Ethanol provides false hope for drivers

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There’s a 600-acre farm in central Iowa well known to several OWAA members. From time to time I’d get a call from a member asking if I’d take him pheasant hunting. My farmer friend was cooperative, and his land crawled with birds.
The farm’s still there but pheasants have departed. They are not scarce; they are gone! The Iowa Department of Natural Resources attributes the drop in the annual rooster harvest, of about 1.5 million to 300,000 birds, to the weather. No doubt there’s truth to that. The past few winters have been among the snowiest on record and they were followed by rainy springs that drowned chicks.
But there’s more to it than snow. Drive across vast stretches of the world’s richest soil in winter and the landscape is a vast featureless pancake. Brushy fence lines of a few years ago are gone. So are patches of trees and grassy waterways. There’s hardly cover for a chickadee.
Although wildlife habitat has been in decline for years, record corn and soybean prices are pushing farmers to put every square inch of land into production.
Look at it from a farmer’s viewpoint. In 2000, the average bushel of corn sold for $1.77. In 2010, it had risen to $4.44. As of March 11, 2011, a bushel of corn fetched $6.69. It’s little wonder that farmers view trees, fence lines and wetlands as lost income.
The grain price explosion is fueled by several factors, including poor 2010 weather that resulted in a slightly lower harvest than the United States Department of Agriculture predicted. Rapidly increasing exports to China and other developing countries probably has a greater impact on price. So does ethanol.
Touted as a sustainable and renewable “wonderfuel,” ethanol plants sprouted across the Corn Belt in the past decade and now consume upwards of a third of the crop. The industry thrives on subsidies at various levels. Ethanol producers get a tax credit of 45 cents per gallon. Farmers receive a host of subsidies. And Iowa, among other states, taxes ethanol blends less than straight gas at the pump.
The credit alone costs taxpayers $6 billion a year but is a sacred cow among Corn Belt politicians. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Terry Branstad claim to oppose subsidies and earmarks, but fall all over themselves defending ethanol subsidies.
The 10 percent ethanol normally mixed with 90 percent gasoline is the same stuff that gives booze its punch. A gallon of ethanol contains 34 percent less energy than a gallon of gas. Ethanol blended fuel reduces miles per gallon by about 3 percent in most vehicles. Although it might sell for 1 or 2 percent less per gallon than pure gas, it is actually the more expensive product in terms of miles it will propel a vehicle.
Rising corn demand is doing more than destroying pheasant habitat. It’s also reducing the land’s ability to absorb precipitation. In the wake of disastrous 2008 flooding, most Iowans agreed that that reducing future floods is best achieved by increasing watershed health through wetland restoration and the creation of vegetated buffers along streams and rivers. The reverse is happening as every scrap of land is put into production and Conservation Reserve Program land fades to a remnant.
Whether we’re nearing the point where humanity must decide whether it wants to burn or eat grain is a matter of opinion. Farmers are confident that this cruel decision will be unnecessary. Historically, corn yields have risen 2 percent a year due to better genetics and more efficient husbandry. Also, more land is coming into corn production. New hybrids enable corn to be grown in cold and arid soil – the Corn Belt is pushing into the Wheat Belt.
Ethanol proponents tout the promise of cellulosic ethanol – that made from crop residue rather than grain. In essence, this lets people eat the grain and burn ethanol made from cornstalks and leaves. Cellulosic ethanol is a laboratory product too expensive to apply on commercial scale, but that could change if the process becomes more efficient. Scan an Iowa winter cornfield and you notice a blanket of crop debris covering the dirt. It reduces erosion and enables some topsoil regeneration as it decomposes. Remove crop debris to make alcohol and more topsoil will head for the Gulf as sediment.
It is hard to imagine that ethanol holds much promise to significantly reduce oil demand. We’re now using an enormous amount of potential food to stretch gas by 10 percent. Energy efficiency is far more effective and cheaper.
Although ethanol is poor energy, environmental and farm policy it makes for great politics because it sounds so good.♦
A member since 1983, Rich Patterson is director of Indian Creek Nature Center. He also contributes material to Iowa Game & Fish Magazine and Cedar Rapids Gazette. Contact him at rpatterson@indian

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