Subtitle: Gets, Rather than Heeds
This blog previously described being in a state of uncertainty or perplexity especially as requiring a choice about the Renewable Fuels Standard. While agreeing with the majority of energy policy analysts that corn to ethanol for fuel is dumb, this blog also advocated use of ethanol blends, not only in flex-fuel vehicles capable of using E85, but also in all modern gasoline engines that could use E20 without a problem, with such advocacy made with the knowledge that most of the ethanol available for blending comes from corn.
The survival of corn to ethanol is almost exclusively due to the power of the farming lobby, and other special interest groups in America that ensure all of those generous subsidies. And, it is an election year, so politicians are eager to please corn farmers for votes and Big Farm for campaign contributions. Meanwhile, woefully little ethanol is being blended with what in 2003 was consumption of about 360 million US liquid gallons (1.36 gigalitres) of gasoline each day.
Meanwhile, public policy pushes forward with corn to ethanol, enthusiastically received by the COB (Cruise On Booze) crowd and subsidized by the American taxpayer. Yet the billions of dollars going for imported oil, which is refined into gasoline distributed to a compliant public, is increasing as the cost of oil increases, demand increases, and alternative transportation fuels remain chiefly unavailable.
The following information is unlikely to change existing conditions, just another warning from another group of scientists, in this case, theEcological Society of America, the nation’s professional organization of ecological scientists. The Biopact team relays information about a position statement from the Society warning that the current mode of biofuels production in the U.S., mainly based on corn, will degrade the nation’s natural resources and will keep biofuels from becoming a viable energy option.
Current grain-based ethanol production systems damage soil and water resources in the U.S. and are only profitable in the context of tax breaks and tariffs. Future systems based on a combination of cellulosic materials and grain could be equally degrading to the environment, with potentially little carbon savings, unless steps are taken now that incorporate principles of ecological sustainability.- Ecological Society of America
The current focus on ethanol from corn illustrates the risks of exploiting a single source of biomass for biofuel production, says ESA. Continuously-grown corn leads to heavy use of fertilizers, early return of land in conservation programs to production, and the conversion of marginal lands to high-intensity cropping.
All of these bring with them well-known environmental problems associated with intensive farming: persistent pest insects and weeds, pollution of groundwater, greater irrigation demands, less wildlife diversity, and the release of more carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. Ironically, one of the touted benefits of biofuels is to help alleviate global climate change, a benefit that is considerably diluted under a high-intensity agriculture scenario.
ESA is in agreement with the Earth Policy Institute that has expressed concerned about the “hardship on the nation’s poor communities as higher crop prices drive up the cost of food.” As Saifedean Ammous has observed, a rise in the price of fossil fuels also will increase the cost of producing corn, raising its price as well.
“Just a short while ago,” writes keetsa, “biofuels seemed like they’d be a great alternative for some petroleum based fuels. But in the last year, we’ve seen the demand for corn skyrocket, and issues are being raised about balance between biofeuls and the demand for food supply.” Ecologists tell us, to best serve U.S. citizens, the economy, and the environment, we need a biofuels infrastructure that incorporates systems thinking, conserves ecosystem services, and encompasses multiple scales.
The ESA urges agricultural and energy policy that is congruent with ecological principles, such that the development of biofuels not only would help decrease our dependence on fossil fuels but also reduce our carbon dioxide emissions that unequivocally contribute to global climate change. According to ESA, three ecological principles are necessary in order to achieve the production of sustainable biofuels:
- 1. Systems thinking: Looking at the complete picture of how much energy is produced versus how much is consumed by extracting and transporting the crops used for biofuels. A systems approach seeks to avoid or minimize undesirable production side effects such as soil erosion and contamination of groundwater. Consistent monitoring is critical to ensure that biofuel production is sustainable.
- 2. Conservation of ecosystem services: Maximizing crop yield without regard to negative side effects is easy. On the other hand, growing crops and retaining the other services provided by the land is far more challenging, but very much worth the effort. For example, lower yields from an unfertilized native prairie may be acceptable in light of the other benefits, such as minimized flooding, fewer pests, groundwater recharge, and improved water quality because no fertilizer is needed.
- 3. Scale alignment: How agriculture is managed matters at the individual farm, regional, and global level. Policies must provide incentives for managing land in a sustainable way. They should also encourage the development of biofuels from various sources.
“Nitrogen in the Mississippi River system is known to be the major cause of an oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which in 2007 was the third largest ever mapped (http://www.gulfhypoxia.net). The condition known as hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen) occurs because elevated N (and, to a lesser extent, P) loading into the Gulf leads to algal blooms over a large area. Upon the death of these algae, they fall to the bottom and their decomposition consumes nearly all of the oxygen in the bottom water. This is lethal for most fish and other species that live there.” Nate Hagen
Only recently this blog noted Mindy Lubber’s article in World Changing, entitled “Corn Ethanol and the Great Dust Bowl“, in which she warns about what can go wrong when long-term sustainability measures are ignored. The Biopact article makes a general statement about overlooking the Big Picture of environmental implications. An excellent example is growth of the algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico.
The increase in corn cultivation as a result of ethanol demand may be partly to blame for the increase in size of the GOM algae bloom. The business of growing corn means that more nitrogen runs off from corn fields and into the watersheds. Previous EPA estimates had about 210 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer going into the Gulf annually, with 2007 figures not yet available. The increase in corn growing and the size of the algae bloom visible from satellite photos points to a big increase.
Iowa alone has planted more than a third of its land surface with corn and every indication is that farmers want to grow more corn. The consequences could include more fertilizer runoff and nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere, in addition to a greater demand for petroleum, both as fuel and petrochemicals used in cultivation. And, this occurs despite concerns about peak oil and peak natural gas. (Natural gas commonly is use to provide heat for fermentation.)
But, fossil fuels are not the only increasing scarce resource to consider. Ms. Lubber sees parallels to The Great Dust Bowl. Climate change, similar to drought conditions in the Southwest and now the Southeast, could mean less water available in the Midwest for growing corn and for converting the corn to ethanol.
Ms. Lubber also cautioned about a scarcity of good sense, pointing out that poorly-conceived government subsidies can thwart the best of good intentions. “According to the U.S. Department of Energy,” notes the Biopact team, “the federal government has some 20 laws and incentives to boost ethanol use.”
The Ecological Society of America will contribute more to this timely issue in a few months when it convenes a conference devoted to the ecological dimensions of biofuels. This conference, ‘Ecological Dimensions of Biofuels’, will be held on March 10, 2008 in Washington, DC and will bring together a wide variety of experts in the biofuels arena. The conference will cover the various sources of biofuels — agriculture and grasslands, range lands, and forests – and will encompass the private sector and socioeconomic perspectives. Jose Goldemberg, of the Global Energy Assessment Council and Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil, will give the keynote address.