Dan Murphy: Renewable Fuel Follies

Corn stalk image
( FJM )

I ask you: What’s the most persistent complaint leveled against animal agriculture these days?

The answer is easy, and it’s summarized like this: Raising livestock requires unsustainable amounts of land, water and energy resources to grow crops for animals instead of people.

And when activists claim that meat production accounts for some outrageous percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, the data are always based on calculating the total carbon footprint required to plant, fertilize, irrigate, harvest, distribute and process the crops used in animal feed.

Thus, by that (il)logic, if people just stopped eating meat, all those commodities could be diverted from cattle troughs and hog barns directly onto people’s dinner tables, and the world would be healthier, happier and less hungry.

That scenario begs the question of what replaces meat, poultry and dairy foods, of course, since man does not live by bread alone nor on cornmeal mush and processed soy.

But if the problem is devoting farmland to cultivating feed crops, rather than food crops, why aren’t the vegetarian advocates who condemn livestock production also complaining about the massive diversion of those same crops — almost 40% of the total corn harvest, according to USDA — into the production of ethanol and other biofuels?

Our pals at PETA, for example, endorse the production of biofuels and have even equipped a Hummer with signage proclaiming that meat production causes more global warming than driving motorized vehicles. Okay, maybe not Hummers, but the implication is that meat causes more greenhouse gas emissions than the 270 million cars and trucks (not counting farm vehicles and construction equipment) burning up gasoline and diesel each day on American roads and highways.

What’s the word that comes to mind after reading that sentence? I don’t know … preposterous?

Bad Policy; Expensive Proposition
The accusations leveled against the livestock industry for “wasting” agricultural output are occurring against the backdrop of the reauthorization of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). To that end, a group called The Fuels America Coalition is urging consumers to petition EPA to maintain the mandate that automotive fuel contain set percentages of biofuels.

“For 13 years, the Renewable Fuel Standard has been the single most successful energy policy working to promote American energy security, create jobs, and keep our air clean,” according to the coalition’s statement. “Renewable fuels are not only helping to rejuvenate America’s rural economy, they are protecting the environment by replacing millions of barrels of imported oil.”

There are several problems with those assertions.

First of all, for all the excitement generated by and the attention devoted to cellulosic biofuel (labeled D3 and made from such sources as corn stalks and wood chips); biomass-based diesel (labeled D4 and made from soybean oil, animal fat or used restaurant grease); and advanced biofuel (labeled D5 and made from sugar cane or corn), all of which have targets within the RFS statute, nearly 80% of all biofuel is plain old ethanol made from good old corn — corn that activists insist is supposed to be going into shopping carts and onto restaurant menus, if you buy their anti-meat arguments.

Not only that, but the total production of all biofuels represents only about 11% of the more than 145 billion gallons of gasoline consumed annually in the United States. Ethanol production isn’t about energy independence, because that 11% could be easily achieved as fuel savings simply by maintaining the progress achieved through implementation of EPA’s mileage standards.

Even though the Trump administration announced plans to roll back national CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, more than 40 years of data demonstrate that improvements in fuel economy have delivered significant financial benefits to consumers.

We forget that when the first “gas crisis” hit in 1974, passenger cars averaged less than 14 miles per gallon — and that was the average; many larger vehicles were even less efficient. Now, thanks to CAFE standards, passenger cars average more than 25 mpg.

“CAFE standards provide big benefits to all Americans,” a statement from the Fuel Freedom Foundation noted, “by decreasing the use of fuel per vehicle, reducing oil imports from despots and funders of terrorism and … reducing climate-warming gases and the toxic, cancerous and smog-forming pollutants in the air we breathe.”

Granted, adding 10% ethanol to gasoline also mitigates air pollution and enhances energy independence, although the Institute for Energy Research estimated that Americans now spend an additional $10 billion a year on gasoline because ethanol blends don’t deliver the same mileage as gasoline.

However, leaving aside the reality that the net energy gained from growing corn to make ethanol is negligible at best, improving automotive fuel economy advances both those goals, without having to turn food into fuel.

And on that score, both scientific studies, such as a 2017 article in the Journal of Agricultural Economics titled, “The Impact of Biofuels on Commodity Food Prices: Assessment of Findings,” and economic analyses, such as an in-depth study by European energy expert Dr. Chris Malins titled, “Thought for Food A review of the interaction between biofuel consumption and food markets,” have concluded that diverting crops into biofuel absolutely impacts commodities markets and raises food prices.

Which isn’t exactly rocket science … nor Nobel-worthy energy innovation.

Going forward, we absolutely need reliable sources of renewable fuels. However, distilling corn into ethanol utterly fails to meet that challenge.

While reducing our dependence on imported oil remains a key component of national security, the path to achieving that goal does not — and will not — run through American cornfields.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

Submitted by Casey Bowe on Mon, 08/06/2018 - 09:09

So by your logic we should quit producing ethanol. My question to you is what do we do with all the corn? What will keep the price of corn up? It’s challenging to make a profit on average years on corn, take the RFS away and corn won’t even be economical to produce unless you are in IA or IL. We live close to an ethanol plant. It is consistently $.15-.20 higher than any other elevator around. I’m also a beef producer and utilize the DDG’s we get from the plant. I think you are the one who needs to rethink your article!

Submitted by barrmfarm on Mon, 08/06/2018 - 09:24

If it's inefficient and it's only purpose is to artificially increase a commodity's price, it's welfare. It would be more honest to just give money to crop farmers? It's what is already occurring now and it would be better for the environment. This is a big poop sandwich and everyone will have to take a bite to fix it. It was a stupid idea in the beginning and now no one wants to be tough enough to get rid of the entitlements ethanol production requires to keep it in business. The market would take care of itself, but plenty of people will have to really tighten their belts to get through the shift back to reality.

In reply to by Casey Bowe (not verified)

Submitted by barrmfarm on Mon, 08/06/2018 - 09:17

The studies I have seen so far, relating to food production, energy sourcing and the cost of both, (environmentally and fiscally), seem to be trying desperately to prove a theory that they have already made conclusions about. It would make sense to look honestly at what exists and the capacities of the energy resources and food production, balancing the cost and effort to produce with the end product and its overall efficiency. I have no interest in the fossil fuel industry, except that it is far cheaper and more dependable that any bio-based fuel source. You would have to be a complete idiot to think that tilling, planting and fertilizing soil and then hoping for adequate weather and water and harvesting and hauling, and then finally converting it to an oil base to be refined to a fuel product - could ever be at all efficient when compared to pumping crude oil and then hauling it in for refining. From a efficiency stand point fossil fuels beat bio-fuels by miles every time. Better to develop cleaner fossil fuel methods of use. At least you won't be driving the price of food up and under utilizing areas of the country that are not conducive to crop-agriculture. Corn grows well in the east and some of the west, but the elevations in much of the west is generally suited to large animal grazing and hates the plow. But even the Government knows you can't do well with corn at over 6500 ft. What also never seems to be discussed, is what environmental impact will replacing all of the protein sources meat and dairy products provide with an equal plant based protein diet. How many more acres will have to be converted into farm crops? Certainly, that will have an environmental effect. The crops don't plant and fertilize and harvest themselves. I just don't think these people think this stuff through. Seems most people are pretty comfortable with their lives if they can make outrageous recommendations and not even notice the costs.

Submitted by Jeff on Mon, 08/06/2018 - 22:22

I would have figured that someone of your caliber would be above petty arguments corn ethanol is NOT subsidized. It is the cheapest source of octane on the planet and we reap those benefits every time we pull up to the pump. Competition in industry is always beneficial to the consumer. It is interesting to me that every study that the petroleum industry backs always leaves out the detail that when DDGs are figured back into the corn use equation that it is not 40% of production used for ethanol it is much closer to 25%.. not to mention a better feed due to its digest ability and denser nutrient content at a lower cost.. having ethanol plants scattered across the Midwest is not only part of our national security (think hurricane in Houston) but a more efficient way to move corn instead of a railcar to the PNW why do we want to export those dollars when we can use them here? It is time to stop the division in agriculture it’s like a corn farmer supporting a vegan lifestyle.. Get your facts straight. When production per input unit is factored corn is by far and away one of the most efficient crops on the planet. That’s why it’s so freaking cheap... I think you can do better than crap like this drovers....

Submitted by Eager Jeffrey on Tue, 08/07/2018 - 17:55

Vegetables tend to be higher paying commodity. 90 million acres of vegetables is not feasible as not all ground is right for growing vegetables. Nor would 90 million acres of vegetables get used or be needed market. Overproducing lettuce and green beans and sweet corn is not the answer. They are a labor intensive Crop that needs a solid market price to justify growing. Sorry but your editorial opinion is not down to earth logical. Dirt and climate dictates what can be grown and what can not. Drainage, Water usage of Crop and water availablity are major considerations.