What a Difference a Year Can Make

By Bob Dinneen | May 21, 2010
The notion that American ethanol production is leading to deforestation and other environmental calamities has been trumpeted by once-responsible environmental groups and their newly found friends in the oil, livestock and food processing industries since the widely refuted polemic by Tim Searchinger appeared in Time magazine more than two years ago.

Known as indirect land use change (ILUC), this environmental red herring has been used to slow, halt and even destroy America's quest for a domestic renewable fuels industry. But what of this science'? In the two years since, have we gotten any smarter? The short answer is yes. The longer answer iscompared to what?

A new study conducted by Wally Tyner, a professor at Purdue University and consultant to California's Air Resources Board, calculates that the ILUC penalty for corn-based ethanol is nearly 1/10th that scratched out by Searchinger and his cohorts. At less than 14 grams of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per megajoule of energy produced (13.9 g/MJ), Tyner's new findings are less than half those calculated by CARB in its low carbon fuels standard (LCFS) from just one year ago.

In successive years we have seen this so-called penalty of ILUC cut in half, and then halved again as real science begins to wrap its arms around the issue.

The new findings by Tyner are significant for a number of reasons. They clearly demonstrate that the wild exaggerations made about the greenhouse gas impacts of domestic ethanol production were just that: exaggerations. They also underscore the critical importance of using up-to-date data and real world assumptions when seeking to explore such complex issues. Seeking to portray worst-case scenarios in an effort to derail industries providing real jobs to real Americans under the guise of science is a dangerous and potentially costly endeavor.

Moreover, these findings should also inform the decision made by CARB to approve a LCFS that will purposefully exclude domestic ethanol from the California fuel market. In finalizing the rule, CARB made a big show of promising to update its findings should new science become available. Well, new science is now available. And this science is being provided by CARB's lead consultant using the model CARB used in constructing the LCFS. If ever there was a case for review, this would be it.

Let's be perfectly clear, penalizing domestic ethanol producers for land decisions made in sovereign nations half the world away is bad science. It has no place in state or federal regulation. As such, any reference to it should be removed. The fact that some continue to suggest it must be part of the discussion is evidence that the fight for sanity continues. At the very least, such penalties should be applied to all fuels equally. That is a far cry from today's selective use against only ethanol.

However, the lessons we are learning from the ILUC debate should be taken to heart by policymakers and other opinion leaders alike. Sound science, not hyperbole and unproven theory, must dictate our energy choices.