As if corn isn't already getting a heapin' helpin' of federal subsidies.
Blue Dog Democrat Collin Peterson, the volatile Minnesotan who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, is throwing a tantrum about the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed standards for analyzing corn-based ethanol's life cycle greenhouse gas emissions.
Peterson says EPA's approach is unfair to corn producers. Not a word on whether handouts to corn are fair to U.S. taxpayers or to the environment.
Energy legislation passed in 2007 requires a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions for renewable fuels produced in new facilities. The law specifies that the emissions reduction must be measured over the fuel's life cycle, from the time farmers sow the seeds until the last drops of ethanol blow up in your car's cylinders and waft their byproducts into the atmosphere. The analysis must include land-use changes tied to ethanol production that result in greenhouse gas emissions.
EPA's draft analysis shows that corn-based ethanol, when the crop is processed with natural gas-fueled dryers, has a smaller carbon footprint than conventional gasoline ... barely ... when measured over 100 years with a 2% discount rate. Dry the corn with coal-fueled equipment and corn ethanol's emissions shoot past gasoline.
Change the analysis horizon to 30 years with no discount rate and corn-based ethanol with gas-fired crop drying results in higher emissions than gasoline. Dry corn with coal and it's about one-third worse than dinosaur juice.
EPA's methodology takes into account land use changes overseas that stem from domestic crop production. The thinking goes like this: If U.S. corn is diverted from the food market to the fuel market, then forests or grasslands that store carbon likely would be plowed up somewhere else to make up the gap in the food supply. Cutting the forests or tilling the grasslands would unlock the soil carbon and it would be up, up, and away into the atmosphere.
Peterson's hissy fit includes a bill that he has introduced that would dump the indirect land use emissions analysis requirement. If he doesn't get his way, Peterson says he'll block the Waxman-Markey climate and energy magnum opus.
Peterson says EPA's methodology is "short on science and long on obstructive and excessive restrictions on domestically produced biofuels."
EPA acknowledges that its methodology is cutting-edge. But it's not beyond the bounds of reason. Corn-based ethanol did poorly in a recent Stanford study comparing the environmental footprints of various fuels and technologies for propelling automobiles. In fact, corn-based E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) came in dead last among 12 alternatives in the greenhouse gas emissions reduction derby. The top two, incidentally, were battery-powered cars charged up with power from wind and concentrated solar power plants, respectively.
Like EPA, the Stanford study took into account indirect land use changes linked to biofuels production. Ignoring indirect land use changes amounts to a subsidy. It's not the same as mailing a check from the U.S. Treasury to millionaire absentee farmland owners. But it's a subsidy, nevertheless.
Waxman-Markey is far from perfect and there are many good reasons for Congress to raise a lot of questions about it. But holding it hostage to give corn a bigger plate at the federal subsidies buffet is not one of them.
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