Breaking Down The Numbers On Ethanol: Inside The Associated Press Biofuels Report

November 13, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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CREDIT: Shutterstock

The Associated Press released a scathing new report on environmental degradation driven by American biofuel policy on Tuesday — which promptly got it into an online brawl with Fuels America, a group representing much of the U.S. biofuel industry.

The dispute revolves around a few key environmental and climate-related drawbacks that can bedevil biofuel production. One is that natural forests and grasslands pull more carbon out of the atmosphere than cropland. So the more land that’s converted to agriculture to grow biofuel feedstocks, the more the climate advantage of those biofuels decreases. Along the same lines, agricultural production involves carbon emissions of its own — tractors and machinery and such — that further reduce biofuels’ climate advantage. Yet another factor the dispute didn’t touch is food prices: most biofuel is currently manufactured from corn and soybeans, which double as human food sources. So as government policy drives up demand for such biofuels, the price of those foods also increases, which leads to greater food insecurity — especially for the global poor.

So how do the two cases stack up? Well, countering the AP, Fuels America cited a number of studies to claim that corn ethanol delivers a 34 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to gasoline, even after accounting for corn’s full production life cycle. Though it should be noted other studies suggest the full life-cycle accounting can undo conventional biofuels’ climate benefits entirely.

If corn production is driving destruction of natural land, the price of corn will be a big factor. The AP pegged it at $7 a bushel this year, but it actually dropped from that level just before 2013 to $4.26 currently — the lowest its been since August of 2010. A price of $4.26 a bushel is arguably below the break-even point for corn production, so the fact that the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is paying farmers $55.06 an acre to not develop virgin land could be making a real difference.

On the flip side, the price of corn has tracked the price of oil much more closely since the 2008 passage of the ethanol mandate, which suggests its become much more entangled with the fuel market.

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Also not so good for Fuels America’s case: participating land in the CRP dropped by over 5 million acres between 2010 and 2012. The AP claimed 5 million acres were driven out of the program by corn-based biofuel production since President Obama took office. Fuels America suggests the 5 million loss can’t be disaggregated from the 7 million acre cut imposed by the 2008 Farm Bill. But according to its own data, the 2010 to 2012 drop occurred after that legislative reduction.

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Along the same lines, AP reported that landowners have plowed over wetlands, prairie, and other virgin lands to make room for corn and soybeans — 1.2 million acres in Nebraska and the Dakotas alone since 2006. Fuels America responded that the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows “no new grassland has been converted to cropland since 2005 and grassland sequestered 14 percent more carbon in 2011 (latest data available) than 1990.” But it’s unclear from the Inventory where Fuels America got that figure, and the section on land-use change seems to show a national decrease in grasslands of almost 3 million hectares from 2005 to 2011. A study earlier this year from South Dakota State University found grassland had been cut 530,000 hectares from 2006 to 2011 throughout North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Finally, there’s the question of just how much corn crop is being sucked up by ethanol production. Fuels America puts it at 26 percent, citing USDA, well below AP’s claim of 44 percent. But according to the USDA’s own data, ethanol production accounted for 4.665 billion bushels of domestic corn use in 2012, out of a grand total of 10.535 billion. Which is just over 44 percent.

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Assuming that 10.535 billion is 85 percent of domestic production — with the other 15 percent going to exports — that brings the amount of total domestic corn production going to ethanol to 37.6 percent.

In fairness to the Obama Administration, America’s biofuel mandate was passed during the Bush administration. And Obama’s 2008 energy plan makes it clear that corn-based biofuels aren’t a goal in-and-of themselves, so much as a stepping stone to advanced, cellulosic biofuels. “The Renewable Fuel Standard was created in 2005 and expanded in 2007 primarily to boost production of domestic corn-based ethanol that could replace foreign oil,” said Dan Wiess, a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. “It was not really designed to address climate change.”

As Weiss points pout, the advantage of cellulosic biofuels is that they can deliver as much as 60 percent less carbon pollution that conventional fossil fuels. They can be produced from feedstocks that don’t compete with food supplies, and possibly even from from forestry and agricultural waste. That would avoid encouraging any agricultural production that wouldn’t have happened anyway.

Tags: agricultural carbon emissions, Biofuels, climate change, food insecurity