IMAGE: CORN FIELD AROUND ETHANOL PLANT
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Fields of corn surround an ethanol plant in Mason City, Iowa — a scene repeated across the Midwest due in part to a federal subsidy that rewards farmers for growing corn for fuel.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/5/2009 12:37:17 PM ET 2009-05-05T16:37:17

The Obama administration on Tuesday said its preliminary assessment of ethanol — as made today — found that it wouldn't meet Congress' requirement of emitting 20 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline. But it also touted developing sources and promised a final decision would be made only after a science-based review.

Future improvements in production technologies are expected to make ethanol and other biofuels more climate friendly so they can meet the legal requirement, said Enviromental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Jackson said preliminary analysis shows corn ethanol emitting 16 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline, even taking into account global future land-use changes.

But that is true in only one of the scenarios the EPA examined; another showed corn ethanol would account for 5 percent more greenhouse gases than gasoline. The scenario Jackson cited assumes future environmental benefits over a period of 100 years will more than pay back the initial increase in greenhouse gases from land use changes; the second assumes a shorter payback period of 30 years.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group, said the Obama administration was "walking a tightrope" to try to reconcile the expansion of corn ethanol with its determination to address climate change aggressively. He called the assumption of a 100-year ethanol payback to make up for early greenhouse emission increases "nothing but an accounting trick to make corn ethanol look better."

Still, the balancing act was welcomed by both environmental groups and some farm groups — each side hoping to influence the final review. The key question being weighed: Does corn-based ethanol help or hurt the fight against global warming?

Some scientists say that by using more land to grow corn for ethanol, there is an increase in greenhouse gases as vegetation that absorbs carbon is replaced.

The EPA, Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture on Tuesday said the EPA would solicit "peer reviewed, scientific feedback to ensure that the best science available is utilized prior to implementation."

The agencies also invited public comment on the first national policy to limit greenhouse gas emissions on a "life-cycle" basis that includes land use.  

Activists vs. industry
Two years ago, when Congress ordered a huge increase in ethanol use, lawmakers also told the agency to show that ethanol would produce less pollution linked to global warming than would gasoline.

Environmentalists, citing various studies and scientific papers, say the EPA must factor in more than just the direct, heat-trapping pollution from ethanol and its production. They also point to "indirect" impacts on global warming from worldwide changes in land use, including climate-threatening deforestation, as land is cleared to plant corn or other ethanol crops.

Ethanol manufacturers and agriculture interests contend the fallout from potential land use changes in the future, especially those outside the United States, have not been adequately proven or even quantified, and should not count when the EPA calculates ethanol's climate impact.

"It defies common sense that EPA would publish a proposed rule-making with harmful conclusions for biofuels based on incomplete science and inaccurate assumptions," Republican Sen. Charles Grassley — who represents Iowa, where corn is a major crop — complained recently.

He was one of 12 farm-state senators, both Democrats and Republicans, who wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in March, urging the agency to stick to assessing only the direct emissions.

Future in cellulosic ethanol?
Ethanol, which in the future may come from cellulosic sources such as switchgrass and wood chips, is promoted by its advocates as a "green" substitute for gasoline that will help the U.S. reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil. That transition is a priority of the Obama White House.

In 2007, Congress ordered huge increases in ethanol use, requiring refiners to blend 20 billion gallons with gasoline by 2015 and a further expansion to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022.

Congress said any fuel produced in plants built after 2007 must emit 20 percent less in greenhouse gases than gasoline if it comes from corn, and 60 percent less if from cellulosic crops.

Meeting the direct emissions would not be a problem. But if indirect emissions from expected land use changes are included, ethanol probably would fail the test.

Nathaniel Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said that would not mean the end of ethanol.

Ethanol from existing production facilities is grandfathered and "there are ways to produce advanced ethanols that would comply with the greenhouse thresholds," even using land use climate impacts if the industry chose to adopt them, Greene said.

Both sides welcome review
But farm interests and their allies in Congress pushed to get the EPA to at least postpone any consideration of the land-use impacts issue, arguing the science surrounding the issue is uncertain.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson applauded the upcoming review.

"There is currently no scientific agreement or certainty to quantify domestically produced ethanol impacts on land use change," Johnson said. "I commend the president's plan."

Greene also welcomed the review as long as it focused on the science and as long as environmental groups are allowed to weigh in.

"The opportunity to review EPA’s proposal will help ensure that developing biofuels won't mean using our most fragile forests for fuel and that biofuels provide real benefits," he said Tuesday. "We plan to submit comments on what EPA has gotten right and what must be improved to make sure the outcome serves our environmental and energy needs."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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