Old and new energy crossed paths in the American midwest last week: a new cellulosic ethanol refinery called Project LIBERTY is on the way in for Emmetsburg, Iowa, while the U.S. State Department appears to have shut the door on the notorious Keystone XL oil pipeline project through Nebraska. The new refinery is being built by the POET biofuel company and it will be the first commercial scale biofuel plant in the U.S. to produce ethanol from dried leaves, stalks and other corn waste. Project LIBERTY represents another step forward in America’s long, slow transition out of high-risk fossil fuels such as the tar sands oil that would have gone through the Keystone pipeline, but it also reveals that there can be some unexpected stumbling blocks along the way.
Biofuels and Rural Economies
First, the good news: Project LIBERTY is only in the early site preparation phase of construction and it is already beginning to create new agricultural jobs in the area, bearing out one key focus of President Obama’s biofuels policy. Aside from the temporary work created during construction, the Twin Cities’ Star Tribune reports that farmers in the Emmetsburg area are hiring extra help to bale and store tens of thousands of tons of dry corn stover (the stalks and other detritus left over from harvest) that will be used in massive quantities by the new refinery when it opens in 2013.
A Bump in the Road for Biofuels
Unfortunately, according to a press release from POET last week, the preliminary stover baling operation has hit a snag. Farmers in the area did gather up an impressive 61,000 tons after this year’s harvest but they haven’t delivered it to the refinery’s storage site. They are waiting for word on the status of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) in the 2012 federal budget. A delay could put a major glitch in POET’s ongoing research into the most efficient and sustainable ways to handle large amounts of stover. Republican representatives in Congress have stated their willingness to monkey wrench President Obama’s economic initiatives in order to win the next election, so it’s little wonder that Project LIBERTY Director Jim Sturdevant seemed a little nervous in that press release, closing with a polite but urgent reminder that “Research is paramount to what we’re doing in Emmetsburg.”
Corn Stover and Sustainability
Research into stover handling will be a key factor in Project LIBERTY’s long term viability because, while it is tempting to think of post-harvest leftovers as “free” biomass, crop waste can’t be removed willy-nilly without affecting the long term health of the soil. Jim Lane of Biofuels Digest covers that issue in a recent article on biofuel profitability, noting that about a ton of stover has to be left in the field for every 2-3 tons harvested, in order to protect the soil. The farmers supplying POET are being somewhat more conservative according to a company-affiliated blog. So far they are removing only about 25 percent of available stover, though that number that could eventually rise (or fall) as more research is gathered.
Biofuels and Fossil Fuels
Sturdevant emphasizes that Project LIBERTY is a direct stakeholder in local farmland preservation, noting that, “Not only do we have to keep a consistent flow of biomass to the facility, we need to ensure that farmers know how to harvest in a manner that maintains soil health.” That’s a clear contrast with the devastation incurred by other energy harvesting operations such as tar sands oil extraction and mountaintop coal mining, so it will be interesting to see what kind of support the farmers of Emmetsburg get in the next federal budget compared to the support traditionally rendered to the fossil fuel industry.
Image Credit: Corn by Madmack66 on flickr.com.