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Monday, December 14, 2009

Question for Arianna Huffington

(Photo credit catchesthelight via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Why does Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (an organization that just spent almost a quarter of a million dollars last quarter lobbying for corn ethanol) have a blog in the Huffington Post's environmental forum? Why not give a spot to the ACCCE so they can use it to tell us how clean coal is?

The RFA has been retained to defend a client--corn ethanol. It is analogous to the NRA, which is currently fighting to keep lead bullets legal in Arizona even though they are poisoning California condors.

The RFA's claim to support all biofuels is a Trojan Horse to hide corn ethanol in. The last thing the corn ethanol lobby wants is a competitor that can make ethanol cheaper than they can. Right now the only feedstock that can do that is sugarcane and that is why they continue to support the tariff against it. If or when another feedstock becomes cheaper, they may well find a way to thwart it as well.

From his latest post:

"Consensus in Copenhagen? Replace Gasoline with Biofuels!"

Riiiight. The title insinuates that the consensus in Copenhagen is to replace gasoline with biofuels regardless of environmental impact or cost. He starts exaggerating right away:

"Transportation accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions"

Transportation accounts for about 12 percent of GHG, not 25 percent. He is off a modest 100 percent.

"Delegates to Copenhagen may not know it, but the limousines in which they are riding are running on ethanol made from straw."

Good to see some progress on biofuels that are not made from food but the delegates also may not know that:

"..Denmark’s Inbicon today [one month ago] opened its first demonstration facility producing cellulosic ethanol, but potential customers will have to wait.

Inbicon has already sold its first year of production to Statoil, which plans to blend the ethanol into the Danish fuel supply early next year. In addition, some of the ethanol is being reserved to fuel E-85 vehicles during next month’s COP-15 meeting in Copenhagen.."


Dinneen continues:

"...there's one issue on which the world's wealthier and poorer nations should be able to agree:

Immediate action is needed to increase the production of biofuels of all kinds, particularly for use in the transportation sector"

Most climate experts agree (Jim Hansen in particular) that coal is the biggest problem, not gasoline. And you would only want to promote biofuels that actually reduce GHG emissions. Corn ethanol, which accounts for 99 percent of the ethanol used in the United States does not fit that bill.

"Fortunately, one solution is already available. With the support and coordination of governments and international bodies, existing and emerging biofuels can continue to replace the use of gasoline and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases."

Actually, the only biofuels that produce less GHG than conventional petroleum are those made from waste and from sugarcane grown on degraded or existing cropland. And another solution that is readily available are high mileage cars like the Prius, Insight, Civic hybrid and on and on which produce about 100% less GHG than America's present car fleet average.

"In 2008, the 9 billion gallons of domestic ethanol produced and consumed in the US resulted in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions comparable to removing 2.1 million cars from the road."

That 9 billion gallons of ethanol (which usurped about thirty thousand square miles of cropland) all came from corn and 2.1 million cars represents only about one percent of our registered cars. About 70 percent of corn ethanol comes from fossil fuels. The thirty thousand square miles of corn fields diverted to gas tanks displaced carbon sink land outside the US, and the large amounts of fertilizer created large amounts of nitrous oxide (hundreds of times more potent than CO2). When accounting for fossil fuel input, land displacement, and fertilizer generated nitrous oxide, corn ethanol likely produced far more GHG than the gasoline it displaced.

"This year, the world is expected to produce 80 billion liters (around 21 billion gallons) of ethanol, replacing the need for 1.9 billion barrels a day of crude oil."

A commenter in the Huffington Post article pointed out several days ago that the above sentence makes no sense. The world consumes about 86 million barrels of oil a day. About 1% of global oil consumption replaced by ethanol.

"It is estimated that the global production of biofuels will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 123 million tons in 2009 alone. Such an impressive and growing environmental benefit stands in stark contrast to the environmental footprint of the petroleum industry which continues to worsen."

That estimate, wherever it came from, is likely 100% wrong, and I would not call it impressive. Assuming he meant metric tons CO2 equivalent (I doubt he has any idea) 123 million tons is minuscule (a fraction of a percent) in comparison to total global emissions.

"Researchers from the University of Nebraska have reported that, compared to gasoline, today's ethanol reduces direct greenhouse gas emissions between 48 percent to 59 percent."

Those values are estimates for the newest biorefineries, not an average for all existing refineries. I love how he quotes research that supports his product while simultaneously denigrating researchers with findings that don't support his product. The researchers also state in the Nebraska study that this does not include GHG from land displaced nor does it include the latest findings for nitrous oxide release which suggests corn ethanol is up to 50% worse than gasoline.

"According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, ethanol produced from these cellulosic feedstocks has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 85 percent, compared to gasoline."

Bait and switch baby. The RFA is using the potential of future non-food based fuels as a Trojan Horse to hide corn ethanol in.

"Meanwhile, as conventional oil is depleted and exploration shifts to unconventional sources such as tar sands, shale and the deep sea, finding and using petroleum will require more energy and release more greenhouse gases."

The above sentence is the first accurate one in this article. However, the environmental impact of biofuels are already gargantuan and will only get worse as biofuel production increases.

"All of this is occurring against a backdrop of increased agricultural productivity activity."

I took the liberty of editing that sentence. The number of hungry human beings just passed through a billion for the first time. A recent paper in Nature demonstrates that our agriculture is primarily responsible for exceeding planetary nitrogen boundaries. I talk about it in the following article titled "Transgressing identified and quantified planetary boundaries."

"Vast tracts of arable land remain unused. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reported, there are, at present, 1.5 billion hectares of land used for farming. That is only 11 percent of the world's surface area, and almost twice as much arable land - 2.8 billion acres - remains unused. With new magical farming technologies, this land can be responsibly and sustainably managed to provide a growing population both food and renewable fuel."

The above paragraph is nonsensical gibberish. If there is so much arable land going unused why don't we grow corn for biofuel there instead of using our rich, fertile farmland? That's a rhetorical question. Everyone knows that answer--cost.

"That is why it is so encouraging that the developing world has huge supplies of the "biomass" (wood and plant wastes) that will be the feedstocks for the next generation of biofuels. As one recent study concluded, biomass could fuel 65 percent of the world's energy consumption by 2050. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America account for about half of this global potential."

The above paragraph got a chuckle out of me. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America account for about half of this "wood and plant waste." By waste, I suspect he means "ecosystems not yet destroyed by humanity."

"These facts stand in contrast to those who argue biofuels are destroying the land and responsible for deforestation."

See what I mean? By using the word "those" he is denigrating not just the science, but the scientists that have demonstrated that instead of trying to grow crops on degraded and denuded land, farmers tend to clear virgin land to grow crops when price signals (corn ethanol hogging up 30,000 square miles of land and doubling the price of corn) suggest they may profit from creating that new cropland. That's what slash and burn agriculture is all about.

"Yet, forest land in the US has been increasing at the same time that ethanol production has grown."

That would of course prove nothing, assuming it is even true. More land is being planted with corn to capitalize on its high price. That land is not coming from protected American forests.

"Moreover, global deforestation has slowed as global biofuel production has accelerated. The development of biofuels could fuel the economies of developing countries, reducing the desperation that produces deforestation by illegal logging, cattle ranching, and subsistence farming."

Global deforestation has slowed with the economy, but it would have slowed even more without the demand for biofuels. Biofuels won't reduce "the desperation that produces deforestation by illegal logging, cattle ranching, and subsistence farming." It will add to the destruction being caused by those things. Biofuels are a new demand on the biosphere.

"Energy security, economic growth, and environmental responsibility: These are three reasons why the Copenhagen climate change conference should create a new consensus, among developed and developing nations, to encourage the production and use of biofuels."

Corn ethanol does not provide any meaningful energy security, economic growth (it would disappear in a year without government largess), or environmental responsibility.

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1 comment:

  1. An email tip alerted me to another piece of corn ethanol propaganda, this time over at Renewable Energy World. I left several long-winded comments there.


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