Monday, May 7, 2007

Ethanol Refineries - Fair or Foul?

The Environmental Protection Agency, just a few short weeks ago, revised downward the pollution control standards for ethanol producing plants. It wasn't exactly major news for the networks -- but it should have been. This action by the EPA no doubt is a result of strong lobbying efforts from major corn and ethanol producers. Prior to this revision, the threshold of toxic emissions allowed before an ethanol producing site must install the latest pollution controls was 100 tons annually; the EPA's April revision more than doubles that threshold to 250 annual tons of toxic emissions. In addition, the EPA agreed to allow so-called 'fugitive' emissions from small vents or pipes to be excluded from computation in reaching the new 250 ton pollution emission threshold for ethanol plants.

While many U.S. farmers and rural communities are eagerly on board for raising more corn and building ethanol plants in their communities -- many are not. The concerns abound regarding the permanent loss of quality of air and life and many are fighting to stop the building of ethanol plants in their rural communities. The EPA's willingness to relax pollution control standards for ethanol production facilities certainly strengthens the argument and position of those farming communities fighting to keep the fumes of ethanol production out of their air space.

One of the primary arguments for the use of ethanol, or ethanol mixed with gasoline, is that it reduces carbon monoxide emissions, which sounds just grand on the surface. However, what is largely absent from all ethanol rhetoric is that ethanol emissions contain "nitrogen oxides, acetaldehyde, and peroxy-acetyl nitrate". (Patzek, 2004) And that's just to name a few of the toxic by-products of cooling off the earth by pumping some ethanol into your tank.

What a joke. And the jokes on us. Do you really want to be an Ethanol Patriot and pump bio-fuel into your car? You see, ethanol is pretty volatile, it will break down while you are pumping it into your car. Take a deep breath, pull those carcinogens into your lungs - could that be the new American way to save the earth?

The State of Minnesota has embraced on a fairly large scale the construction and operation of ethanol plants, having some 16 ethanol plants in operation, and several more are under construction today. The following is an excerpt from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) web site -- and it surely must be scary for a state or region to feel like a virtual guinea pig or lab rat as the emissions from ethanol plants are studied after the fact to determine just what is coming out of an ethanol smoke stack.

"Consent decrees negotiated with the plant owners revealed underreported emissions and required pollution control equipment to be installed in an effort to accurately quantify and reduce air emissions. Most facilities consistently reported similar constituents including detectable levels of acetaldehyde, acetic acid, formaldehyde, ethanol and methanol, although there was considerable variation in quantities of analytes among facilities and among different processes at a facility. Although the data set is small, it is the most extensive available. Further systematic testing is necessary to thoroughly characterize the complex gas stream from various stages of the ethanol production process. Until additional data are obtained and analyzed, we cannot say with complete certainty whether data gaps have implications for risk analysis." Any state, any community, considering building a 'biorefinery' to produce ethanol should visit the MPCA web site -- it is pretty darn scary, and it looks like it's a money pit from an administrative and regulatory viewpoint as well.

The more than 200 U.S. ethanol plants in operation or under construction emit thousands of tons of pollutants a year, including nitrogen oxides, a key element of smog and damage to the ozone layer. As the EPA has apparently little concern for the air pollution of rural areas from ethanol production, other States are hopefully investigating ethanol plant emissions and implementing their own regulatory standards to ensure the cleanest air possible for those who must now live with an industrial smoke stack next door.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), which bills itself as the national trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry, has a very lame response on their web site to the results of a very recent Stanford University study that concluded there were risks from ethanol emissions. Per the RFA, "this study by Professor Jacobson does show that most of the air quality “problems” he identified stem from acetaldehyde that is either emitted directly or results from excessive ethanol emissions. If these problems were found to be serious enough, then regulations could quickly be put into place that would require vehicles . . . meet more stringent ethanol and acetaldehyde emissions standards before they could be certified for sale." Excuse me? Why are we subsidizing the creation of a bio-fuel before we've even fully explored it's new and singular impact on the air we breath? How does this fella know we can find a way to lessen acetaldehyde emissions? He doesn't; he just has to be hopeful and positive, that's his job. By the way, acetaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

Within the EPA's April decision to relax the pollution standards for ethanol refineries, there is an exception made that both undermines the basis for relaxing the standards and clearly shows a lack of concern for the clean air in rural communities: The newly revised EPA standards do not apply to ethanol plants in urban areas where air pollution is already a problem. So, just what does that tell you? Tells me there is known 'bad stuff' coming out of those smoke stacks, and allowing 250 tons to be emitted into good clean country air is a cop out on the part of the EPA.

U.S. ethanol production has jumped more than 300% since the year 2000. Per the RFA in early April, there are currently 114 ethanol biorefineries (RFA's earth friendly term for their ethanol plants) nationwide with the capacity to produce more than 5.6 billion gallons annually. There are 80 ethanol refineries and 7 expansions under construction with a combined annual capacity of more than 6 billion gallons.

The National Corn Growers Association says U.S. corn growers hold the potential to produce 15 billion bushels by 2015 - a third of which could be used to produce some 15 billion gallons of ethanol. But, corn based ethanol producers and farmers don't have a corner on the ethanol market. What happens when the subsidies and tax incentives dry up? or when there is a major long term drought? The Global Warming fanatics might be right. Where does that leave corn based ethanol? Nowhere really. Can that new corn based ethanol plant in Littletown, Kansas be converted to the latest and greatest? If so, at what cost? Or will it eventually become nothing more than a massive incinerator for the worst industrial waste money can produce in the world? I'll leave that possibility for another day -- but it is quite real.

How is it that we as a country have gotten in such a rush to subsidize ethanol production when we have not fully explored all the alternative sources and arrived at the most economic and healthy approach to producing ethanol in the USA? If this were a drug, it would still be under testing.

There are many alternatives to creating ethanol other than from corn that are being explored globally. The one I find most intriguing was recently announced by LanzaTech, a New Zealand based company. They are using bacterial fermentation to convert carbon monoxide into ethanol. Per LanzaTech, this technology could produce 50 billion gallons of ethanol from the world's steel mills alone, turning the liability of carbon emissions into valuable fuels worth over $50 billion per year at very low costs and adding substantial value to the steel industry. There would be some poetic beauty to that alternative, and one that would economically and environmentally have a positive impact on industrialized areas in the USA and around the world -- including Southeast Texas.

Research is underway as well to produce ethanol from other plants, including wheat, oats and barley. Sugar cane is already a viable source of ethanol -- while it is a water needy crop, it can withstand a wide range of drought and freeze conditions, and it's a perennial crop. Others are looking at genetically engineering microbes to produce enzymes that will convert cellulose in crop waste, wood chips and other plants into ethanol. The Energy Department is investing $385 million in six new cellulosic ethanol plants around the country. More than half the ethanol made in Kansas already comes from sorghum, which requires less water than corn.

And speaking of water, do you really find much coming out of Citizen Green's mouth about the massive amount of water required to produce ethanol from corn? How about the enormous fertilize, herbicide, and pesticide requirements for those annual crops of corn, and the post-production waste water the ethanol plant has to find a home for? How will all of this impact the biology of our water, our oceans? Do you know? I didn't think so. Have a chat with a long time resident of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and see what they have to say about chemical run off from the cotton, grain, and corn fields that makes it's way to the Laguna Madre and impacts the ecosystem of that once pristine bay. Ask them if they willingly drink water out of the tap. Then magnify their response by multiples of......oh, say 100, let's think big, let's think long term ethanol production, long-term blinders. Ouch, it's just too scary. It needs to be curtailed now.

I think most of us would go back to riding a bicycle before we'd knowingly create a national dependency and drain on our water resources just to have ethanol to buzz over to Cousin Joe's for a beer, or Aunt Bet's for bowl of gumbo. We can strap a bottle of water to that bike and life goes on. Suddenly car-pooling wouldn't seem such an irritating idea, after all, we can't live without good clean water -- or air, or for that matter good old Southern cornbread. If this corn ethanol takes off, just how costly will a pound of corn meal be?

If we're going to create a whole new dynamic in America's food supply in order to mitigate our dependence on oil, let's pick something that would have a healthy impact on the American diet. After all, we are the most obese country in the world -- let's fix that problem and at the same time create an alternative bio-fuel. With those joint goals, sugar cane becomes the ultimate ethanol crop with enormous positive consequences for the health of America. No doubt with less sugar in our diet we could breathe a whole lot more of that fouled country air -- our immune systems would be much stronger without all that sugar, and we'd be a lot thinner and could more easily fit in little bitty cars that run on bio-fuel.

Copyright, May 7, 2007, Jimmie Lynn West

Links: - Ethanol Fact Sheet

Ethanol BioRefinery Locations in the USA

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency - Ethanol in Minnesota

Massive Water Requirements of Ethanol - Let the Ethanol Producers Tell You Themselves How Much They Need

States, EPA Raise Water Quality Concerns Over New Ethanol Incentives, April 2007

Thermo-Dynamics of the Corn-Ethanol BioFuel Cycle, Tad Patzek, UC Berkely, 2004

The United States of America Meets the Planet Earth, Patzek, 2005