Monday, May 11, 2009

Is Ethanol Really the Answer?

The EPA has released new rules regarding the measure of lifestyle impact on Global Warming. In 2007, Congress passed legislation requiring a substantial increase in ethanol usage to the tune of about 36 billion gallons a year by 2022. Another part of the legislation set a limit on the "lifestyle impact" of ethanol. From the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune -

"When Congress in 2007 required a huge increase in ethanol use — to as much as 36 billion gallons a year by 2022 — it also required that ethanol — whether from corn or cellulosic crops like switch grass or wood chips — have less of a "life cycle" impact on global warming than does gasoline. It set the threshold at 20 percent climate-pollution improvement for corn ethanol and 60 percent for cellulosic ethanol, although ethanol made from facilities already operating would be exempt."

So what is involved in determining what constitutes "lifestyle impact"? That is the current bone of contention between the EPA and the bio-fuel industry, primarily having to do with corn. Sure, technically growing corn as fuel doesn't add any extra greenhouse gases because what is being burned has already been removed from the atmosphere by the growing of the corn. Its supposed to be a win-win. However, as fuel prices rise, the price of corn rises and then other countries want to get into the act. Take Brazil for instance (from NPR):

"...when the ethanol industry took off in the United States, so did the price of its main raw material — corn. So farmers in places like Brazil planted corn on their pasture lands to cash in, but they still needed land to graze their animals on..."Where's Brazil going to get more pasture?" Bruce Babcock from Iowa State University asked at a House agriculture subcommittee hearing on Thursday. "Well, by converting Amazon forest and savannah. Thus the argument goes, any increase in Brazilian cropland leads to deforestation and a loss of savannah."

And what does deforestation mean? More CO2 in the atmosphere - both immediate release from the burning of the forest as well as the long term effects of the loss of natural carbon sinks.

The bio-fuel industry of course is downplaying these effects and wants the EPA to reconsider using them in their "lifestyle impact". Regardless, the fact that the use of corn for ethanol directly causes the price of food to go up (pretty much everything produced through the Industrial Food Chain uses corn). Considering the actual environmental impact and the impact on the consumer, it appears like this win-win is taking a turn for the corny. Perhaps concentrating more on the conservation and innovation side of environmentalism rather than working toward a new unsastainable energy are more viable options than using corn in our tanks. One idea involves the burning of biomass for electricity as opposed to using the liquid fuel for ethanol. I really hope the EPA stands its ground - perhaps if the environmental standards for ethanol are too rigid, industry will be forced to look for more efficient ways to power our automobiles.

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