A recent USA Today article, picked up from content provider Ozy.com, mischaracterizes the message of a research article on land use changes. In their 2012 study on grasslands, South Dakota State University ecologists Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly try to convey that the opportunity for cellulosic biofuel production to take root in the Great Plains and Western Corn Belt is in danger of being lost. The authors correctly note that public policy and economic incentives must align to deliver the promised environmental benefits.
Unfortunately, public policy is being destabilized. And the otherwise balanced report by Ozy.com is marred by repetition of two myths that the oil refining industry has promoted in its efforts to topple the Renewable Fuel Standard. First, the RFS does not require gasoline to contain 10 percent corn ethanol. Second, there is room in the U.S. transportation fuel market for greater volumes of biofuels, whether ethanol or not.
Big Oil is attempting to gut the RFS just as several large-scale, pioneer cellulosic facilities are set to open, bringing nearly 100 million gallons of homegrown American cellulosic biofuel online. These facilities will prove the technology and the economics of advanced biofuel production at a full commercial scale, setting the stage for expansion. While the projects will focus on corn stover as the initial feedstocks, they have also shown that grasses and other crop residues can be used. The expansion of this technology will provide the economic incentive that Wright and Wemberly say are necessary to preserve grassland.
The Ozy.com report notes some of the shortfalls of the Wright and Wemberly study, but not all. Wright and Wimberly admit that their use of satellite data can’t distinguish between native grassland converted to crops and Conservation Reserve Program land that reverts to farmland. The recent Farm Bill included a provision – supported by environmental NGOs, such as the Environmental Working Group – that reduced the CRP by 9 million acres. In general, the United States continues to lose farmland. Between 2007 and 2012, 100,000 farms and 7.6 million acres of farmland disappeared, according to USDA surveys.
Allowing the oil refiners to submarine the RFS just as cellulosic biofuel begins to come online would also undermine the economic incentives to preserve grasslands and cultivate them as an advanced biofuel source. That is exactly what Wright and Wimberly are warning against.