Ethanol test for Obama on climate change, science

Ethanol test for Obama on climate change, science (AP)
FILE -- In this April 7, 2007 file photo, an E-85 fuel pump sits ready for its next customer in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
(AP) -- President Barack Obama's commitment to take on climate change and put science over politics is about to be tested as his administration faces a politically sensitive question about the widespread use of ethanol: Does it help or hurt the fight against global warming?

The Environmental Protection Agency is close to proposing ethanol standards. But two years ago, when Congress ordered a huge increase in ethanol use, lawmakers also told the agency to show that ethanol would produce less pollution linked to than would gasoline.

So how will the EPA define from ethanol production and use? Given the political clout of farm interests, will the science conflict with the politics?

Environmentalists, citing various studies and scientific papers, say the agency must factor in more than just the direct, heat-trapping pollution from ethanol and its production. They also point to "indirect" impacts on global warming from worldwide changes in land use, including climate-threatening deforestation, as land is cleared to plant corn or other ethanol crops.

Ethanol manufacturers and agriculture interests contend the fallout from potential land use changes in the future, especially those outside the United States, have not been adequately proven or even quantified, and should not count when the EPA calculates ethanol's climate impact.

"It defies common sense that EPA would publish a proposed rule-making with harmful conclusions for biofuels based on incomplete science and inaccurate assumptions," complained Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

He was one of 12 farm-state senators, both Democrats and Republicans, who wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in March, urging the agency to stick to assessing only the direct emissions.

Ethanol, which in the future may come from cellulosic sources such as switchgrass and wood chips, is promoted by its advocates as a "green" substitute for gasoline that will help the U.S. reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil. That transition is a priority of the Obama White House.

In 2007, Congress ordered huge increases in ethanol use, requiring refiners to blend 20 billion gallons with gasoline by 2015 and a further expansion to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022.

Congress said any fuel produced in plants built after 2007 must emit 20 percent less in greenhouse gases than gasoline if it comes from corn, and 60 percent less if from cellulosic crops.

Meeting the direct emissions would not be a problem. But if indirect emissions from expected land use changes are included, ethanol probably would fail the test.

Nathaniel Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said that wouldn't mean the end of ethanol.

Ethanol from existing production facilities is grandfathered and "there are ways to produce advanced ethanol's that would comply with the greenhouse thresholds," even using land use climate impacts if the industry chose to adopt them, Greene said.

But farm interests and their allies in Congress are pushing to get the EPA to at least postpone any consideration of the land-use impacts issue, arguing the science surrounding the issue is uncertain.

The senators' letter said that an overreaching regulation by EPA on ethanol's link to climate change "could seriously harm our U.S. biofuels growth strategy by introducing uncertainty and discouraging future investments."

Environmentalists say there have been enough studies on the indirect impact of ethanol on greenhouse pollution to justify the science.

Ignoring the indirect impacts "will undermine the environmental benefits" of the renewable fuels program "and set a poor precedent for any future policies attempting to reduce global warming pollution," 17 environmental group wrote Jackson in response to the senator's plea.

Greene said the EPA's handling of the rule will be a "a test of our ability to follow sound science" even when it conflicts with the interests of powerful interests.

The environmental organizations noted that Obama has "vowed to make the U.S. a leader on climate change" and put science over politics, and "now is the time to uphold those pledges."

EPA spokeswoman Andora Andy declined to say when an agency proposal - a holdover issue from the Bush administration - would be issued. Interest groups on both sides of the debate said it could come in days. The White House Office of Management and Budget concluded its review of the EPA proposal last week.


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User comments

May 03, 2009
1) It is amazing how quickly politicians (of all persuasions) paint themselves into corners and find it impossible to make more than a small percentage of their constituents happy on any given issue.

2) At this rate, the 'environmental code' in the U.S. will soon be more massive and byzantine than the tax code.

3) Points 1 and 2 are both following an exponential Kurzweilian curve and I predict that by 2022 a Singularity in Government Policies (TM) will have formed in Washington D.C., sucking all of the politicians away into a parallel universe.

May 03, 2009
Re: Point 3.

I am pretty certain that most politicians live in a parallel universe as it is. Regardless of their political party, or their country of origin, it seems that by the time they get into a position of power, they have spent so long inside the political machine, that they no-longer have any real clue about the world outside of it.

May 04, 2009
Ethanol is so narrow sighted. Most technology analysts see it for what it is--a failure. It is MANDATED in Federal law (EISA) that we continue to grow the use of ethanol. All this, while food prices skyrocket because of this policy.

So, Americans, lets burn all of our food so that we can be energy independent...then we'll just have to implement a new federal law in the future to allow us to get our food independence back.

If Obama wanted change, he would ban corn-based ethanol.

May 04, 2009
The fundamental problem here is that the regulations are treating all ethanol the same, regardless of its source. Corn yields 20 times less ethanol per acre than, say, algae. And corn has huge impacts on land use and food prices. Ethanol from corn may even be more damaging to the environment than gasoline, whereas ethanol from switchgrass, sugar cane, or algae is far better than gasoline. It's a world of difference.

I wonder if it would be possible to regulate each ethanol supply source on the basis of how its ethanol was produced? If not, then I am grudgingly forced to agree with the corn-belt senators that punishing the entire ethanol industry as a whole will suppress research and development into better ways of producing ethanol. You throw the baby out with the bathwater.

May 04, 2009
Ethanol is so narrow sighted. Most technology analysts see it for what it is--a failure. It is MANDATED in Federal law (EISA) that we continue to grow the use of ethanol. All this, while food prices skyrocket because of this policy.

And this surprises you how?
There is a Texas billionaire pushing for government subsidies for his wind farms because they don't work better than nature will allow.
The UN IPCC and special interest groups have driven Congress in to a panic to "do something" when the proper thing to do might be nothing.

May 04, 2009
Of course we don't have an economical way to produce cellulosic based ethanol.

At this time it shouldn't even be brought up in the decision.

Corn is bad, sugar OK, but the corn syrup and sugar lobby will keep out any non-domestic sources of sugar or ethanol.

May 05, 2009
Actually, this poster above may have a very good point:

Corn yields 20 times less ethanol per acre than, say, algae.

There is another fundamental difference there. Corn eats into valuable farmland, but algae just eats into areas of standing water. Convert areas unsuitable for growing crops into multi-tier algae ponds. That would solve much of the problem, I believe.

May 06, 2009
Trying to replace fossil fuels with natural photosynthesis-based fuels is a mugs game from the start. Best solar efficiency that natures photosynthesis can achieve is 1% (tropics, plenty available water, fertile soil). In moderate latitudes with winter and annual crops with low-coverage in spring, energy into stems, leaves, roots (corn) its more like 0.25%. It's like re-building your solar-electric system every year. FAR smarter to cover 1 sq km with a 15% efficient solar-thermal electrical plant and use PHEV's/EV's than to cover 60 sq km with corn crops, then another 40 sq km with additional corn required to provide the farm machinery with it's fuel.

A really stupid process. (Cellulosic not much better).

Simple solutions from greedy but simple minds?
I'm not expecting much from solar cells. Without an enormous increase in efficiencies for solar cells and power storage this is still marginal.

May 07, 2009
President Barack Obama's commitment to take on climate change and put science over politics is about to be tested

No body has questioned this linking "climate change" with "science". Seems like a bit of a stretch to put them in the same sentence.

Jul 04, 2009
He couldn't in another thread even do the math to see that use of Ethanol would reduce CO2 emissions and you expect him to name some real scientists? :)

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