Good news from Brazil, bad science from RFA

Recently, exciting new data has come out from Brazil showing reduced rates of deforestation. This is good news for everyone who likes clean air, fresh water, places for wildlife to thrive and wants to avoid extreme and erratic storms that destroy homes, jobs, and lives. Slowing and stopping deforestation around the world should continue to be a top priority in our efforts to mitigate global warming and preserve valuable biodiversity, and Brazil’s domestic efforts in this regard should be applauded.

Unfortunately, in the weird world of the Washington spin cycle, the corn ethanol lobbyists (RFA, specifically) have latched onto this good news and are trying to use it in their increasingly desperate efforts to win a 5 year, $30 billion extension of the main corn ethanol tax credit. They’re waiving the info around as evidence that diverting cropland to making corn ethanol doesn't put pressure on the supply of cropland and thus on wild places around the world and therefore isn’t more polluting than gasoline.

Their argument amounts to saying "here's a bit of good news, therefore nothing can be wrong with our industry no matter how much land we use." But did Brazil's efforts come at a higher cost because of the rapid, policy-driven expansion in U.S. corn ethanol production? Will it now be harder for the Brazilian government to maintain its hard-won rainforest protections because of rising costs of land?  These are the issues we should be grappling with.

RFA's Geoff Cooper sarcastically dismisses the idea of basing analysis of the land use change impacts of corn ethanol production on an informed counterfactual scenario—i.e. a rigorous estimate of what might have happened in the marketplace absent U.S. biofuels polices—as “theoretical baselines”. But we’re not just in the business of chronicling history and describing trends here; comparing real world data to a baseline is how analysis of the impacts of any policy is done in the real world. For instance, Iowa State researchers have modeled the markets with and without the main corn ethanol tax credit—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit or “VEETC” —and concluded that eliminating it would have little impact on domestic corn ethanol production or ethanol prices. RFA seems to believe that the industry is so wildly uncompetitive and will immediately fail without the tax credit.

RFA is also trying to spin to the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) recent ILUC analysis as a vindication for its "don't worry--be happy" approach to land use, but CARB is continuing to follow the science, modeling baselines and rejecting RFA’s efforts to force them to ignore emissions from land use change. We may disagree on some of the choices CARB has made (for example, choosing the lowest ILUC emissions estimate from the three scenarios Wallace Tyner modeled in his April, 2010 paper), but as long as agencies like CARB and the EPA continue to follow the science, even if ILUC emissions estimates decrease, that’s better than RFA’s preferred approach of waving their hands at market shifts and trends as definitive proof of anything about corn ethanol's impact on land use change.

I've tried to explain to RFA that in markets as complicated as international agriculture and as influenced by public policy as land use, looking at simple trends doesn't show anything. But as they say, it's hard to get people to understand something when their salaries depend upon not understanding.

Nevertheless, since RFA appears to have already lost the fight for a 5 year VEETC extension and will probably lose 20% if not all of the value (a victory for the rest of us worth between $1.25 and $6 billion dollars next year alone), I thought of a little test we could do to see if they believe their own theory that a little good news means that corn ethanol doesn't compete for any land:  let’s entirely eliminate the corn ethanol tax credit and tariff for three years and see if the trend line of domestic corn ethanol production continues to go up at all. If it does, we'll "know" that the VEETC has been entirely wasteful and just lined the pockets of Big Oil and Old Ethanol.

I know it’s been a bad year for “king corn” and the ethanol lobby (heck, they couldn’t even strong arm EPA into approving 15% blends for the entire fleet or get Congress to prohibit EPA from measuring ILUC), but I wonder if that's a challenge RFA is willing to accept?