Ethanol Lobby 1, Environment 0: Compromise Struck to Move Climate Bill Forward

corn harvesting photo

Two months ago, the California Air Resources Board voted to include greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land use changes in calculating a biofuel was truly carbon neutral. Naturally, this sent the US ethanol industry into a fit; under many analyses corn ethanol wouldn't fare too well. Now, the ethanol lobby has managed to do on the Federal level what they couldn't in California, convince Congress to put industry interests ahead of the environment. The details coming out from a couple different sources aren't entirely clear, but this is what we know:First of all, it's important to note that no one outside of Congress has seen the actual language of the compromise, but Biofuels Digest reports that the deal was cut between House Agricultural Committee chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Commerce Committee chair Henry Waxman.

USDA Cap and Trade Program Established, More...
As to what details have been gleaned, reports these key points:

  • The EPA "will not be able to use an international indirect land use change when it estimates the carbon footprint of ethanol and biodiesel" for "at least six years." Furthermore, this provision will be removed from the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act; and the National Academy of Science will review the science that indicates a connection between biofuel mandates being linked with deforestation in the Amazon.
  • The USDA, rather than the EPA, would run a cap and trade program to allow farmers to sell carbon credits to polluters
  • Farmers who have already made changes to production to limit emissions from soil, such as no-till cultivation, would receive carbon credits retroactively to include efforts going back to 2001. These farmers would be allowed to participate in the new program.

Reaction Mixed
The compromise has drawn comment ranging from criticism to yawn, as a few quick quotes from The Hill indicates:

The Sierra Club came out saying the details they had seen seem to be "undermining the scientific process and review at this point is unfortunate."

The League of Conservation Voters said that the compromise "doesn't seem like a positive change."

However, Joe Romm pointed out that though "as a matter of science the deal is not optimal," the end effect of this compromise is slight, noting that most of the corn ethanol produced under the 2007 energy bill was already grandfathered in and would not have to meet these emissions requirements.

Under the 2007 bill, some 15 billions of corn ethanol were mandated to be produced per year.

Corn Ethanol Industry Already Given Too Many Concessions
So, if Romm is right (as he tends to be...) and the practical effects of this compromise are minimal, why should we pay attention: Because the corn ethanol industry (and corn growers more broadly) in the United States has simply already gotten too many handouts and concessions.

First generation biofuels are simply a dead end when it comes to replacing large amounts of fossil fuels and we need to be focusing on other renewable energy sources (including appropriate use of second generation fuels, where applicable). Especially, in a climate change bill that already has been nearly critically compromised through industry concessions, I'm decidedly nonplussed by this latest one.

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