Ethanol not causing cropland expansion

Remember those wild predictions that increased ethanol production would cause farmers to tear up grassland and forests in order to plant more corn.  

It even coined a new term—“indirect land use change”.

Well, a new, in-depth USDA analysis of U.S. land use patterns shows total cropland in the U.S. actually decreased by 34 million acres from 2002 to 2007.

That’s the lowest level since USDA began collecting the data in 1945.

The USDA report also shows significant increases in forestland, grassland and rangeland during that five-year period.

The president of the Renewable Fuels Association, Bob Dinneen, is encouraging policymakers and regulators responsible for penalizing crop-based biofuels for indirect land use change to take a close look at the new USDA report. 

In Dinneen’s words, “Our renewable energy policies and regulations should be based on what is actually happening on the ground—not on hypothetical results from black box economic models.”

Meanwhile, that USDA report shows a dramatic increase in urban sprawl.  Land in urban areas was estimated at 61 million acres in 2007, up almost two percent since 2002 and 17 percent more than in 1990.

“It is ironic that the land use debate has fixated on biofuels, when the actual culprit of land conversion has been urban and suburban sprawl,” Dinneen says.

New study disputes land use change theory

A new study shows little or no correlation between land use changes and biofuels.

Researchers at Michigan State University used historical data on U.S. croplands, commodity grain exports and land use trends to see if there was a link between indirect land use change and biofuels expansion through 2007. 

They concluded that U.S. biofuel production has not provoked indirect land use change, saying crop intensification may have absorbed the effects of expanding biofuels production.  And their report suggests cropland expansion in other countries isn’t correlated to U.S. biofuels demand for certain feedstocks.

The National Corn Growers Association and Renewable Fuels Association lauded the study. As  NCGA president Bart Schott puts it, “It’s time for flat-earth ethanol opponents to back off on land use change.”

Getting rid of the controversial land use change theory

The National Corn Growers Association says it’s time to throw out the controversial theory of indirect land use change. NCGA president Darrin Ihnen calls it “junk science”, which he says “needs to go the way of the horse-drawn plow.”  Ihnen points to a recent study conducted by Purdue University. It found that the California Air Resources Board overestimated the greenhouse-gas impact of land use changes to corn ethanol by more than double. 

AUDIO: Darrin Ihnen (3 min MP3)

NCGA: Time to throw out land use change theory

The National Corn Growers Association says it’s time to throw out the controversial theory of indirect land use change.

NCGA president Darrin Ihnen calls it “junk science”, which he says “needs to go the way of the horse-drawn plow.

“They don’t give us credit for the fact that—this year—we’re going to produce 300-million more bushels than three years ago, on five-million fewer acres,” Ihnen says. “We just feel it’s flawed science—and the facts and the science continually prove that.”

Ihnen points to a recent study conducted by Purdue University. It found that the California Air Resources Board overestimated the greenhouse-gas impact of land use changes to corn ethanol by more than double. 

“They don’t take into account the biotechnology and how our yields continue to improve,” he says. “They don’t take into account our agronomic practices where we’re producing more corn with less fertilizer.”

The California law is being challenged in the state’s court system.  Ihnen says NCGA’s concern is that other states may try to use the same flawed theory.  “We need more energy sources—why would we hurt ourselves by limiting one of the great renewable energy sources  we do have.”

Ihnen says the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reinforces the need for a broad portfolio of domestic energy sources.

AUDIO: Darrin Ihnen (4:30 MP3)

Nebraskans hope for changes in CARB plan

Nebraska ethanol producers are waiting—and hoping—that California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) will see fit to modify the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard it passed in 2009.  

The new standard, which is scheduled to take effect in 2011, could ban the use of corn-based ethanol in California.  Considering a good share of the ethanol produced in Nebraska is shipped to California, there is reason for concern, says Nebraska Ethanol Board administrator Todd Sneller. 

“California, as a state, is a very, very large gasoline market.  Nearly a third of all the gasoline consumed in the U.S. is consumed in California,” Sneller says, “and so it becomes a very important destination market and we want to make sure that we continue to have an open marketplace that allows the Nebraska producers to compete in a fair way.” 

When constructing their low carbon fuel standard, CARB put heavy emphasis on indirect land use change calculations.  Sneller says it’s is a confusing and complicated rule that no one—including the Californians—understand very well. “What’s pretty clear is that they’ve set a bar that’s so high in terms of environmental performance and greenhouse gas reductions, that there may not be many gallons of biofuel that can meet that standard.”

And Sneller says CARB may have painted itself into a corner. 

“It would appear, at this time, that about the only fuel that might comply would be Brazilian sugar cane-derived ethanol—and that’s in very short supply on a worldwide basis right now,” says Sneller, “and so one’s got to really ask the question about whether it makes good sense to adopt a policy that’s going to encourage more imports and raise prices for consumers.” 

Shortly after the new fuel standard was approved, CARB formed a so-called “expert work group” to review the formulas that were used.  Ethanol industry officials are cautiously optimistic that those experts will convince CARB to modify the law so that corn-based ethanol is not penalized so heavily.

AUDIO: Todd Sneller (2 min MP3)

California study of land use theories underway

An expert workgroup created by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) held its first meeting last week.  That group is charged with refining and improving CARB’s controversial land use and indirect effect analysis of transportation fuels.

California recently implemented a low carbon fuels standard which included indirect land use change requirements.  That law, which critics say effectively blocks domestically-produced ethanol from being used in the state, is under legal challenge.

The expert workgroup will evaluate factors that might impact the land use values of biofuels, such as agricultural yield improvements, co-products such as distillers grains, and food price elasticity .  The workgroup must submit its recommendations to the CARB board by January 1st of 2011.

Participating in that workgroup is Mark Stowers, senior vice president of science and technology for POET, the nation’s largest ethanol producer.  Stowers says California’s low carbon fuels standard is an important piece of energy policy—too important to rely on theories or unproven models such as indirect land use change.

SDCGA: ‘EPA only got it half right’

Reacting to the EPA’s RFS2 final rule, the South Dakota Corn Growers Association says the agency “only got it half right.” 

The group is pleased with EPA’s acknowledgement of corn ethanol’s advantage over conventional gasoline when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.  At the same time, the corn growers are disappointed with EPA’s continued reliance on international indirect land use calculations, which they call “hocus pocus”.  They’re called on EPA to reject what they call “the flawed and unproven theory” of international indirect land use change.

EPA’s ruling on RFS-2 could come Wednesday

An announcement on the much-anticipated EPA final rule on RFS-2—the Renewable Fuels Standard—could come as early as Wednesday.

That word from House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson during an exclusive Capitol Hill interview with Brownfield on Tuesday.

“I think we’re going to get a rule that we can live with,” Peterson says. “It’s not going to be something that we’re necessarily happy with—but it could have been a lot worse.”

That decision is expected to include EPA’s final stance on the controversial international indirect land use theory and the so-called “lifecycle analysis” of ethanol production.  Samantha Slater of the Renewable Fuels Association says the rule will play a large role in determining EPA and Congressional renewable fuels policy going forward.

“As you see Congress talking about possibly exploring a low-carbon fuels standard, as we’ve seen states do, the methodologies that EPA develops on lifecycle analysis today will certainly be a part of that discussion going forward,” Slater says.

Slater says a positive ruling from EPA is critical to future investment in and the development of cellulosic ethanol and other next-generation biofuels.

AUDIO: Collin Peterson (14 min MP3)

AUDIO: Samantha Slater (4 min MP3)

California’s fuel regulations will hurt Nebraska

California’s low carbon fuels standard, which received final approval by the state’s Office of Administrative Law last week, will have a major negative impact on Nebraska corn ethanol.

The new rules will essentially end the use of corn-based ethanol in California.  The Nebraska Corn Board’s director of research, Kelly Brunkhorst, estimates that 27 percent of Nebraska’s ethanol goes directly to California’s fuel market.

“The whole low carbon fuels standard out in California could potentially shut out a billion dollars worth of Nebraska’s ethanol going into California, let alone other states’ ethanol that is going into that market,” says Brunkhorst. “So it’s going to continue to be a big hindrance on the continued growth of our ethanol industry—and with California being the largest fuel market in the U.S., it continues to be a big concern for us.”

California’s Air Resources Board is currently facing a lawsuit over the low carbon fuels standard.  That lawsuit, led by Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association, charges that the standards are unconstitutional and erect new regulatory obstacles for ethanol.

Growth Energy says GAO report supports arguments

The ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy is touting a recently-released report from Government Accountability Office (GAO), saying it supports their arguments on indirect land use.

The GAO report suggests that EPA work more closely with the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to develop better parameters for assessing greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuels production.  Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis says that confirms his group’s contention that there is no scientific consensus on indirect land use.

Buis says the GAO report also highlights another challenge facing the biofuels industry—the nation’s lack of infrastructure for distributing, storing and using ethanol.  Growth Energy supports bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senators Tom Harkin and Richard Lugar which would help with the construction of ethanol pipelines and ethanol blender pumps, and would increase the number of flex fuel vehicles on the road.