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Ethanol's Next Step Is Hampered By Unsure Government Regs

Grant Gerlock
Harvest Public Media
USDA's Rob Mitchell inspects a patch of switchgrass planted to produce ethanol. Switchgrass is perennial and drought tolerant, which makes it a good option for areas where it is difficult to grow corn or soybeans.

A complex set of government rules meant to spur a renewable fuels industry has fallen behind one of its main goals: cutting greenhouse emissions from gasoline.

Nearly a decade after the rules were drafted, low-carbon fuels have yet to arrive. The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing tweaks to the nation's ethanol policy, marking a crucial point for the next generation of biofuels, which have so far failed to flourish.

"The unknown is, 'Where do you sell it?'" said Rob Mitchell, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher working on crops for cellulosic ethanol. "The market for cellulosic ethanol just isn't there yet. If you want a farmer to do it, it's got to pay the bills and we're fully aware of that."

Almost all ethanol made in the U.S. currently is produced from corn. But to grow more grain, farmers plowed up a lot of pasture, which has led some researchers [.pdf] to say the carbon savings have been canceled out.

Initially, corn ethanol was meant as a bridge to low-carbon fuels like cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from grasses and other inedible parts of plants. The Renewable Fuel Standard, as the ethanol rules are called, mandate oil companies to blend certain amounts of biofuels into gasoline and include requirements for cellulosic ethanol. The EPA, however, hasn't finalized annual production targets since 2013, leaving the ethanol industry in the lurch.

Wally Tyner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, said the corn ethanol industry has hardly missed a beat, but cellulosic ethanol is losing investment.

"Put yourself in the position of an investor," Tyner said. "The only thing that makes your investment viable is a government mandate for that product. Are you willing to put $400 million on the line that that government mandate is always going to be there?"

"...if what we were trying to do with this policy in 2007 was encourage this advanced industry, the current policy's not doing the job and the numbers reflect that."

The problem with the mandate is that oil companies say they can't use as much ethanol as the law requires. They're lobbying the EPA to cut the RFS, while ethanol companies are fighting to keep it intact. Meanwhile, the drama is scaring off investors.

In 2014, the U.S. produced just a fifth of the cellulosic ethanol originally called for by the RFS.

Large-scale plants in Iowa have come online to make cellulosic fuel from corn stalks. Another facility found in Kansas uses wheat straw. All in all, the renewable fuel that was supposed to tip the scale on greenhouse emissions barely registers today.

"We're not there yet, technically or economically," Tyner said, "but if there is to be growth that's where the growth will be."

Investors could bolster support for cellulosic ethanol. Analysts say that is only likely to happen if they're given firm assurances from the EPA about the direction of federal ethanol policy.

Jeremy Martin with the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks investors will come back if they know what they were dealing with. Clear EPA policy goes a long way.

"Even if it's not what they'd hoped for, at this point, you just need to know where you stand so you can make decisions about how to move forward," Martin said.

That's not good enough for Michael McAdams of the Advanced Biofuels Association. He said the law will never go beyond corn unless Congress rewrites it to favor lower carbon fuels.

"I mean, if what we were trying to do with this policy in 2007 was encourage this advanced industry, the current policy's not doing the job and the numbers reflect that," McAdams said.

There have been proposals in Congress to change the RFS, and a few that would repeal it entirely, but none of them appear to be going anywhere soon.

That leaves the EPA's RFS mandates as the signal the industry is looking for. With a vote of confidence for cellulosic ethanol, energy crops other than corn may find traction.

This Harvest Public Media story was produced in conjunction with Inside Energy.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.
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