Business380: War on ethanol focuses on corn

Iowa farmers increased their corn plantings this year by 1.3 million acres to meet the expanding demand by ethanol plant
Iowa farmers increased their corn plantings this year by 1.3 million acres to meet the expanding demand by ethanol plants.

The renewable fuels industry is in danger of losing the escalating battle of public opinion over ethanol.

It had more supporters than opponents in the environmental community when small farmer-owned refineries began producing the fuel additive from corn in the 1970s, although petroleum industry lobbyists fought tax incentives to help the industry expand.

“The whole ethanol industry was started by people who wanted to help farmers make more money and by environmentalists,” said Ed Woolsey, a former renewable fuels coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from Prole in Warren County.

Ethanol refineries used a fermentation process to produce alcohol from the starch content of corn. It was seen as a concept that could improve corn prices for farmers and replace non-renewable petroleum with a renewable transportation fuel that was good for air emissions.

Ethanol has some heavyweight opposition, said Monte Shaw, president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. Environmentalists “hate modern corn products,” he said. “They’re the mouthpiece of the petroleum industry on this issue.”

Other industries, too, oppose ethanol’s spread, he said.

“If you’re the National Pork Producers and you like to buy $1.20 (per bushel) corn, you don’t like ethanol. If you’re the American Cattlemen’s Association, you don’t like ethanol. If you’re Kellogg’s and make Corn Flakes, you don’t like ethanol. We’re the recipient of this.”

Ethanol backers say critics don’t acknowledge gains in agricultural productivity and sustainability that have enabled farmers to produce much more corn on fewer acres. Moreover, they say, critics have given little consideration to the food value of distillers dried grains, an ethanol byproduct that goes into the food chain as a livestock feed supplement.

Another complaint: The ethanol industry has fought back too hard.

Woolsey said the ethanol industry has been “its own worst enemy” in public debate, pushing the expansion of ethanol as a fuel additive and dismissing criticism without engaging in useful dialogue. He said environmental critics of ethanol turned against the fuel not just because of its expansion, but because many ethanol refineries used dirty coal as a fuel source, and because big petroleum corporations and agribusinesses eventually took over much of the production.

Roland Hwang of Environmental Defense Fund’s Transportation Program said the ethanol industry crossed a line when it sued in January 2010 to block new low carbon fuel standards in California.

“We’re at the point we were at with the auto industry (over tailpipe emissions) when we were unable to move forward,” said Hwang, who pushed for the new California law from his organization’s San Francisco office. “We have a standoff, because the corn-based ethanol industry has decided to call in their lawyers.”

Environmental groups now use ethanol as a rallying cry in fundraising pitches, much as they once used strip mining or deforestation.

The use of corn to make ethanol, rather than ethanol itself, is a primary issue, said Kate McMahon, biofuels program coordinator for the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

“I’m not trying to bash on Iowa’s industry there, but corn is not the biggest friend of the environment,” McMahon said, citing concerns about genetically altering food plants, the amount of energy inputs required and agricultural runoff. Both McMahon and Hwang said that if ethanol continues to receive subsidies, incentives should be shifted from corn to cellulosic feedstocks.

Woolsey, now the president of Green Prairie Wind Development in Prole, said plans could be modified to make ethanol more sustainable. He said one way could be switching from coal power to other fuel sources, such as wind, solar or bio-based fuels.

The stakes are high in the Corridor, one of the world’s leading ethanol production centers.

Genencor in Cedar Rapids makes enzymes that are used to produce ethanol.

ADM added 275 million gallons per year of ethanol production capacity in Cedar Rapids last year, making it one of the world’s largest ethanol refineries, and Penford Products Corp. added 45 million gallons per year of ethanol capacity in 2008. Both of those facilities produce ethanol from corn.

The area’s first cellulosic ethanol plant produces ethanol from industrial paper waste at American Fiberight in Blairstown.

Shaw said he’s confident the ethanol industry’s many detractors won’t be able to kill the industry now if they didn’t succeed in the 1970s and early 1980s, when plants were less efficient.

“They’re going to be somewhat successful but we’re not going away,” he said. He said the industry may be producing somewhat different products, such as biobutanol, but it still will be able to do so successfully.

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