More fun with corn cobs and ethanol

Does it make a difference who pays for the research on how biofuel production impacts soil fertility?

Published November 20, 2009 4:28PM (EST)

POET, the ethanol producer referenced in yesterday's post, "Who Cares About Peak Oil When You Have Corn Cobs?", has a public relations department that is on the ball. Nathan Schock, POET's public relations director, posted (and e-mailed to me) the following response, this morning:


I work for POET and your post was a nice surprise when I discovered it this morning. There are a few items that I'd like to respond to.

First, on the willingness of farmers to collect cobs. We are getting a good response from the farmers we've dealt with around our first plant in Emmetsburg. They are the ones we've laid out the complete case to: what we're paying (the $2.35 figure we released assumes $55 per ton), what the USDA adds through their Biomass Crop Assistance Program ($45 per ton) and the financial assistance we provide in purchasing equipment. When they see the equipment payback of less than two years and a nice profit per acre, they tend to embrace it.

Also, we are studying stover removal very carefully with Iowa State University. We need the land to be productive long-term for these facilities to be successful. After the first year of study, we've found that removing cobs and a small portion of husk and leaves does not adversely impact soil quality and there is no need to add additional fertilizer. This is a similar finding to many other studies on crop residue removal. We are continuing to study this with them.

Thanks again for the interest in our process. I invite you to stay tuned as we continue to improve it.

Schock also kindly provided a link to a POET press release discussing the preliminary results of Iowa State's research on the impacts of corn stover removal on soil fertility. From which I learned, inadvertently, that POET was funding the very same research I had linked to in my post yesterday.

I have no reason to doubt POET's forthrightness, and I take very seriously Robert Rapier's evaluation that "they have done a good job" on the cellulosic ethanol front. But I find it deliciously ironic that one of the top five results returned by Google for the search terms "corn stover removal soil fertility" turns out to be research paid for the company planning to do the removal.

Other studies have shown that "indiscriminate stover removal' does have a significant effect on soil fertility. Clearly, Schock is telling us that POET plans to be a discriminating stover remover. But when market forces comes into play without adequate government supervision, the line between discriminating and reckless abuse gets awful murky.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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