-man’s land in which too many members find themselves wandering.
I think this debate’s going to start with a simple premise: Fuel should not be made from food; it should be made from the waste that comes from growing and processing food or from some substance humans and animals don’t eat. A good example is biodiesel refined from animal fats and greases. The discussion will include a second simple premise: Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul? As in, are we paying too heavy an environmental cost so we can thumb our collective nose at overseas oil producers?
If I were a corn-based ethanol refiner, I’d be working up the numbers to answer the following question: How tough is it and what does it cost to convert a corn-based ethanol refinery into a cellulosic refinery?