Wednesday, December 26, 2007 Misleads on Ethanol

A Response to “The fuel on the hill” by Joseph Romm

by Brooke Coleman

On Dec. 20, 2007, published a story about biofuels in the context of the federal energy bill signed on December 19th.

First, a quick summary of the points we agree on. We have run out of time to dawdle on global warming. The petroleum-dominated transportation fuel market poses a huge challenge. The new fuel efficiency requirements passed in the 2007 federal energy bill are a useful start only. And cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuel technologies are promising.

Now, a quick summary of the points we disagree on.

In general, it appears that Dr. Romm has a personal distaste for corn ethanol as a climate solution. This is a common sentiment, because some corn ethanol does not have climate benefits (some does), and there are ecological impacts from corn production. The problem with the article is most of his arguments against corn ethanol are misleading:

1) He says that corn ethanol has little or no climate benefit. Actually, recent analysis by UC-Berkeley demonstrates that some corn ethanol production has very significant climate benefits (~ 40% greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions compared to gasoline), depending on how it is produced. On average, EPA says it is better than gasoline (~ 20%). He also forgets to point out that: a) the new energy bill requires all new corn ethanol plants to achieve at least 20% GHG reductions over gasoline; and, b) that the bill includes a 50% GHG reduction requirement for all advanced biofuels. 60% of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is advanced biofuels. 40% is corn ethanol.

2) Dr. Romm points to the Dr. Crutzen research to make the point that biofuels may be worse for the climate, because of fertilizer. While it is true that we must be careful about how we produce biofuels, Romm looks past dozens of papers that take into account fertilizer use to find this one, and fails to point out that Dr. Crutzen’s paper has not been peer-reviewed and has many problems. The issue is discussed here. Taking fertilizer into account is nothing new for carbon life-cycle modelers, even if the issue remains uncertain and requires more research.

3) The rainforest degradation problem in Indonesia is very real, but Dr. Romm does not mention that the U.S. biofuels industry is not to blame for this problem (primarily because the U.S. biofuels industry is currently based on corn). The proper characterization of this problem is this: rainforests have been cleared for decades to meet the growing demand for plant-based oils (like palm oil) for a wide variety of industries (food, cosmetics, etc.); if we are not careful, a greater U.S. commitment to biofuels could exacerbate the problem. Instead, Dr. Romm sensationalizes the connections and again fails to mention the GHG requirements in the federal energy bill, or the requirement for EPA to take into account upstream land use when establishing the metrics for the program.

4) Dr. Romm also misleads on air quality. He points to an EPA study of ethanol to show that smog levels generally increase with the use of ethanol. It shows that ethanol could increase smog (ozone), on average, by .079 parts per billion (ppb). The federal ozone (smog) standard is 80 ppb. So this is the equivalent of less than 1/100th of one percent (.001) of the standard; well-within the margin of error, and as the EPA report notes, a very small percentage. The worst impact found was not even ½ of one percent of the standard. For an air quality modeler, this is a statistical increase. For a responsible editorialist and advocate, it should not be portrayed as one.

5) Water use is an emerging criticism of biofuels. Water is a serious (and often emotional) issue in most parts of the world, so it is particularly useful for biofuel critics (Romm included). But the argument is almost always made out of context (as is the case in the Salon article). It is true that it takes about 3-5 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol. But this number is shrinking every year, as ethanol plants become more efficient. On the other side of the coin, it takes anywhere between 2 and 90 gallons of water to produce one gallon of gasoline (NREL says 2, USGS says ~ 90). Even worse, the oil industry is looking at the tar sands in Canada, which would require much more water to harvest into useable petroleum. Truth is, water is a component of producing almost anything, which makes it that much more important to consider water in its proper context. Ethanol is a replacement for gasoline.

6) The corn ethanol “food vs. fuel” issue is another emotional but misleading point to make. To make the argument that corn ethanol is significantly increasing food prices, one must: a) get past dozens of studies that say just the opposite; and, b) turn a blind eye to increased energy prices. The food price argument makes sense, intuitively, until one realizes that grain makes up a very small percentage of the cost of food. Most of the money we spend on food (about 81 cents of every dollar) goes to food marketers like Nabisco, not the corn farmer. A lot of that is for expenditures that are impacted by energy prices, such as processing, packaging and delivery. There is a very good report on the issue prepared by IATP here. And more recently, the Renewable Fuels Foundation commissioned Informa Economics, Inc. to analyze this issue. The report can be found here. Before you dismiss it based on who commissioned it, check the credentials of Informa (and who commissioned the other food reports often mentioned). Informa concludes, “the statistical evidence does not support a conclusion that the growth in the ethanol industry is driving consumer food prices higher.”

7) Dr. Romm takes issue with the targets set for “advanced biofuels” in the bill. He questions whether we can meet the 21 billion gallon per year targets established by the bill for 2022. Truth is, we do not know for sure. We also do not know how much wind or solar energy we will be able to produce by 2022 either. The authors of the bill are aware of this, which is why the administrator of the EPA can adjust the targets (within a set of restrictions).

The Bottom Line: The energy bill makes a commitment to increase corn ethanol production and use to 15 billion gallons per year (bgy) – with a minimum 20% GHG benefit over gasoline – by 2015. It then shifts to advanced biofuels – 21 bgy by 2022 – with a minimum 50% GHG requirement. We are already close to 9 bgy. Dr. Romm seems to think that 15 bgy is too extravagant a commitment to make on the way to advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol. Time will tell. But if these are the arguments he is using to support that opinion, then perhaps 15 bgy is not as bad as he says.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As I have met with industry leaders along with those working on the ground floor of this industry while developing a market strategy for the ethanol engine projects. I believe the following statements are based on facts.

Ethanol creates American Jobs.
Ethanol can displace oil 2 to 1 by energy content and volume.
Ethanol offers a reduction in emission and green house gases.
Ethanol in higher blends (E15) in non flex vehicles will not hurt the vehicle and on average will not reduce mileage, have studies to show this.
Ethanol does not displace the amount of corn as reported, the amount of protein that remains from the ethanol process is being feed to cattle, dairy and poultry. This amount is displacing over half the market value of corn heading to the ethanol plant verses the original feeding value.
Ethanol does not raise food prices like reported on the news. Less than 17% of corn goes directly to the food industry while speculators in Chicago drove up the commodities just like they did with oil and precious metals.
Ethanol can feed people, new plant designs can separate the protein from the starch prior to the fermentation and allow production of food grade protein. We always hear about diet issues here and abroad, we are a starch rich protein deficient world.
Ethanol does not use vast amounts of water unless you want to figure in the rain, most ethanol plants are zero water discharge with only the cooling towers giving off water vapor for cooling. Look at the water use for refining gasoline.
Ethanol is not responsible for rain forest destruction. There was a 4% reduction in acres of corn planted last year with another reduction forecasted this year. Reports are that vast amounts of rain forest are being harvested for the hard wood while we shut down our forest and subject them to fire.
Ethanol can displace most if not all the oil we import from the middle east. With the combination of corn based, cellulose & wood ethanol production. When we trade with ourselves we have both the product and the money. We need a fair and balanced approach.
Ethanol value can be raised to and above the value of gasoline if the future of ethanol gained its needed review. We can use ethanol more efficiently then current uses today but not when people hear and believe the false claims.
Ethanol can help other third world countries. America dumps our cheap commodities on the world market making it difficult for farmers in S America, Eastern Europe or Africa to be productive or make a living.