A field of dreams

With the right R&D, grass-based ethanol could power every car in America. In the Bush administration's corn-centric Department of Agriculture, however, the idea's going nowhere.

Published December 10, 2004 10:24PM (EST)

At a White House ceremony last week announcing the nomination of Mike Johanns, the Republican governor of Nebraska, to succeed Ann Veneman as agriculture secretary, President Bush called his pick "a strong proponent of alternative energy sources, such as ethanol and biodiesel," later adding that "in a new term, we'll continue policies that are pro-growth, pro-jobs and pro-farmer."

Funny he didn't mention "pro-corn."

Hailing from a state ranked as the third-largest corn producer in the nation, Johanns has had obvious economic reasons to be a strong advocate for ethanol, the gasoline additive derived primarily from fermented corn. Thanks in part to Johanns, who in 2001 served as chair of the Governors' Ethanol Coalition, Nebraska currently boasts 11 ethanol plants and is the nation's fourth-largest producer of the alternative fuel.

Right now the ethanol industry is going gangbusters: In the past four years, it has seen explosive growth of 20 to 30 percent annually, and further expansion is predicted. According to Gary Blumenthal, who served as farm advisor to George H.W. Bush and is now the head of World Perspectives, a Washington, D.C., agriculture consulting company, "currently about 12 percent of the country's corn yield goes to ethanol production, but I've heard projections that this trend will increase to 20 percent in less than a decade."

Johanns is just the guy to make that happen, according to the American Coalition for Ethanol. "The nomination definitely bodes well for ethanol," said Brian Jennings, the organization's executive vice president. "We have confidence that Johanns will do everything necessary to continue growing America's ethanol industry."

But while ACE and other pro-ethanol groups, along with the Bush administration, rave about the environmental benefits of corn-based ethanol over traditional gasoline, some environmentalists call these accolades misleading, if not downright delusional. They worry that ethanol boosters are interested not so much in alternative fuels as in pumping massive subsidies into the corn industry.

Corn is, in fact, America's No. 1 subsidized crop, according to Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doled out more than $37 billion in corn subsidies between 1995 and 2003. "The reason we paid such huge corn subsidies is that we grew much more than we needed domestically, so the market was glutted and prices bottomed out," Cook told Muckraker. "The export market didn't lift up prices. That's why corn growers want to make ethanol in the worst way. It's a get-rid-of-the-surplus-corn strategy."

It's no wonder, then, that more than 90 percent of ethanol produced today comes from corn, even though the fuel can be made from a broad range of biomass materials ranging from wheat and barley to woodchips, waste lumber, and switch grass. The latter is a fast-growing crop dense in cellulose, easy to grow without chemicals, and favored by enviros as the best source for so-called cellulosic ethanol.

A number of enviro groups have long criticized corn-based ethanol production for the huge fossil-fuel inputs that are required on the front end to grow and harvest the corn and convert it to fuel. And yet they're not opposed to ethanol outright: Cellulosic ethanol, they say, has far greater environmental benefits than the corn-derived kind.

"When you look at the full fuel-cycle analysis of corn-based ethanol versus cellulosic ethanol, the latter has huge greenhouse-gas advantages," said Jeff Fiedler, a climate-policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In fact, corn-based ethanol offers surprisingly scanty reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Natural gas is a key ingredient in the nitrogen fertilizer used on corn crops; coal and natural gas power the process of converting corn into fuel; diesel gasoline powers the tractors used to plant and harvest the corn. Given these fossil-fuel inputs, the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with corn-based ethanol are only about 15 percent lower than those of traditional gasoline.

In contrast, ethanol derived from switch grass results in a 95 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to refining and burning gasoline, Fiedler says. The crop requires little to no fertilizer, and switch-grass plowing and management require only relatively low-intensity machinery.

Switch grass, however, has its drawbacks: The acreage required to produce a unit of ethanol from switch grass is considerably greater than the acreage of corn needed to produce the same amount of fuel. (At current efficiencies, the entire country would have to be blanketed with switch grass from sea to shining sea to produce enough ethanol to power the U.S. car fleet.) Furthermore, the process of converting switch grass to fuel is currently more complicated and costly than that for corn -- more than three times as expensive, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, the trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry. "While it would cost roughly $250 million to build a cellulosic ethanol plant today, it would cost roughly $70 million for a corn-based ethanol plant," said Monte Shaw, spokesperson for RFA.

The price disparity is due in part to the fact that corn-based ethanol has taken the lion's share of research-and-development funding. Fiedler argues that with the right R&D investments to improve the grass-to-fuel conversion process, condense crop plantings, and move switch grass into the mainstream, cellulosic ethanol could be cost-competitive in under 10 years. "If we double efficiency of the cars, double the density of switch grass per acre, and double conversion efficiency per ton of switch grass, then the amount of acreage needed to power all of America's cars drops to the 100-million-acre range -- roughly the amount of acreage currently used to grow corn in this country," said Fiedler. Already, innovators have cut the cost of the enzymes used for the switch-grass conversion process 20-fold over the last four years.

Fiedler argues that if the ethanol industry were required to meet specific environmental performance requirements, switch grass would have a clear advantage over corn given both its greenhouse-gas benefits and its agricultural benefits, because it's easier on the soil and therefore a more sustainable crop.

The ethanol industry isn't wild about the idea. "Farmers are going to plant what makes them money," said Shaw. "And right now there is no market for switch grass. The environmentalists keep saying it's going to be much more energy-efficient and lower in greenhouse gases [than corn-based ethanol] when we figure out how to make it cost-competitive. All that's true -- as long as you underline the word 'when.' And the reality is: not today."

Moreover, creating a market for switch grass would require innovative thinking on a federal level, of the sort unlikely to come from the Bush administration. Johanns, for his part, is not known for going against the grain -- or the kernel, as it were. "The profile he cut in Nebraska as a politician was pro-corporate, pro-subsidy, pro-Bush," said EWG's Cook. "He was a huge supporter of the 2002 farm bill. I think it's safe to assume he resists reform. He's comfortable with the status quo."

According to Blumenthal, Johanns is considered a golden boy among the Bushies: "The White House heavily recruited him. He possesses unusual political firepower for this position -- not since President Kennedy has an administration managed to get a sitting governor to take a post as secretary of agriculture."

Blumenthal added that despite increasing pressure on the Department of Agriculture to curtail the massive farm subsidies it doles out, Johanns will not likely experience any scaling back of his budget: "Red states are largely rural, agrarian states, and the president will not want to do anything to the agriculture budget that will hurt the red states. Moreover, the USDA nominee is an important political ally to the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress: "Johanns is very popular in the Midwest -- he's shown an ability to please and motivate agrarian voters -- so he'll be very effective for Republicans in the 2006 [congressional] elections."

Bottom line: The Bush administration is not likely to encourage corn growers to convert millions of acres of the great American crop to a little-known, mangy-looking grass. But from the perspective of those who consider global warming a great American threat, such a conversion could be an act of true patriotism.

By Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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