Wednesday, October 14, 2009

GAO Report of the Week

As absolutely everybody who is anybody knows, GAO or Government Accountability Office--the investigative and auditing arm of Congress--publishes reports nearly every day of the year. In true bureaucratic fashion the reports are dry, sanitized, and full lots of nifty information (as long as you are into that sort of thing). So, I'm beginning an on again, off again tradition of highlighting an interesting GAO report.

Today's Report: Biofuels: Potential Effects and Challenges of Required Increases in Production and Use

In 186 pages the report addresses the challenges meeting the Renewable Fuel Standard set by Congress, especially when it comes to non-corn ethanol. As some may know, a little bugaboo of mine is the inanity of ethanol subsidies. As noted in the report (according to experts) the ethanol subsidies raise crop prices (and thus food prices on nearly everything, since nearly everything has corn, but that is for a different post) while doing little to actually offset the power of foreign oil countries. Furthermore, the environmental problems caused by ethanol through changing land use and (little mentioned) the massive amounts of water needed to turn corn/cellulose to ethanol is rarely discussed. Alas, in the name of the farmer, job creation, and all that is good and right in the world politicians have decided that subsidizing ethanol is worth the billions of taxpayer's dollars.

Take it away GAO:
The RFS allows the use of up to 15 billion gallons per year of conventional biofuel by 2015 and requires at least 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels—with at least 16 billion gallons of this amount coming from cellulosic feedstocks—in 2022. Yet, at present, the distribution infrastructure and vehicle types necessary to transport and use increased ethanol production do not exist. In addition, the United States will reach the blend wall limit as early as 2011 solely with existing ethanol production from corn starch, which could greatly restrict the growth of the cellulosic biofuels industry. Thermochemical processing technologies such as pyrolysis, have the potential to produce advanced biofuels that can be used in the nation’s existing fuel distribution and vehicle infrastructure and therefore avoid future blend wall issues. However, DOE and USDA have not focused substantial R&D resources on developing these technologies. Furthermore, EISA and the 2008 Farm Bill define renewable biomass differently regarding feedstocks and land eligibility, creating difficulties for agencies to formulate rules, implement program activities, and effectively execute the interagency National Biofuels Action Plan. This may also create uncertainty for biofuels producers and could potentially reduce the nation’s ability to increase advanced biofuels feedstock production and realize their benefits.

Bringing it Baby!


  1. Yeah, it feels like this deserves a comment. But, all I can think to say is this is a hard concept to swallow, literally. On a side note, have you and M seen the documentary King Corn? I found it to be worthwhile, for the most part.

  2. I have not, though it was on the list this last summer in DC. We just never got around to it. I heard it was interesting.

    Related, I'm very conflicted about industrial farming. On one had the industrial agricultural practices can be (but don't need to be) very destructive to the environment. On the other hand, due to industrial agriculture we can feed lots more people.

    Your thoughts?

  3. Right. In light of the FAO report that food production will need to increase by 70% in 40 years, it is necessary. However, I'm still hesitant... It is easy to say that it feeds a lot of people, but it seems harder to speak about the long-term viability. Is it a system that is promoting further dependance on fossil fuels? For whatever reason, I get wrapped up in trying to understand how the seeds work. How strenous is it for farmers to purchase seeds from labs rather than harvesting their own?

    Today is world food day, it seem appropriate to be talking about these issues, even if it means sharing an exchange of confliction.

  4. Nate if you are seeking further information on how ethanol is produced in regards to the seed and how it is grown compared to regular corn(if there is a difference?), let me know.
    My grandfather was on several boards that worked in relation with government in the production of ethanol when it was first getting started. I may or may not agree with him on the logistics of ethanol as a fuel, but he has a wealth of info. on the subject.