Climate

Is Corn Ethanol Breaking The Law?

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Corn ethanol may be breaking the law, according to a study from last month, “Cropland Expansion Outpaces Agricultural and Biofuel Policies in the United States.”

It appears that corn was caught yellow-handed by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in a plot with other crops like soy to replace “millions of acres of grasslands.” But scientists named corn the ring-leader: “Corn was the most common crop planted directly on new land.”

I know you’re wondering, “since when is it illegal to replace carbon-storing grassland with the Walter White of Biofuels?” Answer: Since the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), “which requires blending of gasoline with biofuels that are supposed to be grown only on pre-existing cropland, in order to minimize land-use change and its associated greenhouse gas emissions,” as the UWM news release explains.

Now if only anybody were actually enforcing the law, the anti-hero of biofuels would be perp-walked to prison for destroying the very environment it was supposed to help protect.

We last saw the evil genius called corn ethanol in a 2013 piece headlined, “Biofuels Policy Helping Destroy U.S. Grasslands At Fastest Rate Since 1930s, Boosting Threat of Dust-Bowlification.”

This new UMW study is the “first comprehensive analysis of land-use change across the U.S. between 2008 and 2012.” University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers “tracked crop-specific expansion pathways across the conterminous US and identified the types, amount, and locations of all land converted to and from cropland” during that time.

Scientists learned that crops “expanded onto 7 million acres of new land,” during those four years and replaced “millions of acres of grasslands.” Half of that was new soy and corn, which was increasingly used to make biofuels between 2008 and 2012 to meet U.S. government mandates, which included a minimum target of over 12 billion gallons of biofuels for in 2010.

What was the climate impact of this expansion? The University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded:

“The conversion to corn and soy alone, the researchers say, could have emitted as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 34 coal-fired power plants operating for one year — the equivalent of 28 million more cars on the road.”

Corn ethanol should get its own show on HBO or AMC.

The Renewable Fuels Association, which is the “the authoritative voice of the U.S. ethanol industry,” has responded to this peer-reviewed study with a blog post by their Senior Vice President, Geoff Cooper. Cooper points out this is a very difficult calculation to do and that the dataset the authors use for this purpose has been called into question. Ideally, the RFS will put their critique through the peer-review process to publish it in a journal.

UPDATE: The study’s lead author sent me a reply to the RFA blog critique: “Most of their points seem to stem from a misunderstanding of our study and comparable data. We stand confidently by our results and conclusions.”

It seems not a month goes by that a study doesn’t come out condemning the fuel that now comprises some 10 percent of U.S. gasoline. “New airborne measurements downwind from an ethanol fuel refinery in Decatur, Illinois, show that ethanol emissions are 30 times higher than government estimates,” we learned just this Tuesday, for instance, when NOAA published a study on “ozone-forming compounds” generated by a corn ethanol refinery. “The measurements also show emissions of all volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include ethanol, were five times higher than government numbers, which estimate emissions based on manufacturing information.”

What will we learn in June, that corn ethanol is “behind uptick in abandoned kittens“? Okay, maybe not that, but still.

In 2011 I wrote a post titled, “The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?” If we don’t voluntarily abandon corn ethanol, it seems inevitable that human-caused climate change and Dust-Bowlification will ultimately arrest its development:

soil moisture

If we stay on business-as-usual CO2 emissions, we will turn the normal climate of our breadbasket into “severe drought.” Growing enough food for Americans, let alone the countries we currently help feed, won’t leave much land available for crop-based biofuels (Via NASA).