Let’s not leave the discussion in Iowa

Ethanol's importance to rural America shouldn't be regarded as a Midwest phenomenon, writes Dave VanderGriend. This column appears in the March issue of EPM.
By Dave VanderGriend | February 04, 2016

Driving through small town Iowa today, the scenery is quite different from this time around a month ago. The TV cameras, the throngs of reporters, and the seemingly endless rounds of town meetings and forums are gone. The Iowa Caucuses, the first step on the road to the presidency, are now a memory and Iowa is no longer the center of the political universe.  As the spotlights are turned off and the candidates move on, with them go the very important discussion of ethanol and how important it is to rural America.

But we need to keep the discussion going. Regardless of where candidates stood on ethanol, having this first step on the road to the White House begin in Iowa provides an opportunity to talk about an issue that affects everyone and should not be regarded as a Midwest phenomenon.  Energy security, domestic jobs, clean air and protecting public health are all part of any discussion about ethanol and are relevant to voters everywhere. I promised myself I would write a column without mentioning the renewable fuel standard (RFS), but I can't, although for good reason. In the course of the Iowa campaign, the RFS was a constant subject but too often we never got into why it was important. 

For me, the answer is simple: the RFS provided entry into the market so we could provide ethanol. While that is a good thing, it was rarely what we discussed in Iowa. We all know the lifeline ethanol provides to rural America and agriculture, but let’s look at how it should appeal to everyone from Los Angeles to New York. Who in our country would not like cleaner, healthier air? And who in these other states would not at least directionally agree that reducing carbon and CO2 is a positive thing? We can contribute to both of these public policy objectives. I will continue to talk about the health benefits of clean octane ethanol, but to some extent it begins with reducing carbon.

Like it or not, we are seeing a slow but sure global evolution of energy policy that suggests low-carbon fuels will be a defining criteria in the future. Trendsetter states on the West Coast like California and Oregon are laying the foundation for the next value proposition for ethanol by committing to substantial carbon reductions. Oregon alone has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by a whopping 75 percent by 2050, starting with a 10 percent cut by 2025.

That is great news for corn ethanol because we have a significantly better carbon footprint than we are credited with, a reality that even the majority of the ethanol industry may not appreciate. The California Air Resources Board and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality are beginning to embrace the improved modeling coming out of the U.S. DOE energy labs. The dreaded ILUC—indirect land use change—is being recognized for the flawed science that it is and ethanol is being penalized much less than in the past. The result should be a more prominent role in these low carbon fuel programs and recognition of ethanol's true value.

What's changed, you might ask?

It starts with the corn itself.  More and more peer-reviewed studies confirm that high-yield corn, with its extensive below ground root structure, restores soil organic CO2. Corn acres are not a carbon source, but rather a significant carbon sink.

According to agronomist and South Dakota State University fellow Ron Alverson, an acre of corn will sequester one ton of CO2 per year. EPA’s models require significant updating to reflect corn ethanol’s carbon sequestration benefits. An acre of corn converted to feed and ethanol produces nearly 450 gallons of fuel ethanol, which further reduces CO2 emissions.
This means that a properly managed U.S. corn industry, when corn ethanol’s CO2 tailpipe emissions are also factored in, could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of corn ethanol. The bottom line is that putting more ethanol in U.S. gasoline would result in significantly less CO2 emissions.

As November gets closer, this value proposition of ethanol needs to be part of the national discussion and not a forgotten campaign issue of Iowa.

Author: David VanderGriend
CEO, ICM Inc., President, Urban Air Initiative