Category Archives: ethanol

Less Corn. More Shrimp.

2013 Hypoxic zone measurements

Do you like shrimp?

This year’s Deadzone in our Gulf of Mexico waters will be about the size of Connecticut. It is estimated that the Dead Zone causes losses of $82 million per year to the seafood and tourism industries.

Much of it is caused by corn cropland fertilizer runoff that ends up going down the Mississippi River. Corn used to fuel cars – cropland used to feed cars, not people. In contrast, a healthy Gulf of Mexico sans Dead Zone would be capable of growing more shrimp, crabs, clams, and fish which humans love to eat. Which would you vote for if it were your choice, if you got to pick one over the other?

We should all resent this loss of soil and wasted fertilizer that poisons our – what should be – naturally rich, abundant, seafood-producing region of the United States, our Gulf of Mexico.

This is what agribusiness lobbyists, a couple dozen Midwestern policy makers in D.C., and a presidential caucus that begins in Iowa, have bought for you, Americans.

Wouldn’t we be a richer nation and have a higher quality of life if our vote was cast for healthy land, rivers, and waterways? If our vote was cast for a healthy seafood-producing Gulf region? The many livelihoods which could be enriched in the Gulf region would exceed the few Midwestern jobs at ethanol plants in a region where this biofuels policy is only contributing to ongoing depopulation of the Midwest as farms continue to get larger.

We live in an era where we struggle to find enough clean seafood. We could all win by having a healthy Gulf and healthy Midwestern land and water if we would reverse the corn ethanol mandate, prioritize sustainable farming methods, reestablish grasslands along waterways, encourage sustainable grazing lands, and grow real-food crops on smaller more biodiverse farms, once again, in the Midwest.

Less corn. More shrimp!

For further reading see:

1. Summer ‘Dead Zone’ expert notes connection to midwest corn planted for ethanol from Houston’s news.

2. 2014 Forecast: Summer Hypoxic Zone Size, Northern Gulf of Mexico (EPA)

3. Dead Zone Size of Connecticut Demands Federal Action.

Corn Acres Increased 25% from 2006 to 2012

You will see from the data in this post that the RFS mandated corn ethanol program spurred corn acreage by 25 percent in the U.S. because of a new and rapid increased demand, which drove prices higher.

Below, is a recent graph and report from the USDA:

Positive grower returns have supported the expansion of U.S. corn area since the late 2000s. Returns to corn production—the value above total economic costs that include opportunity costs of land, labor, and other owned resources—have been positive since 2007.

Returns reached a high of $224 per planted acre in 2011 before declining to $48 in 2013. With economic profit available from corn production, planted corn acres increased nearly 25 percent nationally from about 78 million in 2006 to a record of more than 97 million in 2012. In 2013, however, lower corn price expectations pushed down planted area, and lower corn prices, along with higher land costs, reduced returns to corn production.

From 1997 to 2006, economic returns to corn production had been negative, averaging -$74 per planted acre. During this time, planted corn acreage was relatively stable between about 75 and 80 million acres.

source: USDA

The World is Drowning in Corn

Again and again we see that in agricultural commodities like corn, the best cure for high prices is high prices. The U.S.’s rapid ramp up in ethanol production created a sudden demand for corn, but now five to six years out, we, along with the rest of the world, have responded by producing more corn to cash in on the high corn prices of recent years.

Now, with low corn prices, ethanol producers will be more profitable and even Brazil, the king of sugar cane ethanol production, is considering turning more of their corn crop into corn ethanol.

The remainder of this post is from the USDA:

Global corn ending stocks forecast to be the highest in 15 years

Global corn stocks are forecast to rise to the highest level in 15 years by the end of 2014/15 (September/August), leading to downward pressure on U.S. and global corn prices. Stocks fell to relatively low levels during 2003/04-2006/07, prior to the 2008 spike in world commodity prices, but are now forecast to reach 188.1 million tons in 2014/15, just 3 percent below the recent high of 194.4 million tons in 1999/2000. Since 2008/09, world corn production has exceeded total consumption in 5 out of 7 years.

In addition to the United States and China—the two largest global producers and consumers of corn—production and stocks have been generally rising in Brazil, Russia, and Ukraine—countries that are also playing an expanding role as corn exporters. With a second consecutive above trend U.S. corn harvest forecast for 2014/15, the United States is expected to account for most of the 8-percent increase in global corn stocks forecast in 2014/15.

With growing inventories, the U.S. season average farm price of corn is expected to decline to $4.00 per bushel, down 10 percent from $4.45 per bushel in 2013/14, and 42 percent from $6.89 per bushel in the U.S. drought year of 2012/13.

source: usda

Photos: Land Use Change Destruction to Grow Biofuels

Conservation Reserve Program Losses

It’s been 15 months, now, since I wrote “Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.” About eight months after I wrote that, the Associated Press did an in-depth story on the same subject in November 2013, concluding the same as I did, that the mandated use of corn ethanol was causing massive abandonment of conservation practices throughout the Midwest, especially in the Dakotas. The AP’s long feature article was splashed across front pages of newspapers across America and its journalist was interviewed on PBS Newshour. Also, two months ago, the Food and Environment Reporting Network covered the story in a piece titled “Plowed Under”.

So the story of the recent unprecedented movement to plow up land and convert it to growing corn and soybeans is finally out there, yet if Gallop did a poll on the subject I shudder to guess how few Americans would actually be aware of what is going on in America’s Heartland. A new farm bill has become law since I wrote my piece and there are glimmers of hope in it, but it is disastrous policy for the soil and biodiversity, to pay out crop insurance which reimburses landowners for failed crops on land which should never have been plowed and planted with row crops in the first place.

Other stories go with this one, including the loss of Monarch butterflies, the loss of bee populations, the loss of pheasants, waterfowl and songbirds, and the loss of rural human populations, too, as the farms become larger and larger in the Midwest.

Today, I have some photos to share with you and at the end of this post I will call your attention to two important new developments which are very negative for the ethanol industry. Both knock down the industry’s repeated claim that it is a green fuel.

Nebraska Photos

First, let’s look at three photos that I took on a recent trip back to Eastern Nebraska.

This first photo shows a farm place which is about to become history. The house and trees around the place have all been bull dozed. Already, the farmer is growing corn right up to the piles of trees and lumber as close as he can get. I expect that next time I see this spot which is very near to the farm that I grew up on, all of the buildings will be gone. This type of sight is not unusual.

This, also close to my childhood farm, is a good example of farming right up to a waterway instead of leaving a strip of grass or treed area. There is nothing to capture the soil, fertilizer, and pesticide runoff during rains, when a farmer decides to farm every square inch of land in ways such as this. Also note the pivot irrigation system setting nearby. This is not over the Ogallala aquifer area, but rather has limited groundwater from which to pump. In the large majority of years, this region experiences adequate moisture to produce good crop yields, but the drought of 2012, along with high corn prices that year, prompted quite a few farmers to add pivot systems to their operations.

This is a photo overlooking a Cargillopoly located near Blair, Nebraska, not far from the Missouri River. This is all about converting corn to ethanol and making other bio-products such as bioplastics. The two-hundred million dollar Denmark Novazymes plant is also located here, as are German and other corn product manufacturing operations. Novazymes manufactures enzymes that are used by ethanol plants throughout the country.

It should be noted that bioplastics, because they decompose, release more greenhouse gases than petroleum plastics, which do not decompose.

That ends my photos from Nebraska.

North Dakota Photos

Next, are some photos taken by my North Dakota photographer friend, Rick, who is documenting the conversion of CRP land, wetlands, and prairie to plowed fields for corn and soybean row crops. They show the sad story of what has happened to highly erodible land in North Dakota. Current farm policy provides profit opportunities from plowing up our nation’s unique waterfowl habitat ecosystem found in this Prairie Pot Hole Region, otherwise it wouldn’t be happening.

In the new farm bill passed this year, you will recall that direct payments to farmers were dropped, while the crop insurance program was expanded, with a new higher bottom floor on prices. Many of Rick’s observations conclude that crop insurance is what makes it profitable for the farmer to plow these highly erodible lands in North Dakota.

Take a look at this “before” shot of a very rocky field left as grassland.

This photo shows us the “after” it’s been plowed version. Can you imagine?

This North Dakota photo pretty much speaks for itself. I asked Rick to send me a photo of a hill being farmed and this bean field is what he sent.

Here is another bean field after the crop and soil have been washed away. Crop insurance should cover it, not to worry.

These next three from Rick show a map marking three CRP fields in 2012 which were plowed in 2013. The top photo is a panoramic showing the fields after they were plowed. He notes that the white areas which show on the map are bare, soil-less hilltops.

(End maps)

Above is another North Dakota field showing severe erosion.

And another. The two photos above are both recently converted CRP (Conservation Reserve Program land) to cropland.

In the top photo taken in the fall of 2013, we see a hayfield/CRP with bales around a prairie pothole, and in the bottom spring 2014 photo we see that it has been plowed. This was taken in Stutsman County, North Dakota. Rick tells me that this county lost 36,000 acres of CRP in 2013. In 2000 it had 180,000 acres of CRP; in 2012 it had 106,000 acres of CRP; and, in 2013 the CRP acres in Stutsman County were down to 70,000 acres.

In a similar comparison, the top photo taken last fall shows a hayfield and bales, and the bottom photo taken this spring shows a plowed field with industrial equipment near a pothole lake. Rick said that this section of land had been in CRP for as long as he could remember.

Rick took this photo and commented that the corn field was still unharvested at the end of November 2013. If the land only produced a few bushels of corn per acre, it was not worth harvesting, yet, it was probably a profitable venture for the farmer because of crop insurance.

This is the final shot from Rick showing us the conversion of a grassland and hay field to plowed land which is badly eroded, in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota.

Corn Ethanol Greenhouse Emissions

In the introduction, I said I’d be pointing your attention towards some new studies that knock down the idea that the ethanol industry promotes – that ethanol is a green fuel. Because of the magnitude of environmental problems that it is causing, and its low or negative energy return, I’ve never considered it to be green, but some official reports have come out recently which should really get the attention of our top policy makers.

Just last week, the Environmental Working Group came out with a report telling us that corn ethanol raises greenhouse emissions, which is contrary to what the industry likes to tell us.

Although the RFS explicitly prohibits using converted land to produce ethanol, there is no regulatory framework to enforce this and the USDA has no way of knowing whether corn is being grown on converted land….

In 2012, an Environmental Working Group study found that from 2008 to 2011, more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted for corn alone.

In 2013, EWG documented that 23 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetland had been plowed under for crop production between 2008 and 2011. Eight million acres were converted to grow corn and another 5.6 million to plant soybeans, because the ethanol mandate pushed up soybean prices as well…

EWG’s research shows that roughly 306,000 acres of wetlands were converted to produce corn between 2008 and 2012. The emissions released by this conversion totaled 25-to-74 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year for each of those five years. The additional 8 million acres of grasslands and shrub lands converted to corn from 2008 to 2011 added another 60-to-162 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions per year over the period, for a total of between 85 million and 236 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

CONCLUSION: The intent of the Renewable Fuel Standard was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, diminish America’s dependence on foreign oil and promote development of advanced biofuels. Instead it has resulted in rapid expansion of corn ethanol production, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, worsening air and water pollution and driving up the price of food and feed.

Ethanol Causes Increased Ozone in Brazil

A study done in Sao Paulo, Brazil, revealed that ozone air pollution increased when drivers were using ethanol. Again, we’ve been told the opposite, that by using ethanol in our vehicles, ozone pollution would be decreased. This is a huge deal, because for places like the front range of Colorado, which struggles with air pollution and also has mandated use of ethanol, we need to know whether it is worsening air quality, or not.

I wish that the Front Range Air Pollution and Photochemistry Experiment known as FRAPPÉ, funded by the National Science Foundation and carried out here in Boulder at the National Center for Atmospheric Research would study this. I contacted two people here at NCAR on the FRAPPÉ team and hope that they can figure out a way to do the study or set up the models. This region is growing very rapidly and because of its geography, air pollution is already increasing and struggling to meet goals, with added emissions from fracking, and more and more cars on the roads.


It is time for our highest level policy makers to reconsider biofuels mandates.

Now that the expensive infrastructure has been paid for and policy has set the mandated high levels of biofuel use here in the U.S., the industry has taken on a life of its own. As agricultural input costs keep rising, the cost of planting either corn or soybeans has gone up markedly. Taxpayers are helping to fund the profitability of these two crops, in spite of current high input costs, wherever they are grown. Automobile owners are also helping to fund them every time they fill their gas tank with fuel containing ethanol. Consumers are paying a price for this policy, too, every time they pay higher prices for meat, dairy, and eggs at their local grocery store.

All of the related industry beneficiaries of this policy maintain strong lobbying efforts in our nation’s Capital. It is very difficult to turn back the clock at this point, but that’s no excuse for lax environmental protection policies for our land and water natural resources.

Water Used to Produce Ethanol in Nebraska

Do you notice any similarities between the two maps below? The top map shows us the corn production regions in Nebraska in 2012 (a drought year), the dark green areas having the highest production.

The red stars represent the ethanol plants in Nebraska.

The second map from year 2005 shows us the regions of Nebraska which irrigate most heavily using groundwater withdrawals. As you can easily see, the regions which irrigate most heavily, are the same as those that were most productive for corn in 2012.

Nebraska ranks as the third highest corn producing state, and it is also the state that is gifted with the most underground Ogallala Aquifer water. Seed corn companies prefer to use Nebraska’s irrigated corn acres for reliability during drought years and ethanol plants also like the reliability of corn production that Nebraska’s irrigated acres can provide. In 2008, 3.6 million acres in Nebraska were irrigated using center-pivots, and that number has surely grown since then.

According to a 2011 article out of Columbia University: “In Ohio, because of sufficient rainfall, only 1% of the corn is irrigated while in Nebraska 72% of the crop is irrigated. It takes 19 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn in Region 5, 38 gallons in Region 6, and 865 gallons in Region 7. (Region 5 includes Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri; Region 6 includes Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; and Region 7 includes North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.) The Baker Institute estimates that producing the corn to meet the ethanol mandate for 2015 will require 2.9 trillion gallons of water.”

Nebraska ranks second of all the states in ethanol production. I was curious to find out what percent of Nebraska’s corn was turned into ethanol. The clearest and most recent numbers that I could find using a non-drought year belong to 2011.

To do the calculation, I used data provided by the National Corn Growers Association:

1,536,000,000 bushels corn was produced in 2011 in Nebraska
2.089 billion gallons of ethanol operating capacity* in 2011 in Nebraska
(if) 1 bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons ethanol
then the % of corn going to ethanol in the state of Nebraska in 2011
= 49 %

From the University of Nebraska’s website, the issue becomes is it worth it?

Life cycle analysis (LCA) of ethanol production from corn grain has yielded a net energy ratio of 1.2 to 1.45 (Liska et. al. 2009). This represents just a 20 to 45% positive energy balance when producing ethanol from corn. This number has been the criticism of corn ethanol because of the large amount of fossil energy used to produce ethanol.

Yes, I know, the ethanol industry would argue that today’s conversion factor is more efficient, however… irrigated corn requires higher energy inputs even if the price of the water is considered to be free. It is possible that the energy returned on irrigated corn converted to ethanol in Nebraska is negative or about 1:1.

Where is the outrage on that, I ask the Nebraskans who proudly protested the Keystone pipeline to protect the state’s water?

In conclusion, the majority of the corn produced in Nebraska is produced by using irrigation water. And, around half of the corn produced in Nebraska is being converted into ethanol. Given ethanol’s negligible energy return, it looks like a hamster on a wheel that gets nowhere, a frivolous thing to do with this precious fossil water.


*note that this number should be quite accurate because ethanol plants were operating at near 100% capacity in 2011 in Nebraska.

See previous post: Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country