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AP Attack on Corn Ethanol: Not the Whole Story

RP Siegel | Monday November 18th, 2013 | 3 Comments

Night cornI was disappointed to see the AP story last week, by Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo, an incomplete and shallow analysis, purporting to be an exposé of the current biofuel industry.

Characterizing the ethanol industry as “an ecological disaster,” is a distortion of the facts. Much of what they have described: the topsoil erosion and agri-chemical runoff, applies equally to all of modern agricultural methods and should be understood in that context. Yes, of course, modern agriculture does have many problems that need to be addressed. And the current corn ethanol mandate does extend that.

Who wouldn’t rather see National Parks, forests or prairies than cornfields? But given the nation’s enormous appetite for, and absolute dependence on, energy, that’s not a fair comparison. The more appropriate comparison should be between cornfields and coal mines, or cornfields and oil fields, or fracking wells, or tar sands oil brought down through enormous pipelines or perhaps even, cornfields and battlefields.

For them to weigh in with this story at a moment when the future of this vital attempt by our nation, lagging as we are in our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, to move decisively in the direction of a cleaner energy policy, is simply irresponsible.

They mention that the EPA is “expected to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply,” referring to a leaked draft from the EPA. What they did not mention is the enormous amount of money at stake, estimated between $9 and $15 billion dollars for the oil industry, who is in an all-out war to slow its inevitable decline, and who has been bringing tremendous pressure to bear on the agency.

It’s easier to be a critic than a creator. Few, if any, endeavors of this magnitude come off without a hitch. Yes, there have been problems getting this off the ground, and yes, cellulosic ethanol has been late in arriving. But now that we are finally on the brink of success, this is not the time to overturn the entire effort in the name of past shortfalls. Do the authors really think we’d be better off just using gasoline?

They claim that from 2010-12, fuel was the number one use for corn in America. That is the kind of distortion being passed off by those with much to gain from diminishing the mandate. The fact is that roughly one-third of corn used for biofuel is returned for livestock feed in the form of a high protein feed called distillers dry grain, or DDG, after the ethanol has been extracted. That changes the numbers considerably.

The AP story also fails to mention that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) caps the amount of fuel that can be derived from corn, to avoid excess pressure on the food supply. The rest must come from advanced biofuels, which is where things get really interesting.

ThinkProgress does a fact-checking analysis of the AP story as well as counterclaims from Fuels America. Both parties land some blows and both are wrong at times. It’s all too easy to get lost in the numbers.

My perspective, as someone who has followed this story for a long time, and started out opposed to corn ethanol, is this: corn ethanol is a means to an end, imperfect, messy, steeped in all the sins of modern agriculture, and extending the number of acres under cultivation. It also has improved both its efficiency and yield since its inception. That being said, we are now on the verge of commercial scale, second generation cellulosic biofuel production. The technology has surged forward in Europe, and the first commercial scale plant is now operational here in the U.S. as well.

This will reduce the carbon footprint considerably. Soon, with the same level of agricultural input in terms of land, water, fertilizer, etc., we will get more fuel, since much of the corn crop residue, or stover, can also be converted into fuel along with the corn.

And that’s just the beginning. As the industry grows, innovation in this segment is soaring. New methods have been developed to make ethanol from the food waste generated in cities, 96 percent of which goes into landfills today.

One problem with corn ethanol production is that the bio-refineries give off a large amount of carbon dioxide. Sweetwater Energy, a startup in upstate New York, just signed a agreement with Naturally Scientific of  Nottingham, England, to develop third generation biofuel that captures the carbon from a bio-refinery and converts it into oil, using a biological process. Once this is in place, the carbon difference between bio-ethanol and petroleum will be enormous.

If the EPA rolls back the mandate, as has been rumored, which, by the way sets the levels below what was delivered last year, this will deal a major blow to this emerging industry at a critical point in its evolution. Investors will head for the hills and farmers will suffer, with the corn prices collapsing around them. Oil companies will celebrate as the price of gas goes up along with our carbon emissions. I don’t see how that will make us better off.

[Image credit: Gita Rau: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • PluviAL

    Excellent and convincing article. I refer to corn ethanol as a chimera, a monster in green disguise. But, I was convinced, as I have always argued, that the one justification for corn ethanol is as a cellulosic technology advancement vehicle.
    I am always hoping to be wrong, and that conventional renewables prove inordinately successful. Just in case Pluvinergy does not work. We argue that fossil fuels, Nuclear, and conventional renewables can be eliminated with Pluvinergy technology. By cooling the planet, it supplies all of civilizations water, food, and energy needs.
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    I almost stopped reading when I read about “bad oil”. Even though, they may be disinformation sources, we are all trying to provide for civilization’s energy needs, that is a noble cause: the source of economic and technological ascension.

  • PluviAL

    What happened to my comment? please don’t consider it spam. It is a sincere comment, and a mutual effort to the same objective. If people like us can’t be open to new and powerful ideas, who can? And if we don’t help each other to advance better ideas who will?

  • Sheila S

    Excellent article, RP. Living in Iowa, where a lot of corn is grown (alas, very unsustainably, as you say), I’d add that before the ethanol boom, subsidies to farmers encouraged overproduction of corn, to the tune of 2 billion bushels per year. My understanding is that this kept the prices down (in fact, when adjusted for inflation, the price for a bushel of corn had held steady since the 1930s; this changed after 2007) but it also led to about 2 billion bushels of feed corn rotting in silos annually. This is just to say that whether or not the corn is used for ethanol production, it will likely still be grown…unless subsidies for its production and overproduction are changed.