Played for a Fuel

The fact that corn-based ethanol is renewable doesn’t make it sustainable. When will candidates stumping in Iowa admit as much?

Phil Roeder/Flickr Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr

We’re a little more than four months away from the first of our presidential nominating contests, which means that registered voters in Iowa are strutting around their state and acting all high and mighty, in accordance with their proud self-image as quadrennial political bellwethers. Whether that self-image is fully merited or not, I’ve never begrudged Iowans their early-bird status. Why? Because as long as the Iowa caucuses remain first on the electoral calendar, we can be reasonably sure that Americans will be spending at least some time hearing about—and maybe even thinking about!—our nation’s renewable energy policy.

Among Iowa voters, fervent support for renewable energy is bipartisan. And most of that across-the-board approval is for one biomass-based fuel in particular: ethanol, which is primarily derived from the one crop for which the Hawkeye State is duly famous—corn. Last year, Iowa farmers grew nearly 2.5 billion bushels of it on more than 13 million acres of land; in an average year, the state produces more corn all by itself than most other countries do. The corn-based ethanol industry contributes $5 billion to the state’s economy and is responsible for employing nearly 50,000 Iowans.

But corn-based ethanol, to put it mildly, is a highly problematic candidate for membership in the renewable energy club. For starters, our country’s system for mandating and subsidizing the production of ethanol has meant that farmers who could be using their land to grow today’s food feel economically compelled to grow tomorrow’s fuel instead. Nearly half of the corn currently grown in Iowa goes toward ethanol production. (That’s also corn, by the way, that might otherwise have made its way into cattle troughs or chicken coops—which is just another way of saying that ethanol mandates effectively drive up the cost of animal feed, an increase that eventually gets passed along to beef and poultry consumers.)

Still, what really rankles many environmentalists is the way that ethanol has been smilingly advertised to the public as a renewable biofuel, with all the suggestions of sustainability that the adjective entails. Indeed, what makes corn ethanol “renewable”—in the sense that we can always make more of it by planting more kernels—is actually a huge part of what makes it so unsustainable in the long term.

Along with requiring huge amounts of water and fertilizer, growing corn requires huge amounts of land. Worldwide, policies that promote ethanol production encourage the conversion of grasslands and rainforests into farmland. Many scientists and ecologists now believe that keeping those ecosystems intact offers a far greater greenhouse gas–reducing benefitby not disturbing the carbon stored within native plants and in untilled soil—than any benefit which might be conferred by burning ethanol instead of petroleum. In fact, there’s ample evidence to suggest that ethanol production may actually end up generating more carbon pollution than gasoline.

These days, when a presidential candidate of either party stumps at the Iowa State Fair—a rite of passage on the campaign trail—he or she can be sure of two things. The first is that someone will shove a corn dog (or some other deep-fried food, most likely on a stick) into his or her face and demand it be eaten on the spot while cameras click and fairgoers applaud wildly. The second is that someone will ask the candidate whether he or she supports the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS: the federal program that, among other things, requires all gasoline sold in this country to contain a minimum amount of “renewable biofuel”—which in Iowa, of course, means corn-based ethanol.

In the decade since the RFS was instituted, any criticism of it prior to the Iowa caucuses was seen as politically risky—even though valid and intellectually honest critiques can be lodged from both the right and the left. If you’re a libertarian conservative, for instance, you might reflexively bristle at the idea of the federal government playing favorites with Midwestern corn farmers by guaranteeing them a market for their crops, while simultaneously adding consumer insult to free-market injury by driving up food, fuel, and livestock feed prices. And if you’re an environmentally conscious liberal, you might oppose the massive water and fertilizer inputs—and carbon outputs—that come with the fuel’s production.

The appropriate critique, I think, would borrow a little from both. I, for one, would find it refreshing to hear any presidential candidate discuss the RFS in the following manner, presumably after wiping a piece of deep-fried Milky Way from his or her mouth with the discarded campaign T-shirt of an irksome rival:

The Renewable Fuel Standard is an important federal requirement that needs to be maintained—but not necessarily in its current incarnation. We should continue to support the very best parts of it: the ones that encourage the production of more advanced and more sustainable biofuels, for instance, or the requirement that a renewable fuel must emit less greenhouse gas than the petroleum-based fuel it would replace.

This program can’t simply be a taxpayer-subsidized corporate welfare scheme for the ethanol industry. The fact that corn-based ethanol is "renewable" doesn’t automatically make it sustainable. Other biomass-based fuels, however, are genuinely sustainable—fuels derived from things like crop waste, or switchgrass, or sustainably harvested cover crops. Farmers can grow these with much less fertilizer or irrigation—and unlike corn, they can be grown almost anywhere, even on idle or degraded land.

Besides, I happen to think that Iowa corn is far too tasty to be turned into fuel! I can think of much better uses for it.

At which point the candidate should triumphantly raise the cornmeal-battered candy bar into the air—before finally lowering it to take one last, vigorous bite for the cameras. The crowd will eat it up.

Photo: Sun Brockie/Flickr

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