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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Anthropocene reporter: Don’t be fuelish

No one at Grinnell is a stranger to the centuries-running joke that our town and college are surrounded by endless seas of corn (and nothing else). Despite the teasing of our friends beyond Iowa’s fields, we don’t subsist on diets of strictly field corn every day of our Iowa-based lives. Most of Iowa’s 13 million acres of corn (more than 20,000 square miles) go towards the production of ethanol, a renewable fuel derived from fermenting and distilling ethanol from corn starch.

Corn ethanol has become a primary and much-beloved ag-linked industry in Iowa, the country’s largest corn ethanol producer at 3.9 billion gallons in 2014 (USDA 2014). Iowa’s path to the head of the corn ethanol pack has been paved by the formidable Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) of 2005, which drew in a generously subsidized corn ethanol industry in efforts to moderate American fossil fuel impacts. The RFS requires growing proportions of renewably derived fuels in gasoline and diesel mixes, reaching its peak of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel additions by 2022.

Although the RFS sounds like a step forward in America’s slow progress improving emissions standards, the regulation was a real victory for the corn-loving farmers of the Iowa. The RFS law rolled out absurdly high subsidies and production tax credits for farmers growing corn for ethanol, an incentive that never needed to exist for the most widely-produced and top-grossing crop in America (USDA 2012). In case that wasn’t enough, the law included strict tariffs against foreign ethanol, particularly the much more efficient sugarcane-based ethanol of Brazil, to give corn-growers a lock on the ethanol federal mandate.

Corn ethanol swept the field of biofuels, making up nearly 90 percent of biofuels produced in 2007. Farmers received 45 cents per gallon of ethanol produced starting in 2005 when the RFS was signed, costing an estimated six billion dollars a year, and tacking onto the already egregiously generous federal ag subsidies for corn. Corn ethanol production enjoyed combined subsidies that were more than sixty times greater per gallon than gasoline subsidies from 2005-2011. Besides direct tax cuts and subsidies, the byproducts of ethanol fermentation (distiller’s grains) became a sought-after and valuable livestock feed for ethanol plants. With the RFS’ blessing, the proportion of total U.S. corn crop consumed by ethanol production increased from less than six percent in 2000 to gobbling more than 40 percent of 2012’s crop (US EPA 2013).

Of course, allowing a fledgling industry a cushy subsidy is hardly a foreign concept in the United States, especially when, as the Iowa Corn Growers’ Association claims, you’re benefitting “The Environment, Farmers, and Consumers like You.” So why aren’t environmentalists rallying to corn’s defense?

The thinking behind corn-based ethanol as fuel rests on the idea that combustion of carbon dioxide—which has been more recently sequestered by the corn plants, avoiding the release of “new” CO2 borne from fossil fuels that had not previously been released in our atmosphere. It reduces the import of expensive and dirty-burning oil from abroad, and gives farmers yet another corn product to produce for us to consume.

All of which should sell the granola among us on the idea of corn ethanol, but for the reality happening in, and on, the ground. Corn is, among other things, responsible for much of the erosion, chemical water pollution and tiling that have together given Iowa the honor of ranking between 47th and 49th for surface water quality in the country. With ethanol subsidies up for grabs, farmers convert other cropland into more corn row-crop, putting pressure on crops that lose out and leading to price hikes in corn and other grains in the global market (the price of corn is often used as a reference for other grain prices, and the United States is a key grain producer). 

Ethanol production is no walk in the eco-friendly park either. Producing one gallon of ethanol creates 12 gallons of wastewater—about the same volume needed to make a gallon of gasoline from crude oil, and barely half as energy-packed. The energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for ethanol is a paltry 1:1.4—for every one unit of input energy to produce it, it only yields 1.4 or a 40 percent energy yield (Inman 2013). For comparison’s sake, crude has an estimated average EROEI of 1:10 and sugarcane-based ethanol 1:8.

If only the fuel itself was inefficient, perhaps its generous subsidization would continue to go unnoticed. Unfortunately for the corn ethanol club though, its sweet deal may be coming to a close. The tides have begun to turn against King Corn and its protector RFS, affectionately referred to by some today as “one of the worst examples of corporate welfare in America.” Although Iowa Governor Terry Branstad nobly defended the state’s five billion dollar ethanol industry with a Texas-style “Don’t mess with the RFS” warning to the 2016 presidential hopefuls courting the state, his army of supporters is dwindling while the opposition is mounting.

Joining the longtime petroleum interests’ opposition to corn ethanol is a surprising number of biofuel coalitions, including the Advanced Biofuels Association. Even more disconcerting for the future of corn are the bills filed in the Senate this year to end the corn requirements or even to entirely repeal the RFS, the most recent of nearly half a dozen such attempts since 2011. With EPA set to release ethanol mixing ratio requirements for 2015-2016 this spring, Iowa’s ears may not like what they hear.

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