The problem and promise of ethanol


We have followed the work of David Biello, associate editor of Scientific American, who recently visited Storm Lake as part of a series on ethanol, corn production and water quality in collaboration with Detroit Public Television. He had two fascinating stories at coming out of that effort: one a story on why cellulosic ethanol is not catching fire, and an interview with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The former Iowa governor says agriculture can lead the way on climate change if we talk to producers on their terms.

Vilsack defended corn-based ethanol, recalling his days as a country lawyer in Mount Pleasant helping farmers through the Farm Crisis. “We knew then that the survival of the family farm somewhat depended on our ability to find alternative ways for crops to be used. I don’t think ethanol hurt that,” Vilsack said.

In fact, it helped. Ethanol consumes about a third of Iowa’s corn crop. It helped run up corn prices to nearly $8 per bushel, and a whole lot of healing went on. And it is helping rural communities at the margins by providing jobs.

But, many credible scientists point to ethanol for having adverse environmental consequences. Forget the canard about ethanol consuming more energy to produce than it yields. Vilsack notes that corn ethanol now provides four times as much energy as it takes to produce the fuel. It is helping reduce carbon emissions, the equivalent of pulling millions of vehicles off the roads.

More intensive corn and soybean production in the prairie pothole region of northern Iowa is causing downstream problems for the Des Moines Water Works. It seeks a federal court order for drainage districts to stop emitting nitrate into the Raccoon River under the Clean Water Act. We also are contributing to a growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is destroying the fishing industry there.

The greatest proponent of alternative fuels, former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, envisioned corn as just a stepping stone to advanced biofuels made from corn stover (the stalks and leaves), switchgrass, miscanthus and other alternative crops. But Biello notes that the industry is nowhere near where Sen. Harkin thought it would be 10 years ago. Cellulosic ethanol is expensive to make, and the new plants in Emmetsburg and Nevada are trickling out alcohol while corn ethanol plants are cranking it out. The Nevada plant was made way by closing a Tennessee cellulosic ethanol plant owned by DuPont-Dow.

Why no switchgrass? Because, Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson says, Buena Vista County farmers cannot make the same amount of money growing switchgrass for ethanol from an acre of land as they can from growing corn, which doubles as a food and fuel crop. If farmers won’t grow it, Pioneer or Poet can’t process it.

So how can we produce ethanol sustainably — that is, a scheme under which farmers can make money without releasing nitrate to the river and help power America while emitting less carbon?

First, the federal government must provide incentives in the new Farm Bill to lure producers into planting and processing alternative crops that consume free-ranging nutrients. Farmers need to see that by growing sweet sorghum near streams or tile outlets that we can substantially reduce nutrient loss into rivers and make enough money to cover $300 cash rent and a profit for the processor.

Second, the government has an obligation to protect water from pollution. It must set some sort of standard — a mandatory acreage set-aside to participate in crop insurance or subsidy payments, or some sort of imposition on drainage districts. Despite incentives paid by government agencies, buffer strips have been ripped out all over the Midwest to make way for more corn acres even as corn prices decline. Incentives alone cannot solve the problem. Buena Vista County still has a tiny fraction, less than 5,000 acres per year, planted to cover crops that suck up nutrients in spring when water runs despite exhortation and subsidy. Voluntary measures cannot take us far enough.

All of this is cast in somewhat a political context. Farmers and agri-industry are putting on a full-court political press to avoid any sort of regulation to clean up water. Meantime, that discussion is almost irrelevant to the case at hand with the Des Moines Water Works. A federal court will decide if Iowa production agriculture is violating the Clean Water Act. A trial is scheduled for a year from now. The trial will set the terms of the subsequent political discussion — unless the political leaders of this state show the brains and gumption to pre-empt the lawsuit with a settlement that takes care of producers while protecting water quality.

Ethanol plays a prominent role in that discussion. Alternative crops that can produce low-carbon, high-octane fuel can keep nutrients in-field if farmers are prodded by stick and with carrot. We should be thinking about these things now, rather than trying to convince ourselves that we are addressing the problem in a responsible way when we are not.