California may rule corn ethanol is not a globlal warming solution

California regulators, trying to assess the true environmental cost of corn ethanol, are poised to declare that the biofuel cannot help the state reduce global warming.

As they see it, corn is no better – and might be worse – than petroleum when total greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions are considered. Such a declaration, to be considered later this week by the California Air Resources Board, would be a considerable blow to the corn-ethanol industry in the United States.

So reports The Daily Climate today.  Let’s hope that California takes a leadership role here.  The country is simply awash in too much corn ethanol.  Current federal mandates would nearly double current production and consume about one third of the annual U.S. corn harvest.

Yet in fact corn ethanol almost certainly has no significant GHG benefit, may actually have higher net GHGs than oil, and has multiple other harmful impacts:

Still, the corn folks won’t go down without a fight:

That has the ethanol industry in a full-court press against the proposal, saying it risks  killing investments needed to create the next generation of cleaner, more efficient biofuels.

But California’s regulators say they have no choice.

The proposal would work like this: If increased production of corn-based ethanol in the U.S. raises corn prices and accelerates the conversion of rainforests and conservations lands to farmland worldwide, greenhouse emissions and loss of the carbon sink associated with such deforestation and disruption must be counted towards the biofuel’s total emissions.

Losing a carbon sink would defeat the purpose of this regulation to reduce greenhouse emissions,” [CARB spokesman Dimitri] Stanich said.

The regulation is part of California’s low-carbon fuel standard to reduce greenhouse emissions from transportation fuels by an average of 10 percent by 2020 or 16 million metric tons of carbon emissions over the next decade.

In fact, Greenwire (subs. req’d) reports today:

Mary Nichols, the ARB’s chairwoman, said in an interview last week that she had not heard any convincing arguments in favor of dropping the land-use calculation.

“We might hear some new information that causes us to change our views, but the prevailing view … is that we have to include calculation, and no one has offered an alternative that they say is better,” Nichols said. “The people who oppose it say, ‘We just don’t know enough and shouldn’t do anything,’ and we don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Nichols continued, “I know there’s some view out there that the ARB is going to weigh the volume of comments or that we will be trumped by political pressure, but that has not been the history of our proceedings, and I don’t think it will occur this time.

“No single stakeholder will be totally happy, but that’s usually the test of a successful rulemaking.”

Nichols described the rule as a departure from federal policy, which has so far been focused on targets for biofuels production. “National policy is also moving in the direction of increasing volumes of truly low-carbon biofuels, but it’s a biofuels rule,” she said. “Our rule is not a biofuels rule. We believe biofuels will do very well under this rule and there will be a lot of them, and we’re pleased with that.”

The original idea of using corn ethanol as a bridge fuel to cellulosic ethanol (which may be a “core climate solution“) was a good one.  That might have required maybe a few billion gallons a year.  But things got out of hand, and the current federal mandate is now absurdly large — 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol by 2012 — in the hopes that we’ll get 21 Billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2022 (which we won’t and probably shouldn’t).  We should roll back the corn ethanol requirement to 7.5 billion gallons.

The fact is that from a climate perspective, it almost certainly makes more sense to use most cellulosic biomass for electricity, not fuels (see “If Obama stops dirty coal, as he must, what will replace it? Part 2: An intro to biomass cofiring“).  Indeed, a plug in hybrid or electric car can probably go about twice as far per acre of land running on electricity from biomass power than an internal combustion engine car can go on cellulosic biofuels (assuming we ever actually solve technological problems needed to make such biofuels affordable and practical).

Let’s hope California can stare down the pressure and help stop the madness.

13 Responses to California may rule corn ethanol is not a globlal warming solution

  1. MNCorn says:

    MN’s Legislative Auditor recommended ending our ethanol subsidy last week.

    Here’s the link from the Strib:

  2. Lewis says:

    Unless you are going to freeze to death before you starve, why would burning food ever be a good idea?

  3. Jim Beacon says:

    The mandate to ramp up to 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol by 2012 was mostly based on projections for vehicle fuel needs *before* the economic crash and the dramatic drop in worldwide crude oil consumption. At the time, everyone thought we would be seeing $8 a gallon gas by 2012 (and serious supply shortages). Everything was predicated on the belief that everything would continue at the frenzied pace of global consumption we saw between 2002-2007. Unfortunately, once you pass a law like that and hand out the money (and encourage private investors to put up their own money) to build the facilities to produce a specified amount, it’s very hard and actually unfair to come along a couple of years later and tell everyone involved “Oh, wait… stop… maybe we don’t want to do this after all.”

    Do that and the next time you want to get private money and corporate entrepreneurs to Invest Big in a clean energy technology (like biomass… improved efficiency solar… or even the celluosic ethanol) the businessmen you need to make it happen will tend to turn away and say, “Hey, I already got burned on corn ethanol…”

    Because of this fact of economic life, and the reality that most of the money for corn ethanol production is already invested and the facilities coming on line, we probably should leave the 15 billion gallon mandate in place for now, but do everything we can to encourage the ethanol industry to move on/convert to better source crops and production technologies (and to eventually back off from the 15 billion gallon figure).

    This is a good example of the kind of bottom-line business and political considerations the clean energy movement must come to grips with. Once a business gets rolling, suddenly putting the brakes on becomes problematic. When we started to get serious about corn ethanol over 10 years ago it was the ideal source crop for the U.S. because we had surplus corn production capabilities — so it was a win-win for everybody to find something else to do with corn. But now we have far superior source crops and technologies for making ethanol.

    The bright side to this goof is that the same law which mandated the 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol also provided a significant amount of federal money that was earmarked specifically for ethanol production from non-grain sources. We just need to up that ante.

    As for the idea that we should not get at least 22 billion gallons of ethanol production on line as quickly as possible… no, I have to say that is wrong. We should. Look, there are some things that will always *require* the kind of very high horsepower we now use petroleum-based fuels for: Airplanes and long-distance heavy-haul trucks for starters. Electric motors simply will not cut it for some things. Since burning fossil fuels for those applications is the worst thing we can continue to do, we need to develop ethanol to the point where it can do that job or we’ll be stuck with crude oil forever. Heck, with applied effort and the electrification of many aspects of the process, even corn ethanol can be made carbon-negative — it’s just right now that we’re still using the old carbon-based tools and techniques to make the stuff.

    Finally, the populist fear that corn ethanol production takes food off the table is just silly. We still have lots of farmland and can grow enough corn for both uses, even at 15 billion gallons of ethanol production. Any shortages and price spikes of corn-for-food were only temporary while the farmers ramped up to grow additional corn. That’s another fact of economic life: If there’s more demand for corn, the farmers will grow more corn. That’s what they are in business to do. But I have yet to see any verifiable reports or statistics that there has been any long-term shortage or price increase in the corn-based food supply that is in excess of the general inflation we’ve seen for everything. If there is such data proving corn ethanol production is taking the food off the tables, someone please share the source points for it

  4. PaulK says:

    Meanwhile, the EPA has increased ethanol allowed in gasoline from 10% to 15%.

  5. Neil Howes says:

    Your statement ;
    “Indeed, a plug in hybrid or electric car can probably go about twice as far per acre of land running on electricity from biomass power than an internal combustion engine car can go on cellulosic biofuels”

    while true, overlooks the need for a PHEV to have some liquid fuel, and the fact that it’s going to take 20 years to replace existing ICE vehicles. When ethanol refineries and ammonia synthesis run on wind and solar electricity, the CO2 footprint of maize based ethanol will be lower, especially if stover is also converted to ethanol.

  6. Leland Palmer says:

    Yes, if ethanol from corn stover (the stalks and other corn waste) were added to the ethanol from the corn itself, the process might be closer to carbon neutrality, and we might finally start to get some emissions reductions from it.

    Perhaps the corn ethanol infrastructure could be taken over, and gradually converted to ethanol from cellulose.

    But really, we are just fooling around with processes here that are more or less carbon positive.

    We need carbon negative sources of energy, like biocarbon/carbon capture and storage.

    Electric cars or plug in hybrids running on carbon negative electricity could make a huge impact on the whole problem.

    The problem with all of this, of course, remains carbon capture and storage.

    Carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation would be much better, I think.

    Here’s an interesting article on in situ sequestration by mineral carbonation:

    Speeding up Rock Reaction Could Lock away Carbon Dioxide

    Natural carbonation reactions in rocks in Oman are faster than scientists believed and are currently locking away 10,000-100,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. That’s according to a team from Columbia University, US, which proposes that speeding up the reactions by increasing the temperature of the gas could help store more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide per year in Oman alone.

    “Solid sequestration is a lot safer than pumping supercritical carbon dioxide gas into underground pore space,” Peter Kelemen of Columbia told environmentalresearchweb. “In addition, in situ mineral carbonation can use the huge reservoir of potential energy created by plate tectonics, which exposes deep earth materials on the Earth’s surface. There are positive feedback mechanisms in which far-from-equilibrium reactions between rocks from the Earth’s interior and surface waters liberate heat – which accelerates reaction rates – and cause fractures that expose fresh minerals for continued reaction.”

    Sure would be nice – use positive feedback reactions run partially on geothermal heat to fight positive feedback reactions occuring in the atmosphere, leading to runaway global warming.

  7. EricG says:

    Jim Beacon:

    Your point regarding government pulling the rug out from under investors is well taken. Such action raises both ethical (bait and switch) and trust issues. How will investors react to the next energy incentive when they just got screwed? However, I’ve gotta tell you I don’t have a lot of sympathy for these guys. It was always obvious that corn ethanol made no sense, and that the mandates were driven by ADM and their buddies. These guys knew they were investing in a business that would never exist without government mandates. I don’t call people like that businessmen, I call them leeches.

    Regarding the food issue, you are looking at this from a purely domestic point of view, while it is a global issue. I’d encourage you to put some time into understanding why food to fuel is such a problem, and how it has affected third world countries who have counted on the US to feed their people.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    EricG — Those countries need to development food security programs and stop listening to the nonsense from WMO and IMF.

    Which may, in fact, have started to begin changing their views after Malawai’s success in “I’ll do what you do, not what you say”.

  9. David B Benson

    Theres an interesting book called “Good News; For A Change”, written by two Canadians, that documents situations all over the world, where locals have taken things into their own hands and solved problems that big mega projects, western farming, etc. were just making worse. Areas like farming, fishing, aquifer improvement and water supply, forestry, energy etc.
    Showed how small and simple is sometimes better.
    It’s also refreshing to hear good news about the environment and other issues.

    Aren’t bioplastics a smart use of biomass and crops? Some are now completely compostable and can replace up to half the different types of plastic in use. We use 5% or more of our oil to make plastic and then throw most of it away. Non food crops can be used, like switchgrass.

  10. Jim Beacon says:


    You raise valid issues. I too argued against using corn from the beginning, but as I mentioned, it was the easy, inevitable choice for politicians to make in the U.S. since we already had a surplus and the land/means to grow a whole lot more corn quickly. But while the corn lobby was instrumental in banging the drum in Washington and pushing through the overly-generous incentives and mandates, from what I can tell the majority of the people actually growing the corn and building/running the ethanol plants are honest, hard-working people who stepped up to the plate to do what the government told them we wanted them to do. Even with the government support, it was still a far riskier undertaking than they “needed” to take. There were plenty of other things they could have spent their money on which would have given them a larger, quicker return on their investment rather than take a chance on large-scale biofuel production. So they can even be considered more visionary and altruistic than the average American entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. They deserve better than to have the rug pulled out from under them after they’ve already committed their money and time at the government’s urging.

    I agree that North America is in a different position from the “third world” where it comes to using food crops for biofuel, but the article we are commenting on was specifically about corn ethanol in the U.S. and our governments policies towards it. .

    But, just to be certain on recent data, I checked the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture website at:

    US corn exports in the 2007-08 market year were 6 percent higher than in 2006-07 and the highest since 1990. The corn export market has always fluctuated wildly, as the chart at the URL above shows. But from 2005 on — at the exact same time that we were ramping up our corn ethanol production — our yearly exports of corn-as-food increased steadily from 45 million metric tons in 2005 to 61 million metric tons in 2008. Clearly, the U.S. surge in corn ethanol production in recent years has NOT prevented the U.S. from growing and exporting more corn-as-food than ever to the rest of the world. We started this corn ethanol production thing from a base point of having a whole lot of excess corn production capacity in the U.S. and we are producing enough corn for both uses and not taking food out of anyone’s mouth.

    Yes, the price of corn has gone up and that makes it harder for poorer countries to buy it — but the price of ALL food and has gone way up the last few years because food production and distribution is energy-intensive and crude oil went for $50 a barrel in 2005 to $140 a barrel in 2008. The rise in the price of corn seems to track with the rise in the prices of other food commodities.

    It has gone from an average high of $2.50 per bushel in 2004 to as much as $5.50 per bushel in mid-2008 (when oil prices hit their peak). Note that the price of corn has also dropped significantly of late, still tracking with the price of crude oil as crude dropped from $140 a barrel just 6 months ago to around $45 a barrel today.

    U.S. corn exports are expected to drop in 2009, but that is because of the worldwide economic collapse, not because ethanol plants sucking up all the corn. This popular and widely-circulated idea that making corn ethanol in the U.S. was starving the poor people in the rest of world made for a lot of nice media stories and moral outrage, but the facts are it was just that — a story. It was not and is not true.

  11. Gail says:

    Jim Beacon, aren’t you basing your projection of crop level sustainability on current rainfall? What happens when the predicted droughts hit agriculture?

  12. jcwinnie says:

    Supposedly, in this new era of translucency in torture transparency in government, the Business Protection Agency has invited public comment on going from E10 to E15. Certainly helps the economy by keeping agribusiness lobbyists employed, eh? Unfortunately, Lisa and the Big Farm Boys, like the Treviso bigwigs and some CP commentators, will have availed themselves of 3 squares a day while avoiding a visit to the Earth Policy Institute or reading their Pimentel.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Richard Mercer — Thaks for the ehads-up.

    Yes, bioplastics are a most excellant use of non-food biomass!