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Lawmakers Out To Kill the Corn-Based Ethanol Mandate 314

Posted by Soulskill
from the i'm-all-ears dept.
mdsolar tips this report: "Teams of lawmakers are working hard on bills to cut corn-based ethanol out of the country's biofuel mandate entirely, according to National Journal. It's the latest twist in America's fraught relationship with biofuels, which started in 2005 when Congress first mandated that a certain amount of biofuel be mixed into the country's fuel supply. The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was then expanded in 2007, with separate requirements for standard biofuel on the one hand and cellulosic and advanced biofuels on the other. The latter are produced from non-food products like cornstalks, agricultural waste, and timber industry cuttings. The RFS originally called for 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2010, 250 million in 2011, and 500 million in 2012. Instead, the cellulosic industry failed to get off the ground. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was forced to revise the mandate down to 6.5 million in 2010, and all the way down to zero in 2012. The cellulosic mandate has started to slowly creep back up, and 2014 may be the year when domestic production of cellulosic ethanol finally takes off. But then last month EPA did something else for the first time: it cut down the 2014 mandate for standard biofuel, produced mainly from corn. And now Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) have teamed up on legislation that would eliminate the standard biofuel mandate entirely."
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Lawmakers Out To Kill the Corn-Based Ethanol Mandate

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:03PM (#45717873)

    Maybe this corn used for ethanol can be used for food again?

    Or, at the least animal feed, so the price at the grocery store isn't as bad, and farmers/ranchers are not as pinched as before.

  • by GameMaster (148118) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:26PM (#45718151)

    Uh, no. You're taking a half-remembered fact and mangling it. Almost all of the corn raised in this country is usable for food. However, the fact you are mis-remembering is that most of the corn isn't edible by humans straight off the stalk. Just because you can't eat it without processing doesn't mean it isn't still food. Even discounting corn syrup (which is still food) there is hominy, corn meal, etc. Even the stuff used as animal feed is still part of the food chain and increasing it's price still increases the cost of human food.

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:27PM (#45718159)

    Well, I applaud them for trying to end it, but it was never wise to turn over the best food growing land to fuel production.
    It was known from the beginning that it took more energy than it produced.

    Cellulose is the only way to go. One of the most promising sources is switch grass [ornl.gov], which can be grown on much more marginal land, and pretty much re-plants itself (due to deep roots).

    Had an equal amount of money been put into cellulosic ethanol we wouldn't be stuck with a corn industry that is driving up food prices, and depleting prime agricultural soils. Nor would be have a bunch of corn processing facilities that will require significant work to convert to anything else.

    This has been an expensive failed experiment, about what you would expect when you rush something into production rather than letting the science and the industry develop. The problem was they didn't set it up to allow competition between sources. They went full funding and full legislative mandate for a single solution before they even did much research.

  • by Valdrax (32670) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:28PM (#45718169)

    Maybe this corn used for ethanol can be used for food again?

    Better yet, maybe land can be set aside or used for other things than corn again. [nwf.org]

  • by bobbied (2522392) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:42PM (#45718327)

    This NEVER made sense environmentally, economically or technically.

    Technically, we hit the "blend wall" at about 10%. Above that amount, gasoline engines start to have issues with Ethanol. Rubber seals, hoses and plastic parts in fuel systems start having reduced lifespan. Above 10% some engines start having other internal issues. Gas mileage is reduced because Ethanol has a lower energy density. Ethanol is a water magnet, it mixes with water easily and is hard to keep "dry" so rusting and corrosion becomes more common in fuel systems.

    Environmentally, the production of ethanol doesn't really reduce emissions of C02 when you count the whole process of growing, harvesting, storing, transporting, processing into ethanol, transporting, blending and transporting the product again. It was at best a wash. Then when you consider how much more fertilizer, pesticides and tilling add to the environmental impact it clearly becomes a negative.

    Economically, the case is even worse. The whole process of producing ethanol is both labor and capital expensive. It is obviously more expensive as a motor fuel. Then when you consider what has happened to food prices as corn (a base part of much of what we eat as well as feed for animals we use for food) prices have gone up.

    But what about or dependance on foreign Oil imports? It helped, but was it worth it? T Boon Pickens has the answer to that. He thinks that we are stupid to convert food into fuel when we could be using abundant Natural Gas for a motor fuel. Converting gasoline engines to use natural gas is not that hard (albeit harder than 10% Ethanol) it works great with reduced range due to energy density. Refueling times can be comparable to gasoline and a large distribution network already exists in much of the nation.

    It's time. Do away with this mistake.

  • by bigpat (158134) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:43PM (#45718337)
    There really should be sunset provisions on all laws. If it is a good idea, then it can be renewed.
  • by rollingcalf (605357) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:45PM (#45718361)

    But the land used for that corn is often suitable for growing other crops for human consumption.

  • by DocSavage64109 (799754) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:54PM (#45718495)

    But how am I supposed to give billions in subsidies to corn farmers then?

    I'm sure that the Democrats will find another way to give them billions.

    If it was the Democrats giving billions to the farmers, then how come they all vote Republican?

  • by mutube (981006) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:56PM (#45718517) Homepage

    Er, no. Sunset clauses are a terrible waste of government time. Just think about it - if every law you pass gets a sunset clause, that means cumulatively over time you're spending a bigger and bigger portion of your time renewing previous laws to make them still active. You end up with situations like the US "fiscal cliff" - which miraculously every other mature democracy on Earth manages to avoid.

    Any good law will be a good law for a long period of time. If it becomes not a good law, repeal it. If you're not sure it's a good enough law to last, don't pass it.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @04:56PM (#45718525)

    I applaud them for trying. I also applaud them louder for realizing it didn't work and ending it.

    I'm not against government mandates per se - the clean air / clean water acts were hugely necessary. I'm all for minimum fuel efficiency standards. I also believe government has a necessary role in funding stuff which requires a long-enough term investment that the private sector is unlikely to find it worthwhile to get involved.

    BUT I don't like it when the government says "here's how you're going to accomplish this goal", because they just about ALWAYS screw that up.

    This is a perfect case in point. They certainly identified the problem correctly... but then they had to meddle because there was just too much political hay to be made. Even when this corn ethanol program started, it was already pretty well established that corn was the wrong source material to use for fuel. As I recall, there was already a near consensus among researchers that switchgrass was probably the way to go. But they let some powerful legislators from the midwest shape the program in a manner designed NOT to be good for the country's long-term interests, but good for their short-term political gain. And, predictably, now many people see the whole idea in a negative light - it raised the price of food, it raised the price of fuel, and in the end it didn't work.

    If the government is going to do this sort of thing, they should stick to setting broadly-stated targets. If they want to say "XX% of your energy/fuel must come from renewable sources by 2030", that's fine with me. But don't dictate that it has to be ethanol, or wind, or solar, or geothermal, or whatever. Let the private sector figure out how best to get to the goal - but don't relax the standards for them when they whine!

  • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @05:03PM (#45718625)

    In principle, I agree with the sentiment that trying something out, realizing that it doesn't work and stopping it is good.

    However, the underlying problem is that they set themselves up for failure because they didn't just say "we want ethanol fuel, and we'll let industry figure out the most efficient way to produce it," they said "we want ethanol, and we're going to subsidize a stupid way of producing it."

    Now the question is, will they understand that they failed at regulation, or will they (mistakenly) think biofuels failed as a solution?

  • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @05:09PM (#45718693) Homepage Journal

    Er, no. Sunset clauses are a terrible waste of government time. Just think about it - if every law you pass gets a sunset clause, that means cumulatively over time you're spending a bigger and bigger portion of your time renewing previous laws to make them still active.

    Huh? That makes no sense.

    So, basically, you're saying that it takes more time to buy (or not buy) a car someone built than it would take for you to engineer and build a car yourself. That's nuts, yo.

    No, sunset clauses are easy to deal with; it goes down like this:

    Senator Bob: Hey, this law is in sunset phase. Was it a good idea, and do we want to keep it, yea or nay?

    As opposed to months of 'closed doors' meetings, secret deals with lobbyists, writes and re-writes and re-re-writes, etc.

    You end up with situations like the US "fiscal cliff"

    That had nothing to do with sunsetting laws, and everything to do with the fact that our Congress is made up of, essentially, narcissistic 5th graders.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @05:11PM (#45718725)

    No it shouldn't. "Bad for you" does not automatically mean "poison".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @05:14PM (#45718757)

    > which miraculously every other mature democracy on Earth manages to avoid.

    It's a little off topic to bring this up, but your assertion isn't remotely true. The fiscal cliff is a metaphor for a specific set of economic conditions. I'm not even sure you understand what you're talking about, so I'm going into a little pedantry here. Democracy is a soft term at best so if you can be more specific, you can narrow the large list of examples...but let's take the ones that I specifically remember and you can easily reference. For the purposes of historical perspective and for the general term "democracy", Greece is a democracy, Japan is a democracy, Mexico is a democracy. Each of these countries (as well as others) suffered well documented fiscal cliffs, which their respective governments "went over". Mexico in the 70's, Japan in the 80's, Greece in this decade.

    Democracies all tend to fail because of inevitable corruption which starts at the financial sectors. While inflation is not always the result, it's the most common consequence. There have always been and will probably always be democracies passing financial cliffs. Convenient list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperinflation [wikipedia.org]

  • by FudRucker (866063) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @05:38PM (#45719029)
    lets turn all that ethanol producing infrastructure in to booze making infrastructure, that should keep the cost of booze down, and the liquor stores well stocked
  • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @05:47PM (#45719165)

    No, you won't be breaking any 0-60 records, which might make it difficult for the MURKA! FUCK YEAH! crowd to accept

    Dude, the "MURKA! FUCK YEAH!" crowd does 11-second quarter mile drag races in their 1000+ HP Cummins Dodge Rams.

    This isn't the '80s; diesels are not like those old shitty Oldsmobiles anymore. Even my lightly-modded MK4 Volkswagen diesel can beat a stock Mk4 GTI in a drag race. (And before you say "but that's modded" keep in mind that a new VW diesel has 140 HP, which is the same as a Civic, but has way more torque.)

  • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @06:00PM (#45719281)

    You make the implicit assumption that government creates more good laws than bad ones. I suspect that the person who proposed expanded use of sunset laws doesn't believe that to be the case.

    (Personally, I agree with him -- the goal of the government should be to have the minimum amount of laws and regulation necessary.)

  • by mutube (981006) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @06:05PM (#45719319) Homepage

    Like the Constitution?

    Just to clarify - I'm not against sunset clauses in all cases. But I am against the idea (expressed in the original post) that "There really should be sunset provisions on all laws." Some things don't need regular repeal - some laws are just that good. Like laws against murder. Similarly, short term laws to cover things (like getting back on topic corn subsidies) make sense as a short term financial instrument. There sunsetting makes sense - and gives a defined end point for companies that depend on the subsidy.

    What I can't agree with is applying sunset clauses to laws that are intended to last. The solution to "Some laws are bad" is not "Let's make laws last for less time and then renew them!" it's "Let's make better laws". If a law is so bad you can't bear to enact it unless it is automatically repealed in 5 years - it's probably not a very good law. All this accomplishes is feeding short-termism, allowing politicians off the hook for their crap. "Hey I passed a law! (But don't worry it won't do any real harm because it'll be off the books before we see the consequences)."

    Bundling these things into cumulative bills would mean they'll get so little oversight that they may as well be permanent. They're hardly read the first time, what makes you think anyone will pay attention to what the law says when it's on page 543?

  • by caseih (160668) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @06:37PM (#45719703)

    You're right about startup. But that can be mitigated with block heaters in cold climates, which are already widely used. Especially on little tiny engines. As well it's not nearly so hard to turn over a tiny engine, so I think the cold start problem is no worse than gasoline. A small engine will warm up fairly quickly.

    I stood next to a big rig the other day when it was -40C (I was loading it), and it had no smell of diesel at all. Just a vague ammonia steam whiff occasionally. This is of course after it's warmed up. In my mind diesel is the only alternative in the future as it's the only engine capable of running without modifications on a myriad of biologically-derived oils. Heavier oil biofuels made by algae and waste digestion seem to be better bets than ethanol.

Byte your tongue.

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