Dan Murphy: Renewable Fuel Follies

Corn stalk image
( FJM )

I ask you: What’s the most persistent complaint leveled against animal agriculture these days?

The answer is easy, and it’s summarized like this: Raising livestock requires unsustainable amounts of land, water and energy resources to grow crops for animals instead of people.

And when activists claim that meat production accounts for some outrageous percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, the data are always based on calculating the total carbon footprint required to plant, fertilize, irrigate, harvest, distribute and process the crops used in animal feed.

Thus, by that (il)logic, if people just stopped eating meat, all those commodities could be diverted from cattle troughs and hog barns directly onto people’s dinner tables, and the world would be healthier, happier and less hungry.

That scenario begs the question of what replaces meat, poultry and dairy foods, of course, since man does not live by bread alone nor on cornmeal mush and processed soy.

But if the problem is devoting farmland to cultivating feed crops, rather than food crops, why aren’t the vegetarian advocates who condemn livestock production also complaining about the massive diversion of those same crops — almost 40% of the total corn harvest, according to USDA — into the production of ethanol and other biofuels?

Our pals at PETA, for example, endorse the production of biofuels and have even equipped a Hummer with signage proclaiming that meat production causes more global warming than driving motorized vehicles. Okay, maybe not Hummers, but the implication is that meat causes more greenhouse gas emissions than the 270 million cars and trucks (not counting farm vehicles and construction equipment) burning up gasoline and diesel each day on American roads and highways.

What’s the word that comes to mind after reading that sentence? I don’t know … preposterous?

Bad Policy; Expensive Proposition
The accusations leveled against the livestock industry for “wasting” agricultural output are occurring against the backdrop of the reauthorization of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). To that end, a group called The Fuels America Coalition is urging consumers to petition EPA to maintain the mandate that automotive fuel contain set percentages of biofuels.

“For 13 years, the Renewable Fuel Standard has been the single most successful energy policy working to promote American energy security, create jobs, and keep our air clean,” according to the coalition’s statement. “Renewable fuels are not only helping to rejuvenate America’s rural economy, they are protecting the environment by replacing millions of barrels of imported oil.”

There are several problems with those assertions.

First of all, for all the excitement generated by and the attention devoted to cellulosic biofuel (labeled D3 and made from such sources as corn stalks and wood chips); biomass-based diesel (labeled D4 and made from soybean oil, animal fat or used restaurant grease); and advanced biofuel (labeled D5 and made from sugar cane or corn), all of which have targets within the RFS statute, nearly 80% of all biofuel is plain old ethanol made from good old corn — corn that activists insist is supposed to be going into shopping carts and onto restaurant menus, if you buy their anti-meat arguments.

Not only that, but the total production of all biofuels represents only about 11% of the more than 145 billion gallons of gasoline consumed annually in the United States. Ethanol production isn’t about energy independence, because that 11% could be easily achieved as fuel savings simply by maintaining the progress achieved through implementation of EPA’s mileage standards.

Even though the Trump administration announced plans to roll back national CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, more than 40 years of data demonstrate that improvements in fuel economy have delivered significant financial benefits to consumers.

We forget that when the first “gas crisis” hit in 1974, passenger cars averaged less than 14 miles per gallon — and that was the average; many larger vehicles were even less efficient. Now, thanks to CAFE standards, passenger cars average more than 25 mpg.

“CAFE standards provide big benefits to all Americans,” a statement from the Fuel Freedom Foundation noted, “by decreasing the use of fuel per vehicle, reducing oil imports from despots and funders of terrorism and … reducing climate-warming gases and the toxic, cancerous and smog-forming pollutants in the air we breathe.”

Granted, adding 10% ethanol to gasoline also mitigates air pollution and enhances energy independence, although the Institute for Energy Research estimated that Americans now spend an additional $10 billion a year on gasoline because ethanol blends don’t deliver the same mileage as gasoline.

However, leaving aside the reality that the net energy gained from growing corn to make ethanol is negligible at best, improving automotive fuel economy advances both those goals, without having to turn food into fuel.

And on that score, both scientific studies, such as a 2017 article in the Journal of Agricultural Economics titled, “The Impact of Biofuels on Commodity Food Prices: Assessment of Findings,” and economic analyses, such as an in-depth study by European energy expert Dr. Chris Malins titled, “Thought for Food A review of the interaction between biofuel consumption and food markets,” have concluded that diverting crops into biofuel absolutely impacts commodities markets and raises food prices.

Which isn’t exactly rocket science … nor Nobel-worthy energy innovation.

Going forward, we absolutely need reliable sources of renewable fuels. However, distilling corn into ethanol utterly fails to meet that challenge.

While reducing our dependence on imported oil remains a key component of national security, the path to achieving that goal does not — and will not — run through American cornfields.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.