Some good thoughts on ethanol

This outfit called the Network for New Energy Choices really has it in for corn-based ethanol. The group’s staff and advisory board seem heavily weighted toward more engineering-based renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, which might explain a few things, but their report “The Rush to Ethanol” (PDF) makes some excellent points. Chief among them is the obvious one: corn ethanol, produced and burned carelessly, can be worse for the environment than gasoline.

The report, unfortunately, also trots out some leftie-green objections to ethanol: biofuels plants are run by great big corporations and not community-based ones; industrial uses of crops tend to encourage farmers to plant specially engineered strains, and so on. A lot of this stuff is neither here nor there — asking energy policy to do work that actually shouldn’t be a matter of government concern at all, or at least no more than it already is. The family farm, for instance, with which the Network for New Energy Choices is unduly concerned. matters in U.S. politics because of the overrepresentation of sparsely populated agricultural states in Congress and the presidential primaries. Really, it ought to matter no more than the family cobbler shop or the family real-estate firm, and approving or dismissing a policy on ethanol should take no notice of it.

Nevertheless, the network is right to propose hard-edged standards for deciding what “good” ethanol is, and being a lot more discriminating when the subsidies are being ladled out. The group practically dismisses corn ethanol entirely, and puts all its hope into cellulosic ethanol (which gets its energy from the woody structures of plant cells rather than from starchy sugars, and which isn’t even really close to being commercially viable):

In particular, criteria for sustainable cellulosic feedstock production should include:

  • Establishment of maximum harvesting levels for agriculture residues;
  • Use of designated cropland rather than protected land conversion, with a ban on converting highly erodible land in the Conservation Reserve Program to crop production;
  • Promotion of native species planted in diverse composition;
  • Promotion of best-feedstock-production scenarios that would involve mixed perennial grasses and trees that can be harvested on a rotating basis;
  • Financial support for small farmers growing energy crops in establishment years before crops can be harvested; and
  • Development of woody crops and grasses in buffer areas between forest remnants and croplands that
  • enhance biodiversity and habitat protection for threatened interior forest wildlife.

Also, and this is key, the group proposes enforcing the same standards on imported ethanol. If you couldn’t do it in the United States, you can’t do it somewhere else and sell the product in the United States, either. I’m not sure this can be applied perfectly rigidly — some agricultural practices might be fine in different climates that are destructive in the United States, for instance — but as a rule, it’s wrong to encourage others to do things that you’d actually ban in your own country.

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