Climate Change Roundup: No Place for Corn-Based Ethanol in State’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard

By Published On: March 6, 2009

The California Air Resources Board March 5 issued a proposed low-carbon fuel standard that dismisses ethanol made from corn as a fuel that can help cut greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of embracing going yellow to go green, the state agency constructed its proposed standard to achieve a 10 percent cut in greenhouse gases from motor vehicle fuel by 2020 even as the use of ethanol rises under a federal mandate. Air Board rules currently allow blends of ethanol in gasoline of up to 10 percent and the industry is pressing for higher levels. “We see ethanol as part of the portfolio of fuels that will be driving the economy,” explained Dimitri Stanich, Air Board spokesperson. Yet, he said, the Air Board is not going to look at ethanol, at least when it’s made from corn, as a way for the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that corn-based ethanol did not fair well on greenhouse gas emissions when the Air Board examined it. “The real strength of this standard is that it takes a comprehensive ‘cradle to grave’ approach that accounts for greenhouse gas emissions from production, transport, and tailpipe emissions,” said Air Board chair Mary Nichols. Since biofuels require so much land to produce, the Air Board looked at their potential to create indirect land-use changes. They occur when people clear land elsewhere on the globe to grow replacement crops for the food suddenly turned into motor fuel. Clearing new land emits carbon dioxide emissions when plants are burned or plowed under. On a longer term basis it eliminates the function of those plants as future carbon sinks. The low-carbon fuel standard is considered essential in meeting the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals under its climate change law, AB 32. Under the standard--which is set to be considered for adoption next month--the Air Board hopes to cut carbon dioxide in automotive emissions 10 percent by 2020. This would amount to 16 million metric tons of emissions a year. In anticipation of the rule, more than a hundred scientists complained to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that the agency’s indirect land use analysis treats ethanol and biodiesel unfairly. In a March 2 letter to the governor, 111 scientists said that by penalizing ethanol under the proposal based on potential carbon dioxide emissions that stem from “indirect land-use changes,” the Air Board “violates the fundamental presumption that all fuels in a performance-based standard should be judged the same way.” The scientists, headed by Sandia National Laboratories vice president of deconstruction Blake Simmons, said that the Air Board does not plan to analyze and adjust for carbon emissions impacts from indirect land use changes associated with other fuels like gasoline, even though they may occur. The scientists did acknowledge that there may be indirect land use impacts from converting corn and other food crops into fuel. The scientists said, however, that the ability to analyze such changes is too nascent and uncertain to incorporate into a regulatory standard at this time. So they urged the governor instead to direct the Air Board to consider only direct land use changes--that is clearance of land to grow crops that are made into ethanol directly. They also asked for a 24-month study that would settle the issue of indirect land use changes for all fuels, not just ethanol and biodiesel. The American Lung Association countered the scientists and urged the Air Board to account for emissions from potential land use changes under its low carbon fuel standard. “If CARB does not account for the greenhouse gases released through land conversion, the standard could end up increasing global warming from transportation fuels,” said Trisha Murakawa, American Lung Association of California chair. * * * * California’s tailpipe emissions waiver request, which has been an ongoing states’ rights battle, was the focus of a March 6 U.S. Environmental Protection hearing and a press conference with environmental organizations held the previous day. The Bush administration rejected the waiver but now the Obama administration is reconsidering that decision. Under a state law, California is seeking a 30 percent reduction in vehicle emissions by 2016. David Doniger, Natural Resources Defense Council policy director, called it a moderate proposal that can be met with existing technology--and without hybrid vehicles. California’s governor reiterated that conclusion March 5. “California’s vehicle emissions standards are cost- effective and can be met with off-the-shelf technology. In fact, there are already many models available now that comply with the final standards that require a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2016,” stated Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Environmental representatives also refuted the claim that allowing California to implement its tailpipe emission standard under AB 1493 would create an unmanageable patchwork of regulations for the automobile industry. “That is dinosaur thinking,” said William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. If EPA reverses the waiver denial as expected, there will be only two Clean Air Act standards in play, the less stringent federal one and California’s. To date, 13 states and Washington D.C. hope to adopt state standards mirroring California’s. **** U.S. ethanol production last year climbed to its highest level ever: 9.2 billion gallons. That’s up from 6.5 billion gallons in 2007, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. U.S. motorists burned 9.5 billion gallons last year, with the difference between U.S. production and demand filled in by imports. However, increased demand for ethanol has not solved the industry’s over-capacity and business problems, ethanol executives testified March 4 to the U. S. House Committee on Small Business. That’s because ethanol-making capacity expanded faster than demand. With the addition of 31 new ethanol plants capable of making 2.7 billion gallons of the fuel a year, total ethanol plant capacity in the U.S. last year expanded to 13 billion gallons, according to Nathan Kimpel, New Energy Corp. president. Twenty new plants remain under construction, he said. “More than 25 plants have closed nationwide,” said Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), chair of the Small Business Committee. Virtually all U.S. ethanol is made with corn, which has marginal benefits when it comes to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The problem is that when the fossil fuel used to grow and ship corn and the emissions from clearing land to plant new crops are accounted for there is little if any benefit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. In the long-run biofuel advocates have pinned their hopes on making ethanol through a cellulosic production process that dramatically cuts greenhouse gas emissions. But Velázquez said that the bad economy and low price of oil is undercutting the industry and threatening future investment in advanced biofuel research and development work. “Renewable fuel producers are being hit on both sides,” said Velázquez. “Volatility in energy prices has affected demand for their product. Meanwhile, they are feeling the effects of the credit crunch and an inability to access capital.” Federal law mandates that the nation burn 36 billion gallons a year of ethanol by 2022.

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