Little noticed outside a small policy community, an issue has quietly arisen in recent years that, while seemingly technical, has the potential to derail the nation’s attempts to address the issues of energy security and the environment. The issue is how or whether to count the effects of “indirect” land use — including as far away as Southeast Asia or Brazil — in determining the total greenhouse gas emissions from renewable fuels like ethanol, the very fuels that will enable us to reduce our dependence on imported oil. The wrong answer to this question could severely affect the increased use of alternative fuels, aggravating our energy dependence.
Some background: The 2007 Energy and Independence Security Act required that ethanol and other fuels with lower tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases must also have fewer overall emissions of greenhouse gases over the entire “life cycle” of the fuel’s production, transportation and use than conventional fuels have. Most observers expected that the Environmental Protection Agency would reach this conclusion easily, and a just-published regulation from the EPA now does so. For instance, the life cycle emissions of corn ethanol result in a significantly lower emissions profile than that for gasoline, and they will only improve as new ethanol plants are matched with advanced technologies.
However, a 2008 paper in Science magazine by Timothy Searchinger argued that the increased use of corn ethanol as a fuel source would in fact increase total greenhouse gas emissions, because of the supposed aggressive conversion of both natural lands and forests to ethanol production.
Mr. Searchinger’s argument, however, is flat wrong. He assumes mass conversion of forest land (accounting for up to 36 percent of increased ethanol fuel production), when the opposite is the case. From 1990 to 2005, according to both the U.S. Agriculture Department and the EPA, U.S. forest stocks have been stable, not falling, despite increased use of corn for ethanol. There has been no net conversion of land from sustainable forests to biofuel production.
In fact, the current situation is even more positive. According to the government’s own Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks in 2007, carbon stocks in U.S. forests continue to grow at a rate of over 800 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year — about 10 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. No wonder that the EPA has long taken the correct position that increased use of biomass fuels is (at a minimum) “carbon neutral.”
In response to Mr. Searchinger, Jerome Dumortier and his colleagues at the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State produced a better model that analyzes the impacts of energy price increases and biofuel policy changes on land conversion. They demonstrate the sustainability of forest stocks even if energy prices rise significantly.
All this is important now because the EPA has just finished drafting a regulation to implement the Renewable Fuels Standard established in the 2007 bill. The agency has now adopted a more positive approach towards ethanol than it initially proposed, approving all current sources of ethanol for use under the statute. But the basic problem of the 2007 bill remains — requiring the EPA to take “indirect” (including foreign) land-use changes into account. In fact, contrary to what the 2007 energy bill suggests, it is simply too difficult to assume or measure a link between corn grown in the U.S. for ethanol production and deforestation or conversion of agricultural land abroad.
Fortunately, there has been positive action on the congressional front to redress the policy imbalance Mr. Searchinger’s article has caused. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, Minnesota Democrat, and two bipartisan colleagues recently introduced a bill to amend the 2007 bill to preclude the EPA from calculating land-use changes in foreign countries for the purpose of influencing U.S. policy on renewable fuels, including biomass and ethanol.
The combination of sustainable forests, sustainable agriculture and greater use of biofuels is not merely a dream — it is today’s reality. In fact, the EPA deserves credit for recognizing a crucial point: that the protein byproduct of ethanol production is better feed for cattle than corn itself, thus maintaining the availability of feed for cattle while reducing their dangerous methane emissions at the same time.
But the flawed “indirect” land-use issue nevertheless remains available to be misused someday, to deny the full and proper accounting of all of the environmental and energy benefits of renewable energies such as ethanol.
• C. Boyden Gray served as White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush, as ambassador to the European Union under President George W. Bush and is principal of the lobbying and consulting firm Boyden Gray and Associates.