Unclear energy policy

A battle is waging in the world of biofuels, and the fight is over what role ethanol from corn will play in the future. The debate began with the proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a new rule on how biofuels must meet requirements to lower greenhouse gases.

The new rule would apply only to new ethanol plants, not existing ones. Ethanol must be shown to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 percent over fossil fuel gasoline before additional plant construction could be approved. According to the EPA, corn-based ethanol emits only 16 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline.

The most contentious part of the rule is the concept of indirect land use. According to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the indirect land use concept tries to take into account how growing crops for ethanol and biodiesel in the U.S. affects the rest of the world because forests and grasslands in other countries are converted to crop land to increase food production and offset land taken out of food production in the U.S.

However, the Renewable Fuels Association has objected to the EPA's inclusion of land-use changes in its calculations. As is, the policy sounds anti-ethanol from corn by making the assumption that corn ethanol cannot be grown without detriment to the U.S. and other countries. Although Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack still sees the rule as a boon for corn producers because President Obama is pushing for greener sources of fuel, some of the details lead corn leaders to think that corn ethanol is being edged out in support for other energy sources such as cellulosic ethanol and wind energy.

Even though the new rules would only apply to new ethanol plants, advancements have been made at how ethanol plants produce ethanol. Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, said existing ethanol plants could already meet the requirement that they cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 percent over gasoline. When these plants don't use natural gas to dry distillers grains, they have a 27 percent reduction in greenhouse gases. When they use biomass for power instead of natural gas, they put out 39 percent less greenhouse gases.

The main problem with all the proposed policy rules is the fact that the concept of indirect land use is faulty. The American Farm Bureau Federation contends that this model is problematic because the science of predicting indirect, economically derived carbon effects is both new and uncertain. The model also does not offer a reasonable justification for enforcing economically derived carbon effects against only one type of fuel.

The criteria to enforce the indirect land use clause seems fuzzy. It seems like the Obama administration is speaking out in two different directions. Reducing the United States' dependence on foreign oil is to be commended. I doubt many quibble with that argument. The problem is that all forms of biofuels should be considered. There appears to be a bias against corn ethanol in the Obama administration that is not based on any scientific facts. Instead, it appears to be based on what happened last summer when oil prices rose and commodity prices for corn were high, causing many farmers to plant corn to meet all the fuel, food and feed needs. The perception of a corn shortage was highly exaggerated. But officials still seem clearly convinced that corn-based ethanol is not good for the United States nor good enough to be a biofuel. Apparently, it's not "green" enough.

As the country strives to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, all forms of biofuels should be considered and corn ethanol should not be singled out with special restrictions from the others. These new policies are confusing and send a mixed signal to America's farmers.