Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North – No Easy Answers to Ethanol Debate

By Shawn Perich

The ethanol industry has been in the news as of late. A special investigative report by the Associated Press called The Secret Environmental Cost of US Ethanol Policy, made front page headlines earlier this month in newspapers ranging from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to Minnesota Outdoor News.

The story charges that federal policies to encourage ethanol production have spurred farmers to plant corn on every available acre, leading to all manner of environmental ills, including habitat loss, soil erosion and water pollution, while providing little of its promised benefit of reducing greenhouse gases. The report charges the Obama Administration has continued to support its ethanol program in spite of its dubious environmental outcomes.

If you hunt pheasants and thus pay attention to agricultural politics, little reported in the AP story would be news to you. But it is one thing for the insiders of the conservation community to gnash their teeth over corn ethanol’s environmental cost and quite another for it to become a mainstream issue. The ethanol industry responded to the AP report with rebuttals questioning the news agency’s accuracy. A point of contention for the industry was the AP reporting that farmers had taken land out of the Conservation Reserve Program to plant more corn, which industry representatives say resulted instead from Congress reducing the overall acreage in the program. Even Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, former Governor of Iowa, chimed in, saying the AP story included “a number of inaccuracies and errors.”

The vigorous rebuttal from the industry and, via Vilsack, the Obama Administration suggests the nation’s ethanol program is feeling the pressure of its critics. One powerful critic is the oil industry. Blending ethanol into gasoline is mandated by the Renewable Fuels Standard, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency determines how many billions of gallons of ethanol must be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply. Due to less consumer demand for gasoline, the oil industry says it has reached a “blend wall,” where all gasoline now meets the federal limit of a 10 percent ethanol blend.

Livestock producers and food processors complain the demand for ethanol has inflated commodity prices and created economic challenges for them. This leads to larger questions as to whether corn should be grown for food or fuel. The increase in farmland acres devoted to corn—driven by demand and the accompanying high commodity prices—has led some critics to question whether a corn “monoculture” is limiting the amount of land available to grow other foodstuffs. To be fair, this year’s corn prices are down from the highs of recent years and presently running about $4 per bushel at the elevator.

Separate, although related to these arguments, is the EPA’s Renewable Fuels Standard. Following on the heels of the AP story was an announcement that the EPA is proposing to reduce the 2014 ethanol mandate by almost 3 billion gallons. That said, the mandate still requires over 15 billion gallons of bio-fuel be added to gasoline and diesel fuel. Adding more ethanol would require increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline from the current level of 10 percent. According to many ethanol critics, adding more than 10 percent ethanol could damage many gasoline engines.

While it may appear that the ethanol industry is taking a beating, the industry still has formidable political clout and remains a substantial contributor to rural economies. Minnesota, for instance, has 20 ethanol plants providing direct employment to 600 people. In addition, the industry appears to have the unwavering support of the Dayton Administration and the state’s congressional delegation. To date, most politicians have brushed aside ethanol critics and focused on the program’s benefits to farmers and supposed environmental benefits. That political support likely will ensure the ethanol industry will benefit from the coming Farm Bill.

While critics say the ethanol program has been a debacle, moving away from corn-based fuel won’t be easy. Cellulosic ethanol, made from materials such as switch grass and agricultural waste, has not advanced anywhere close to the point where it becomes a viable alternative to corn ethanol. For 2014, the EPA is requiring only 17 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol be blended into petroleum-based fuel, because that’s about all that is available from producers. And while domestic petroleum supplies are greatly augmented by the fracking occurring in the Northeast and on the Great Plains, it, too, raises environmental concerns.

But the biggest reason ethanol is unlikely to go away is me and you. Owning an automobile is considered a necessity by most Americans. On top of that, our love of cars and the personal freedom they bring is deeply embedded in our culture. For instance, without a car, most of us wouldn’t have the means to go hunting.

Even if corn ethanol remains part our fuel supply for the foreseeable future, we must discover how to produce a sufficient supply of corn for all of our needs while protecting waters, soils and wildlife habitat. At present, we seem to think we can find our way to a clean and secure energy future simply by devoting more and more of our rural landscape to energy production. Corn ethanol, fracking, forest biomass and even wind farms all leave enormous footprints on the land. Until we deal with its negative effects on our land and waters, renewable energy is anything but green.

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