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Ethanol-is the solution more painful than th?e problem

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Read this on the Duluth News Tribune and made me start to think a bit. This is more of an ongoing debate than a forgone conclusion.

The one thing that stood out for me is that part of the blame was pointed at the high cost of fuel adding to the increased cost of corn and other commodities.

Corn at the center of food vs. fuel debate

State Capitol Bureau

Published Thursday, August 07, 2008


REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Emotions are rising nationally as leaders debate the question about whether biofuels such as ethanol are driving up food and other prices.

People at FarmFest Wednesday heard national and state experts deliver an “it depends” answer to the question that is gaining more and more attention.

Ethanol can be blamed for just a small portion of soaring food and transportation prices, but problems may lie ahead, the experts’ panels told hundreds of people attending the state’s largest agricultural trade show.

Randy Spronk, an Edgerton, Minn., farmer and National Pork Producers Association board member, said corn-based ethanol is the main driver for some products’ higher costs: “A box of cereal is going to be a lot less affected than my pork chop.”

The controversy is about whether ethanol demands so much corn these days that it drives up the costs of other products that use corn, such as livestock. Corn opponents also claim thousands of acres of cropland that otherwise would be planted with other crops are planted in corn now because farmers can earn more.

Spronk’s livestock advocacy did not reach the level of rhetoric heard in Washington from corn opponents. FarmFest debate on the topic was “Minnesota nice.”

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson tried to find a middle ground between livestock and grain farmers.

“We have to have it all,” said the commissioner, who has served for three governors, adding that both grain and livestock farmers are vital to the state’s economy.

Economists have not been able to agree on how much ethanol is to blame for higher prices.

“It has gone from an economic discussion to what I think is a pretty emotional issue,” said Texas cattle producer and Farm Bureau livestock economist Jim Sartwelle.

Commodities ranging from concrete to steel to food all have increased in price, University of Minnesota economist Brian Buhr added. Much of the blame can be placed on rising energy prices, he said.

“The word of the day is volatility,” Buhr said.

Sartwelle predicted that volatility will last another six years, until new federal energy laws are fully implemented and ethanol researchers have had time to develop a fuel made from grass and other plants, relieving the pressure on corn.

In the meantime, Spronk predicted, the supply of corn for his hogs will run out.

“Our concern as pork producers is the availability of corn for animal feed,” he said.

While not opposed to ethanol — something he uses as a farmer — Spronk said livestock producers are at a disadvantage because federal and state laws now favor using corn for fuel compared to livestock feed.

“Will we have enough corn to produce food and how will these consumers spend their limited food dollars?” he asked.

No one on either of two panels at FarmFest could guarantee that the corn will be available for livestock.

Thirty-four percent more corn is being used for ethanol production this year than last.

Sitting next to Spronk in one panel discussion was Hector, Minn., farmer Steve Kramer, secretary of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. He said ethanol use is a relatively small factor in price increases.

Many on the two panels blamed high oil prices more than ethanol production for rising costs. Kramer, for instance, said the average food product is transported 1,500 miles before it reaches the table.

Tom Buis, National Farmers Union president, said farmers have to work together on the issue or crop and livestock farmers both may be hurt.

He rattled off a list of companies that blamed ethanol for their need to raise prices, including beer and toothpaste makers.

“If we allow our critics to define us ... then I say shame on us,” Buis said. “If we don’t stand up and fight back, they will define us.”

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune.

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They better get the switch grass and other methods figured out quick. The midwest ethanol lobby isn't going to be able to withstand the pressure for much longer. Smoke and mirrors only go so far....

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Trading Fisheries For Fuel

Ethanol may someday fill our tanks, but the cost might be our fisheries' health

by Dr. Hal Schramm

From the North American Fishing Club

Biofuels—fossil fuel replacements made from plants—are touted as a significant part of the solution to North America’s long-term energy needs. And as we’ve all heard by now, the favored gasoline substitute is ethanol made from corn.

The U.S. government has responded in kind, fostering the development of biofuel technology and subsidizing corn and ethanol production. Meanwhile, ethanol producers have widely published claims (do a quick Internet search and you’ll find them) to convince America that ethanol is a viable, large-scale, environmentally friendly energy source.

But data from peer-reviewed, independent research doesn’t jive. To the contrary, many in the scientific community have found the fuel to be inefficient, impractical in the face of our energy needs and ecologically irresponsible. And because ethanol production requires so much water from cornfield to tank, our precious fisheries are poised to bear the brunt of its environmental onslaught.

Ethanol Is An Energy Drain

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that corn ethanol produces a net energy gain of 25 percent. In other words, it takes the energy equivalent of four gallons of gasoline to produce five gallons of fuel-grade ethanol.

Heat energy is needed for the fermentation process and to distill the ethanol to 95 percent purity. Although that energy comes from various sources, some of it ultimately comes from fossil fuels. And corn needs a lot of nitrogen fertilizer (made with natural gas) and pesticides (derived from petroleum).

Those numbers aren’t very encouraging, but many believe them to be much worse. Studies by the U.S. Department of Energy published in the 1980s, for example, actually reported a negative energy return for ethanol.1,2 In other words, the research showed it took more energy to produce ethanol than the energy that fuel ultimately yielded. These studies were reviewed and accepted by a team of 26 expert, independent scientists.3

Numerous recent studies concur. When all energy inputs from planting corn to finished ethanol are considered, professors emeritus David Pimentel of Cornell and Tad Patzek of the University of California-Berkley determined that producing a gallon of corn ethanol requires 29 percent more fossil fuel energy than is contained in the finished ethanol.

So Many Cars, So Little Land Americans burned 134 billion gallons of gasoline in 2003. It would take more than 546 million acres of farmland growing corn to produce the volume of ethanol to replace the gasoline we used that year. Looking at substituting corn ethanol for gasoline globally, scientists forecast that 80 percent of the Earth’s total land area would need to be producing fuel crops.4

But that’s just not in the cards—globally, 37 percent of all land, and almost all good-quality land, is already farmed. Meeting global petroleum needs with corn ethanol will require farming marginal farmland, deserts and Siberia, and replacing forests with row crops.

And non-farmed lands have, since the development of agriculture, supported the bulk of Earth’s wild plant and animal species. “Set-aside” programs, such as the Conser-vation Reserve Program (CRP), provide incentives to plant marginal farmland or land with highly erodible soils with native grasses, shrubs and trees that protect the soil while providing essential habitat for many terrestrial wildlife species. These islands of wildlife habitat in a sea of row-crop monocultures provide vital refuges to sustain biodiversity and maintain game and non-game wildlife populations.

Increased subsidies to grow corn and develop corn ethanol technology is seen as a serious blow to wildlife by game managers and conservationists. They are concerned that CRP lands will be converted to corn production, which some parts of the country have already seen on a huge scale. The change is not only bad for terrestrial wildlife, but it will also accelerate erosion, thus adversely affecting fisheries resources.

Ethanol Is Not Clean Fuel I’m not sure where the public has gotten the idea that ethanol is “green.” Admittedly, alcohol burns mostly to carbon dioxide and water, whereas burned gasoline produces complex hydrocarbons and particulates. But that minor difference does not make burning ethanol good for the environment, because carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas and major contributor to global climate change.

True, when we burn ethanol, we are essentially recycling carbon dioxide rather than releasing it, as we do with fossil fuels. The corn plant converts carbon dioxide to corn, which is then processed to fuel, which is then burned, returning the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and completing the cycle.

That said, using corn alcohol as a petroleum substitute appears to approximate a balance between carbon dioxide uptake by plants and carbon dioxide produced when ethanol fuels are burned—but that’s only if you don’t count fossil fuels used to grow corn and produce ethanol.

Some proponents of E85 go a step further to proclaim the increase in planted acres will mean more plants consuming carbon dioxide and, thus, a net removal of carbon dioxide from the environment.

Fast forward a few years, however, and you’ll see the flaw in this claim. As the need for corn ethanol increases (and it will), forests, wetlands and prairies in long-term conservation easements will be phased into corn. These areas are currently cleansing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide throughout a long growing season, but they’ll be replaced by corn that only grows—and removes carbon dioxide from the air—for about four months.

And while ethanol may burn cleaner than petroleum fuels, the path from farm to finished product is dirty. Corn production causes more soil erosion and demands more herbicide and insecticide use than any other U.S. crop.

Ultimately, much of those herbicides and insecticides end up in our surface or ground waters.

Impacts On Fish The ethanol boom poses numerous problems for inland fisheries, but the greatest threat is the tremendous water requirements—both of corn and the ethanol production itself. Corn requires more water than most crops. In Nebraska, it requires about 30 inches of water per growing season, more in hotter, drier climates and less in cooler, more humid climates. So until a few years ago, farmers grew corn where rainfall was adequate or irrigation water was cheap and readily available. Now that the incentive to grow corn is higher than ever, farmers are expanding corn acreage into marginal agricultural land, and that means more irrigation.

Water for irrigation can only come from three sources: diverted river flows, water-supply reservoirs, and aquifers (groundwater). Growing corn where it traditionally hasn’t been farmed because of insufficient precipitation will sap both surface and ground waters. And providing the power to physically pump this water will place additional demands on an already overdrawn energy budget.

But the water needs of ethanol don’t end with just irrigating corn crops. Once the crop is harvested it must be mixed with water for fermentation into alcohol. This process requires about 15 gallons of water to produce one gallon of 95 percent ethanol (13 of which are returned to the environment as sewage effluent).3

Producing enough ethanol to satisfy our 2003 gasoline consumption rate will require 1.7 trillion gallons of water and discharge almost 1.5 trillion gallons of wastewater. That water demand is 5.2 million acre-feet, the equivalent of a 260,000-acre lake with an average depth of 20 feet. The wastewater would fill up a 230,000-acre hole 20 feet deep.

Not all water for making ethanol will come from reservoirs. Some will come from rivers and aquifers. Water withdrawal can be sufficient to alter river flows and will be especially disastrous during dry seasons and droughts. Pumping ground water will lower the aquifers, which in turn will mean less flow in spring-fed streams and less base flow in many streams and rivers. The cumulative result: adverse effects on stream fishes.

Expanded corn farming also means deteriorating water quality. This is a double-edged sword. First, more tilled land means more erosion, more nutrients and more chemical pesticides. Corn requires a lot of nitrate fertilizer. It is a no-brainer that nitrate fertilization will increase as the price of corn goes up and more acres are planted. The nitrate ends up in rivers and lakes where it contributes to algae blooms and water-quality problems.

But it doesn’t stop there. Almost all corn is grown in the Mississippi River basin, which includes the Missouri and Ohio rivers and their tributaries. The nitrate-laden water flows to the Gulf of Mexico where it causes algae blooms that lead to low oxygen and massive fish kills off the Louisiana and Texas coast. In 2008, the “Dead Zone” was 8,500 square miles, an area almost as large as Lake Erie.

The other edge of the sword? Part of the increased acreage tilled will come from lands that presently form vital riparian buffers that filter sediments, nutrients, and pesticides from runoff heading to lakes and streams. As more land is farmed, less land will be available to remediate the problems caused by farming, exacerbating problems like the Dead Zone.

The Future

I think it is reasonable to expect the net energy equation for producing ethanol to improve. Genetic engineering is moving forward at warp speed and may lead to corn or another crop that has a higher and more efficient fuel yield, a lower water requirement, and possibly greater disease resistance. Ducks Unlimited, for example, is building legislative support for intensifying research on the use of native grassland plants for biofuel.

More efficient farming practices and equipment may reduce energy, water and nutrient use. Improved fermentation and distillation processes are also possible. Responsible decisions about our energy needs must be made within the bigger picture of the carbon cycle. And that means decisions must be made globally.

Climate change is real. That in itself will affect energy demands. But it will also affect precipitation patterns, which in turn will affect agriculture. What effect might a one-year drought have on the availability of E85 when 85 percent of what you pump into the tank comes from corn, or any plant for that matter?

That said, any energy solution must ensure a zero net gain of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere with a goal of reducing carbon dioxide. The latter can only be achieved by alternative power sources—like solar, wind and nuclear energy—and by reduced energy consumption.

But these changes will only be effective if we live on a planet with abundant plant life to sequester the carbon that we have steadily added to our atmosphere.

Stay informed about ethanol and other energy sources, and carefully scrutinize that information. This will be especially difficult because the issue has become highly polarized with each side trying to sway the public. Look for facts supported by numbers; don’t blindly accept claims.

Because although I don’t know what future energy solutions will be, I guarantee they could profoundly affect our aquatic resources.

Put It In

How much land does it take to keep on truckin’ and fishing with ethanol-based E85 fuel?

Last year, I drove about 6,000 miles to work and 14,000 on fishing trips pulling my 20-foot Ranger. My pickup gets 17 mpg commuting, but that drops to about 13 when trailering. In round numbers, I burned 350 gallons commuting and almost 1,100 gallons on fishing trips. I also burned 560 gallons of boat fuel. Total vehicle and fishing gasoline: 2,010 gallons.

Using U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, one acre of corn yields 314 gallons of ethanol. But before you start calculating, consider this very important fact: Ethanol has less energy than gasoline—about 35 percent less.4

Therefore, my commuting mileage would drop to 11. Let’s assume the 35 percent reduction in fuel mileage also applies to trailering and boat travel. Taking those factors into consideration, I would have required 3,092 gallons of E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline), which contains 2,628 gallons of ethanol, to commute, pull my boat and run it on the water (assuming engineers figure out how to make outboards that run on E85).

Now it’s simple: 2,628 gallons of ethanol divided by 314 gallons of ethanol per acre of corn equals 7 acres. We could feed a lot of people from the crops produced on 7 acres of farmland. Indeed, it takes 1.2 acres of cropland to feed an American.3 And making that much ethanol will consume more than 39,000 gallons of water and produce 34,164 gallons of wastewater.

Just traveling back and forth to work (458 gallons of ethanol) makes me alone an economic and environmental disaster.


Thought this article was interesting considering it is about fisheries.

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Funny you posted this.Just last night I was watching a report on some farm channel,It was out of Nebraska,Most the scholars and scientists were against ethanol,food wise and the destruction of the environment.Didn't read most of above but they stated for carbon emissions ethanol is just abit better than oil based fuel,Also switching to grasses crop duff,We'd be robbing the soil of neutrients requireing more fertilizers which most are petro based.UMMM Hydrogen is the way to go but its so far off in the future,Corn Ethanol is a stepping stone to grasses which wont work either just cant produce enough to supply are use,even if all crops and grasses were used and left the land barron!

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Has anyone seen the price of food at the grocery store substantially decrease in the past few months?

The reason I ask is that the increase in food prices was blamed on the price of fuel by the ethanol apologists in an attempt to shift the blame. Now that fuel prices have retraced I don't believe I've seen much change in food prices. I'd like to hear what their excuse is now.....

Another smoke mirrors trick they are playing is packaging food in smaller portions. Have you seen a box of cereal lately? It's shrinking to the point where it's almost as big as those little individual boxes they used to have (or maybe they still do). 7-odd ounce box of cereal, yet the price is relatively close to what it was when the box was almost twice the size.

The chickens are coming home to roost on the ethanol boondoggle. It may be a stepping stone, but if it really is then why are we subsidizing billions of dollars into this negative return industry to keep throwing up these plants across the midwest. I still contend that a handful of test facilities are definitely worthwhile to find out if it's really the right thing to do, but this is just throwing good money after bad. They claim that ethanol is the way to reduce our foreign oil dependence, yet by using corn, et al, they have effectively tied the food market to the oil market and we have gained absolutely nothing. The subsidies need to cease immediately and then we'll see how long it survives.

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No doubt. And why is it that the ethanol price at the pump is always about forty cents lower than unleaded? I'd like to see a line graph of E85 price versus unleaded price. I would be willing to bet that they are perfectly parallel to each other. Prime example of price fixing.

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Check the commodities in your news paper,Ethanol is always higher than Reg.Unlead,And we're supporting it at a loss?????

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Nothing against farmers but ethanol looks like just another farm subsidy.(or big agro business subsidy) But IMO the farmers are the ones who are going to lose in the end on this one as they have allot there own money invested into all these ethanol plants and a plant that is not producing product does not pay it's shareholders.

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This may be one way it could survive without the subsidies, through genetic modification which I have talked about in numerous posts. I just happened to listen to Fred Below speak yesterday at the recent CPM Shortcourse in Mpls. Not about ethanol but concerning risk-related production issues. Very entertaining speaker and exremely well regarded researcher. They gave the experimental material to the right guy I'd say. Read on:

Sugercorn Could Sweeten Midwest Biofuels Industry

Kansas City Star (MO) -- December 15, 2008 -- The American breadbasket's amber waves are getting a glimpse of a fledgling new neighbor that's bred for ethanol and comes with striking similarities to sugarcane.

The Brazilian ethanol industry has prospered by relying on ample supplies of sugarcane, which is easier than corn to turn into ethanol. Sugarcane has fueled a successful drive for Brazilian energy independence.

But sugarcane, which needs a long, warm growing season, remains little more than a tropical daydream for Midwestern farmers.

Now, though, biofuel boosters have something to talk about -- "Sugarcorn."

It's being developed by Targeted Growth Inc., a Seattle biotechnology company that two years ago was searching for a crop that could be adapted to produce sugar in a way similar to sugarcane but able to grow in the Great Plains.

"One thing that jumped out was an opportunity to use corn," said Donald Panter, senior vice president for crop development at the company.

Targeted Growth's laboratory breakthroughs are being grown in test plots in Illinois and Indiana. More tests next year will be in other Midwestern states -- possibly including Kansas and Missouri.

Corn has similarities to sugarcane, such as its sword-shaped leaves. Indeed, Sugarcorn is a takeoff on a type of maize grown in the tropics, which grows traditional ears of corn.

Researchers found that when the tropical corn has a longer growing day, such as those in the Midwest, it delays its flowering and sends more energy into making sugar in the stalk instead of producing starch in the corn.

Sugarcorn improves the process with genetic surgery.

The result? A corn field that doesn't produce a single kernel and shoots corn stalks 15 feet high -- about twice that of traditional corn.

Just like sugarcane, the sugar in Sugarcorn is easily squeezed out to use for ethanol.

Proponents said Sugarcorn could be a game-changer for the fledgling Corn Belt biofuels industry.

Why? Because it could double energy output per acre and reduce the energy needed to process the crop to fuel. That's because the crop's sugar skips the step where corn's starch has to be converted into sugar before being fermented and turned into ethanol. If successful, Sugarcorn would make it easier to undercut the cost of conventional gasoline, which is important because ethanol has less energy per gallon than gasoline.

Sugarcorn's potential will become clearer when it becomes commercially available, which Targeted Growth estimates will be another two years.

To be sure, more work remains to be done.

Much of that work will focus on increasing sugar yield. Also, field testing is measuring hardiness in Midwest weather conditions. Tests in Indiana and Illinois have been encouraging, prompting ethanol producers to express interest in the feedstock.

Such talks come at a crucial time for the ethanol industry, which recently saw a major producer file for bankruptcy.

VeraSun Energy Corp.'s stumble was triggered by corn prices, which briefly topped $8 a bushel in futures trading last summer. It then made a bad bet on locking in those higher prices, fearing that they would rise even more. Corn prices have fallen by roughly half since the summertime peak.

The broader industry's troubles deepened recently when crumbling crude oil prices pushed conventional gas prices lower than ethanol for the first time in nearly two years, cutting deeply into ethanol demand.

The global credit crunch also has cast a shadow, prompting many ethanol projects to be canceled.

Well aware of the increasingly difficult economics of using corn to produce ethanol, many biofuel backers are scrambling to develop cellulosic ethanol, which promises inexpensive fuel made from lower-cost feedstocks such as wood and grass.

Cellulosic ethanol, widely seen as the next-generation biofuel, also needs expensive facilities to produce ethanol. Smaller production facilities are proceeding largely with government grants or guarantees. Financing remains an enormous issue.

Even if cellulosic ethanol is not progressing as quickly as once hoped, elsewhere the industry is moving ahead -- especially in genetic improvements that could have quicker payoffs in developing different feedstocks beyond traditional corn. These efforts to genetically re-engineer existing crops are producing results that could pay off long before cellulosic ethanol bears fruit.

Targeted Growth has for the past 10 years relied on genetic engineering to increase yields in crops ranging from corn to soybeans. In essence, it looks for ways to regulate a plant's cells to provide the improvements being sought.

One of its biggest benefits of Sugarcorn is that existing ethanol processing plants using corn would be able to use Sugarcorn's sucrose or sugar. The Sugarcorn could be shipped to the plant where the sugar is squeezed out or this process could be done at a remote location and the resulting sugar shipped to the ethanol plant.

Once the sugar is removed, the stalk could be used for cellulosic ethanol.

As Sugarcorn tests expand into other states, it remains to be seen if it can fulfill its promise of growing in conditions that can differ widely among Midwestern states. If it does, it will clear a major obstacle on the road to being commercially viable.

"That would be an advantage," said Douglas Rivers, director of research and development for ICM Inc. in Colwich, Kan. ICM is the largest designer of ethanol plants in the U.S.

Meanwhile, field tests in Illinois and Indiana are wrapping up for the season.

Fred Below, a plant physiologist at the University of Illinois, is an expert on tropical corn whose work is supported in part by Targeted Growth. Among other things, he has found that Sugarcorn and tropical maize need less nitrogen fertilizer than traditional corn, which offers the potential for significant savings to farmers.

On the other hand, pollen from traditional corn can be absorbed by tropical corn that's grown in the U.S., which causes it to revert to growing ears of corn. That can be fixed with genetic tinkering.

Below is confident that Sugarcorn has a future in biofuels. He recalled his reaction to seeing a plot of Sugarcorn almost with awe.

"God, it was beautiful," Below said. "It's Midwestern sugarcane."

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This might be off the subject a little but I heard a guy talking about ethanol the other day on the radio and using it in boats and he said it is really bad for boats. Says it draws moisture and since many boats sit for weeks and months unused it promotes rust in the tank and damages boat engines. He said it is because of the alcohol in the ethanol. Not sure but I will be filling up with 100% gasoline from now on, as my boat does tend to sit more than it fishes, unfortunately!


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Non-Oxy is all that goes into my seasonal engines. I'll pay the premium price to avoid the corn syrup flowing through my fuel lines.

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It's a simple law of physics. Even though it may burn cleaner than gas, to turn corn into ethanol you need to invest energy which almost certainly comes from coal fired sources. If you add those coal emissions to the ethanol emissions along with all the agricultural impacts ethanol is considerably worse for the environment than regular unleaded. The only reason it is around is for the farmers. As a whole it is a very inefficient and for the most part reward-less program.

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