The Missing Question on Biofuels: Volume or Value?

The Missing Question on Biofuels: Volume or Value?


David Waskow, 202-222-0716
Erich Pica, 202-222-0739

Washington, DC – In the State of the Union speech tonight, President Bush is expected to call for an increase in biofuels use in the United States to 35 billion gallons each year by 2017.

But the president and his allies on biofuels are missing a key question: Are we going to simply ramp up biofuels production in the United States whatever the impact?  Or are we going to ensure our biofuels provide value by sustaining the environment and clearly addressing global warming?

We cannot allow production of biofuels – particularly corn ethanol – to continue unchecked without increasing environmental safeguards and aggressively steering production away from fuel sources like corn into more environmentally sound fuel sources.  Here are some facts about corn ethanol:

  • It would take more than last year’s entire corn yield of 11.1 billion bushels in the United States to produce 35 billion gallons of corn ethanol.
  • Assuming corn yields between 200 and 250 gallons of ethanol per acre and that all US crop land amounts to between 368 and 442 million acres, it would take between 39.6% and 65.2% (175 to 240 million acres) of all U.S. crop land to produce 35 billion gallons of corn ethanol.
  • In order to grow this much corn, between 12.3 and 32.6 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer runoff would end up in waterways each year.  The intensive methods under which corn is produced would cause between 2.8 and 4.3 trillion pounds of soil loss every year.

It is clear that we cannot meet a 35 billion gallon target with corn ethanol without doing untold damage to our agricultural lands and our environment.  Yet the president has failed to set forth a policy that would limit the amount of corn ethanol in his fuel target and steer us in a new direction.

We propose that the amount of corn ethanol that can apply to a biofuels target be limited and that the bulk of the target be reserved for environmentally friendly fuel sources like switchgrass.

Over time, an entirely new type of fuel target should be phased in to provide incentives for biofuels based on their reductions of greenhouse gases.   Biofuels incentives should also be clearly tied to significant improvements in fuel efficiency.

In addition, a portion of the target for biofuels made from crops like corn or soybeans should be met only with crops produced in environmentally appropriate ways.  And, because of the potential threat that biofuels expansion poses to forests around the world, no part of the target should be met with fuels produced on lands in the U.S. or abroad that have recently been converted from native forests or other ecosystems.

We also call on tax-writing committees to change the current tax credit for ethanol so that it applies to corn ethanol only when oil prices drop below a set threshold.