A major energy bill signed last month by President Bush could decrease domestic oil consumption by increasing biofuels, but opposition to the new law has come hard and fast from an unusual source: environmentalists.
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, signed Dec. 19, establishes a Renewable Fuel Standard that mandates a certain volume of biofuels be produced and mixed with gasoline sold in the United States. The amount required steadily increases each year, reaching 36 billion gallons by 2022 -- nearly eight times more than the 4.7 billion gallons produced in 2007.
Supporters of the legislation argue the mandate will lead to national security gains by decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, as it would replace a large chunk of domestic gasoline consumption, currently 140 billion gallons annually, with biofuels. In addition, it could shrink the nation's environmental footprint by cutting climate-changing carbon emissions.
However, some stalwarts of environmental protection see the RFS as a potential out-of-the-frying-pan, into-the-fire solution. Among those to question the law's wisdom is Sandra Schubert, director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research organization based in Washington.
"EWG was one of the first supporters of renewable fuels and ethanol," Schubert told United Press International. "(But) we've seen over the last few years, since the first corn ethanol mandate, a lot of what we think are unintended consequences."
Currently, the main biofuel in the United States is ethanol, and 98 percent of it comes from corn, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Unfortunately, corn presents a number of environmental strains. Corn receives more fertilizer than any other U.S. crop, according to The Fertilizer Institute, a trade association for the fertilizer industry, and this has created problems for a number of aquatic ecosystems, including a large area in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nitrogen washed from the fertilizers applied to corn fields in the Midwest accumulates at the base of the Mississippi river and has caused a large "dead zone" where no plants or animals can live, covering an area of up to 8,000 square miles at certain times of year.
Other concerns deal with the possibility of increased soil erosion and the high water demands of corn crops, which require 391,000 gallons of water per acre, according to the 2003 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey.
The newly passed RFS requires at least 21 billion of the 36 billion mandated gallons come from non-food crop sources by 2022. But the remaining 15 billion gallons could come from corn -- not an unlikely scenario, since it's currently the easiest crop from which to produce ethanol. That means corn ethanol production could increase by 10 billion gallons annually, a concern for those who already see detrimental effects from today's ethanol industry.
The new law, EWG says, does not put enough emphasis on reducing these environmentally damaging problems, even as it encourages increased production of ethanol and other biofuels.
"If we put a mandate of any type in place, we also need to put minimum environmental protections in place to make sure we don't have adverse consequences down the road," Schubert said.
Other arguments deal not with the environment, but with the economy. In 2006 corn crops for ethanol represented 18.5 percent of the nation's total corn crop, and some worry this may be a major contributing factor in rising food and grain prices, including Pete Geddes, executive vice president of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, an advocacy group based in Bozeman, Mont.
"Instead of planting other food crops, they'll be planting corn (for ethanol), which will increase food prices," Geddes said.
Increased ethanol production has directly led to higher grain prices, upping the total cost to raise livestock, according to the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, an independent policy analysis organization funded by the U.S. Congress, Iowa State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. However, FAPRI, in a 10-year outlook on the situation published last spring, does not project significant increases in overall food prices.
"While grain prices play a part in food cost increases, 80 percent of consumer food costs come from other factors, including labor, fuel and packaging," FAPRI leaders said in a March 6, 2007, news release.
However, perhaps the most worrisome argument against ethanol lies in its possible potential to actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. A recently published study, "Life Cycle Assessment of Energy Products: Environmental Impact Assessment of Biofuels," commissioned by the Swiss government, found producing corn-based ethanol resulted in higher emissions of the climate-changing gas nitrous oxide than burning fossil fuels.
It may not decrease oil consumption as much as hoped, either, said William Laurance, who co-authored an article on the Swiss study, "How Green are Biofuels?"
"Corn is … not very efficient as a biofuel," said Laurance, a staff scientist as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "One gains only 10 to 30 percent in efficiency relative to the amount of petroleum one has to use to produce the corn. So the benefits are modest."
And if demand for crop-based fuels grows in the United States, it could cause higher carbon emissions elsewhere in the world, Laurance told UPI.
"For example, the massive shift to corn production in the U.S. has led to a sharp drop in U.S. soy farming, which in turn has contributed to a doubling in global soy prices over the last year," he said. "This, in turn, is evidently helping to promote a sharp spike in Amazon fires and deforestation, especially in the major soy-producing states in Brazil."
However, members of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming argue the new law takes environmental and agricultural concerns into account and will continue to do so.
"The Select Committee is going to explore in this year sustainable agricultural practices" for renewable fuels production, said Eben Burnham-Snyder, spokesperson for the committee. "The plan is to try and ensure that we are not solving one problem in the form of global warming and creating another in the form of environmental problems, caused by poor agricultural practices, to produce ethanol."
Part of that plan includes a mandate that 21 billion of the 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels come from "advanced sources." These could include cellulosic sources, such as switchgrass and other wild plants, as well as unused portions of food crops, such as the leaves and stalks of corn plants.
"Understand that there is vast potential for using the aggregate plant matter that we have in the United States to fuel our vehicles," Burnham-Snyder told UPI.
Many opponents of ethanol agree that producing fuel from cellulosic sources could lead to highly positive gains, including Mark Muller, director of the Environment and Agriculture Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a non-profit advocacy group based in Minneapolis.
"The first source of cellulosic material will most likely come from existing production systems, like corn stover in Iowa or pulpwood in Georgia," Muller told UPI.
Turning cellulosic materials into biofuels requires the tissue to be converted into a starch and then distilled. However, U.S. production of the environmentally friendly fuel currently lies right about zero.
Muller said he thinks it will be possible to reach the 21 billion gallon mark, however, but it could be costly.
"This certainly helps drive the expansion of the cellulosic ethanol industry, but it could increase the price of ethanol," he said.