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Published October 11, 2011, 09:56 PM

Ethanol mandate debate

WATERTOWN, S.D. - A recent government report on federal mandates for increased biofuels production has opponents of corn-based ethanol increasing their call for an end to subsidized renewable fuels and supporters saying the report is mostly a rehash of unjustified criticisms.

By: Terry O’Keefe, Watertown Public Opinion

WATERTOWN, S.D. - A recent government report on federal mandates for increased biofuels production has opponents of corn-based ethanol increasing their call for an end to subsidized renewable fuels and supporters saying the report is mostly a rehash of unjustified criticisms.

The report, requested by Congress and carried out by the National Research Council, says increased production of corn-based ethanol could cause changes in global land use practices and increase greenhouse gas emissions by converting virgin land or pasture into cropland to meet the rising need for production.

It also says the production goal set out in the federal Renewable Fuels Standard for cellulosic or next generation sources of ethanol production are unlikely to be met, due to a lack of technology and high production costs that thwart commercial production possibilities.

The RFS adopted as part of the last federal farm bill calls for production of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2022. The committee which wrote the report said the goal for cellulosic biofuels production will not be met unless there is an unexpected improvement in the production process and technologies are scaled up to commercial levels, making production commercially viable.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has opposed the growth and federal funding for increased ethanol and other biofuel production and wasted little time in trumpeting the findings of the NRC study.

"This report highlights the severe damage to the environment from corn-based ethanol production," said Sheila Karpf, an analyst with EWG. "It underscores just how misguided U.S. biofuels policy has become.

"It catalogs the environmentally damaging aspects of corn-based ethanol and also casts serious doubt on the future viability of so-called ‘advanced' biofuels made from other sources."

Biofuels organizations were also quick to respond to the contents of the report, saying some aspects of the study are accurate, but many miss the target all together.

"It's discouraging to see the NRC miss an opportunity to cast the RFS in the proper light," said Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council (AEC). "The most glaring problem is the council analyzed the ongoing development of the biofuels industry in a vacuum, as if these fuels are not displacing the marginal barrel of oil, which comes at great economic and environmental cost to the consumer.

"Congress was seeking a sober analysis of the RFS and regrettably, this is not it."

Coleman said the study is correct in identifying technology and government policy as two major hurdles advanced biofuels growth is facing. Coleman said if the RFS goals are supported by policy that helps push it forward, the industry will emerge and be able to meet the standards.

"The idea that the RFS may not be an effective strategy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is regrettable, given the published science on the subject," Coleman said. "Even with land use change considerations, advanced biofuels are the lowest carbon fuels being developed in the marketplace."

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) issued a statement saying the report fails to address and compare costs and benefits of renewable fuels to the impacts of the petroleum sources they displace.

Te statement went on to say numerous studies have shown that corn-based ethanol and other biofuels provide large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional gasoline and this study once again looks at inaccurate indirect land use changes as part of its basis.

RFA said the study used out-of-date ethanol efficiency data, particularly in water consumption for production, adding the amount of water needed to produce a gallon of ethanol has dropped by 30 percent in the last decade. The group also pointed to the study's assertion that ethanol and biofuels are only cost competitive with fossil fuels when oil averages $111 per barrel as inaccurate.

RFA said the efficiencies gained by the industry through its development has enabled it to see significant cost reductions, something that will also apply to the emerging next generation of biofuels.

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