Big Oil Behind Yet Another Biofuels Research Paper

Joanna Schroeder

When discussing indirect land use it brings a popular saying to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Only in this situation the saying should be modified as follows: If a tree is cut down in a rainforest in Brazil to sell wood, should corn ethanol’s carbon footprint go up? Anyone with an ounce of commonsense would say no.

And here’s why: when a tree is cut down in Brazil, it is not to plant crops for biofuels, it is to sell the wood because the tree is of greater value as wood, then as part of the rainforest. Only then is the land converted to pasture and then to land for crops like soybeans. Sugarcane is rarely grown in the rainforest and Brazil doesn’t produce biofuels from corn. So what I just can’t seem to wrap my head around is what exactly does that tree have to do with corn ethanol?

So what has caused today’s diatribe on indirect land use? A new paper published this month in Bioscience Magazine titled, “Effects of US Maize Ethanol on Global Land Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Estimating Market-mediated Responses.” The paper was authored by Thomas W. Hertel of Purdue University and five co-authors. In a nutshell, the authors argue that the greenhouse gas emission reductions from corn-based ethanol are canceled out when factoring in the increased carbon output from indirect land use change. Therefore, their contribution to California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard is negligible, even when compared to conventional petroleum based fuels.

There are so many things wrong with this paper that I had a hard time deciding where to begin. I’ll dive right in with the authors’ assessment of the number of acres used to produce corn in our country (they use yield numbers from 2001 when yield numbers for 2009 are already available).

They argue that land is going to need to be converted to crops and that this land will come from virgin land such as tearing down a forest. They also assume that current cropland will be converted to produce corn (most commonly away from soybeans). What they don’t factor is is this: In 2009, American farmers produced 13.2 billion bushels of corn, similar to the production numbers reported in 2007. The difference –this yield was produced using 7 million, yes million, less acres of land.

The ethanol industry was quick to respond. Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy commented, “The truth is, indirect land use is a heavily disputed theory in the scientific community that has yet to be proven. The theory of ILUC employs no empirical evidence and it is unfair to single out one industry – corn ethanol – as the culprit behind poor environmental practices in other countries.”

Buis continued, “Even when ILUC is included in lifecycle analysis for corn ethanol, the Environmental Protection Agency qualifies it as a low carbon fuel that is 20 percent cleaner than gasoline. Excluding ILUC, ethanol from corn is 59 percent cleaner and can play a significant role in cleaning the air, creating U.S. jobs and securing our national and economic defense.”

What Growth Energy failed to mention is that the paper was written with the help of several organizations including California Air Resources Board and The Energy Biosciences Institute, which was funded by $500 million from oil company BP in 2007 and at the time the largest single research “contribution” in the record books. Also participating was our “best friend forever” Timothy Searchinger. Searchinger is a lawyer by trade and is no more qualified to conduct a study on indirect land use than I, a blogger. So what we really have here is yet another biofuels “study” funded by Big Oil. (And have I mentioned lately that Big Oil is still funding a campaign to discredit global climate change?)

The authors do cede that the concept of indirect land use is largely “uncertain and clearly requires additional analysis,” which brings me to the million dollar question, If indirect land use is so uncertain, then why are we creating policy based on unsound science? Oh, I forgot, our country doens’t make policy decisions on sound science. And that my friends is one reason why our country is in this big energy mess.

Commentary, Ethanol, Indirect Land Use, Oil