Water consumption questions for biofuels—irrigated or non?

Posted January 13, 2010

It is well accepted that consumptive water use in ethanol distilleries ranges from 3 to 4 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, but this is only part of the story. Water consumptive use for crop growth differs by climate regime and  must be differentiated between rain-fed agriculture—where irrigation, if used at all, may supplement rainfall only during periods of extreme drought—and irrigated agriculture, as practiced west of the 100th meridian (essentially west of the Missouri River for the northern states).

If one calculates ethanol water use on a “gallons per mile” basis (a hard term to use because it depends on assumptions and vehicle fuel efficiency) the values are startling—up to 62 gallons of water are used per mile driven if irrigated corn is used for ethanol production. 

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne, quoted in a recent issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine stated: “To reach our ethanol production target of 7.5 billion gallons per year by 2012 will require 30 billion gallons of water a year to process, or the amount of the annual water needs of Minneapolis, Minn. And if just 25 percent of the new corn crop requires irrigation, ethanol will demand more water than the combined annual usage of all cities in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. As we increase ethanol production, we must have a holistic approach that takes into account its impact on water supply.”

Yet, we are now slated for over 12 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2012 and the U.S. already has a total capacity, as of September 2009, of over 13 billion gallons per year, which according to the Renewable Fuel Standard, is set to grow quickly to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.

While ethanol from cellulosic sources is slated to overtake ethanol from corn, the difficulties of developing commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants are considerable. And there is no indication that cellulosic crops will actually lower water use. What is of concern is that the increasing push for ethanol from corn will result in corn production stretching beyond the usual rain-fed agricultural regions, where more of the land must be irrigated. For example over 80 percent of the corn land in Nebraska is currently irrigated and there are calls for increased land for irrigated corn production.

The title of a November 2009 GAO report stated it well: “Many Uncertainties Remain about National and Regional Effects of Increased Biofuel Production on Water Resources.” These uncertainties need to be better understood to ensure that biofuel production does not put our water resources at risk.

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BCAP boondoggle

Posted January 12, 2010

By Loni Kemp, a consultant to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

While the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) designed to help farmers plant new energy crops languishes in administrative limbo (the BCAP that family farm, sustainable agriculture advocates and others fought so hard for in the 2008 farm bill) —the other BCAP has grown into a monster. What started out as a couple of paragraphs in the law to help pay for collection, harvest, storage and transportation of biomass has, under the hand of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Services Administration, morphed into another commodity entitlement program, this time for the wood products industry. I first identified these concerns in October.

Now, BCAP has caught the eye of the Washington Post, and the unintended ripples from the biomass subsidy program went public. It turns out that the vast majority of the 300-some renewable energy facilities approved on FSA’s BCAP list are pulp, paper and wood companies—most of which have burned their own wood wastes for energy for decades. Some have seen declining sales to biomass energy facilities which are now turning to cheaper energy supplies. USDA gave away $24 million last year in matching biomass payments, and announced they are giving away $514 million this year—the vast majority of which won’t support any new biomass or new renewable energy, but instead is free money for a struggling pulp and wood industry. They didn’t lobby for it, Congress certainly didn’t intend it, yet once the loophole was opened, the industry has come rushing in for it.

In a flash BCAP went from an estimated $70 million cost over five years, to $514 million in 2010 alone, and that is without the core program to help farmers plant energy crops.

Yet not all industry is happy. Composite wood manufacturers charge that BCAP is taking their feedstocks away by paying double the established market price for residual wood that can also be made into furniture, flooring and construction material, according to the Composite Panel Association. Others are concerned that established markets for all biomass are being destroyed, and will result in chaos when each facility comes to the end of their two year eligibility period.

How could FSA have gone so far astray? They seem to have interpreted the law itself in a number of unusual ways. They claim the program is an entitlement and that they have to make the full payments, despite the fact that BCAP says they “may”—not “shall”—provide payments of  “not more than $45 per ton.” They could have limited payments to biomass with no higher-value products, no adverse environmental impacts from over-harvest and biomass not already being used for energy. The draft environmental impact statement failed to consider impacts from the matching payments. Requirements for biomass removal only under a Forest Stewardship Plan or conservation plan do not seem to be monitored or enforced.

The opportunity for the Obama Administration to fix all of these problems is at hand. A draft rule covering both the matching payments and crop establishment is going to be released in the next couple of months. While the money for 2010 will probably be gone by then, USDA could put in place requirements for a sensible program that furthers renewable energy without the pulp and wood products boondoggle.

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The Cost of Palm Oil

Posted October 14, 2009

Matilda "The day the (palm) seeds arrived in our country on the plane, I wondered, `what are these seeds?'" Matilda Pilacapio told us at a meeting in late September. Pilacapio is a human rights advocate from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and she stopped by our Minneapolis office on the way to a meeting with Cargill—the largest palm oil importer in the U.S.

Papau New Guinea, a former British colony, contains some of the last remaining intact rainforests and 5 percent of global biodiversity. Palm oil first came to the island in 1994, when Pilacapio was the country's Minister of Agriculture. Palm quickly replaced coconut that had been grown on plantations owned by British companies and the British government's Commonwealth Development Corporation.

"Life has dramatically changed," Pilacapio told us. "We have a traditional life of sharing and giving. What we have, we share with our village. Now, our people live in a monetary world. Our people are at a crossroads."

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank required a number of structual adjustment programs in Papua New Guinea as conditions for a loan to the country's government, according to Pilacapio. Among the changes, were the user pay system—where people pay for things like education and health care—but also land registration (which opened up land that had previously been controlled by Indigenous peoples). Part of the World Bank loan to the country was to develop palm oil plantations, says Pilacapio.

Cargill owns three palm oil mills in Papua New Guinea. The company took over the mill in Milne Bay, where Pilacapio lives three years ago. She currently works with the Milne Bay Women in Agriculture to strengthen traditional agriculture systems in response to Cargill's expanding oil palm plantation in the region.

Pilacapio said young people in Papau New Guinea who want to farm no longer have access to land because so much is going toward palm oil plantations. Previously able to provide food for its own population, the growth in palm oil plantations has led Papua New Guinea to become heavily dependent on food imports.

Pilacapio came to visit Cargill as part of an effort by Rainforest Action Network to get the company to improve its practices at palm oil plantations, starting with simple things like creating buffer zones to protect water systems. Thus far, the company has not budged. Pilacapio is asking Cargill to: 1) stop the expansion of palm oil plantations, particularly from traditional landowners and onto virgin lands; 2) share its profits with local governments and landowners; 3) provide workers with better wages and working conditions; and 4) clean up water that is downstream from their milling plant.

So, what is the cost of palm oil? In the marketplace, the palm oil produced in Pilacapio's community certainly doesn't reflect all its costs, including damage to a traditional culture, diminished food security in the region, the loss of biodiversity and effects on global climate change. The "monetary world" Pilacapio describes is not working.

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Biomass program rolls out, raises eyebrows

Posted October 2, 2009

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

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Ethanol Industry Explores Options to Antibiotics

Posted July 28, 2009

Earlier this month, IATP reported on the widespread and unnecessary use of antibiotics by the ethanol industry. IATP's Julia Olmstead visited a Wisconsin ethanol plant last week that is using a hops-based alternative to antibiotics to manage bacteria growth in the fermentation process. Watch her video below to learn more.

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Getting Antibiotics Out of Ethanol

Posted July 16, 2009

Unnecessary antibiotic use in livestock production is a massive contributor to the growing specter of antibiotic resistance. But in a study released today, we report on a lesser known source of non-therapeutic antibiotic use: the ethanol industry.

For decades, ethanol producers have added antibiotics to the fermentation process to control bacterial outbreaks. The practice attracted little concern until last year, when the FDA began testing samples of distillers grains, a nutrient-rich ethanol co-product that is sold as feed for cattle, dairy cows, pigs and poultry. The testing revealed residues of four types of antibiotics, and the results implied that these antibiotics (erythromycin, tylosin, virginiamycin and penicillin) are moving from the fermenter tanks to our food system. 

Unnecessary antibiotic use is the bad news. But our research found some good news, too. Effective, cost-competitive antibiotic-alternatives are widely available and are already used by nearly 45 percent of the ethanol industry. We found that statistic inspiring, and in our new report, we ask the ethanol industry to go a step further and enact a voluntary antibiotics ban. Given the risks of antibiotic overuse, and given the effective, widely available antibiotic alternatives, there is really no good argument the ethanol industry can make against this action.

Read all about it here, and learn why getting antibiotics out of ethanol just makes sense.

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Electric Cars vs. Big Mac

Posted July 13, 2009

Earlier this week, the green machine known as McDonald’s (I say this with tongue in cheek, of course) announced they’re getting into the alternative energy biz. That’s right—the hamburger chain will soon open an electric vehicle charging station at a restaurant in Cary, NC, with other stations to follow.

Says the press release, “The new McDonald's will deliver yet another new facet of energy conservation by enabling EV drivers to have a place to recharge their vehicles, while enjoying their meal.”

Well, okay, I’m on board with expanding EV charging stations, something we’ll need if electric cars are to become widespread. But the irony here is simply too great to ignore.

This “green” McDonald’s, as they call it, is still a hamburger restaurant, and feedlot beef is the most greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive food we can eat. A 2006 FAO study estimated that 18 percent of GHG emissions come from livestock production, more than transportation. And beef production makes up a Whopper whopping 78 percent of those emissions, even though beef consumption only accounts for 30 percent of meat consumption in the developed world.

Driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle will save you on average about 100 grams of CO2 per mile compared to a conventional car, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study. Cutting out the quarter pounder will net you somewhere around 3,600 grams of CO2, according to low estimates. That’s 20 miles worth of savings, in just one cheeseburger. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Of course, this works out very well for McDonald’s, which gets to claim even more green-ness than they already do. But for the rest of us, it’s clearly better to skip the burger (or if you can’t give them entirely up, as I haven’t, choose 100 percent grass-fed beef from a rotationally grazed system and eat them sparingly).  And, if you can, leave the car at home.

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Better Biodiesel

Posted June 22, 2009

Making_biodiesel_2008 Earlier this week I had the good fortune of visiting the Organic Valley cooperative in La Farge, Wisc., a tiny town nestled into that state's ridiculously gorgeous Kickapoo Valley. There's a lot to like about Organic Valley: their co-op model has made organic dairy production and organic farming a viable path for more than a thousand farmers, they prioritize sustainability in all that they do, and, well, their chocolate milk just rocks. 

But I wasn't there for the milk, I was there to check out their innovative on-farm biodiesel program. Organic Valley biodiesel guru Zach Biermann, along with Jake Wedeberg, have designed a mobile biodiesel press--a trailer that holds everything they need to make biodiesel from oil seeds (or waste grease). They can move the trailer from farm to farm, so farmers who want to grow their own oil seeds (Zach and Jake have been experimenting with camelina and sunflower seeds) can process their own fuel on-farm.

Earlier this year, Organic Valley teamed up with the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance (of which IATP is on the board of directors) to field test that organization's Baseline Practices for Sustainability, a set of guidelines to ensure sustainable biodiesel.

You can see the biodiesel trailer in action next month (and learn a lot more about sustainability and farming) at the Kickapoo Country Fair, July 25-26. IATP will be hosting a workshop on sustainable biodiesel. Join us! I’ll be there with chocolate milk in hand.

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Indirect Misdirect

Posted June 15, 2009

Calculating the carbon footprint of corn-based ethanol (including indirect effects around the world) continues to be a political hot potato that threatens congressional negotiations to address global climate change. Earlier this month, we outlined some of the key issues in this debate between House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), the lead author of the House climate bill.

In the Saturday issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, IATP President Jim Harkness, Michael Noble from Fresh Energy and Patrick Moore of Clean Up the River Environment, co-authored a commentary that offers a proposal to break the deadlock. 

They write: "Indirect land use change (ILUC) is real, but ILUC calculations need more research and development before they are used in policy. We need to better understand the links between what happens here in the Corn Belt and what happens in the rainforest, and we must figure out how to quantify indirect effects. Combining a commitment to do this research with a commitment to account for these emissions would be a better approach."

Read the full commentary.

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The Curious Case of Climate Policy and Corn Ethanol

Posted June 2, 2009

Corn ethanol supporters’ claims that the fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions are tenuous, at best. But corn ethanol might end up being the key to getting climate policy—specifically, the Waxman-Markey cap and trade legislation—through Congress.

House Democratic leaders have vowed to move forward on the legislation, but a group of farm state representatives, including House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN), are threatening to derail the bill.

They mainly want two things: for agricultural offsets to be regulated by the USDA, not the EPA (although as of now, Waxman-Markey does not include the role of farms or forests in emissions reductions scenarios); and to get indirect land use change out of the formula for calculating biofuels’ greenhouse gas emissions in the revised Renewable Fuel Standard  (the RFS2 is part of the 2007 energy bill, and has nothing to do with Waxman-Markey). See my blog post related to indirect land use change here.

Rep. Peterson and the mainstream agriculture lobby don’t trust the EPA on agriculture, a feeling that was heartily confirmed when the agency made the decision to include indirect land use in the revised RFS. EPA-controlled climate credits, therefore, scare the heck out of them.

Peterson introduced a bill on May 14 that would ban indirect land use change from the RFS2, but despite its 46 co-sponsors, there’s been no sign yet from Congress that they’ll reopen negotiations on that part of the 2007 energy legislation. There’s no question, however, that Peterson and his supporters make up a large enough group to successfully stop Waxman-Markey if they so choose.

Whether Peterson gets his way on indirect land use or not, it’s clear that U.S. climate policy— both politically, as well as practically—will have to walk hand-in-hand with U.S. agriculture policy to succeed. We'll write more soon on the connection between agriculture and climate policy, and specifically on the ways agriculture can play an important role in mitigating climate change.

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