Study: No Land Change Impact from Future Ethanol Expansion

February 23, 2009 06:00 PM

Pro Farmer Editors


Expansion of corn ethanol production to 15 billion gallons per year in 2015 is unlikely to result in the conversion of non-agricultural lands in the U.S. or abroad, according to a new study released today by Air Improvement Resource, Inc. (AIR). Increasing crop yields and growing supplies of nutrient-dense feed co-products are likely to nullify the need to expand global cropland to meet the corn ethanol requirements of the Renewable Fuels Standard, the study found.

“The overall conclusion of this report is that 15 [billion gallons per year] of corn ethanol production in 2015/16 should not result in new forest or grassland conversion in the U.S. or abroad,” concluded Tom Darlington, President of AIR and author of the report. “…the best estimate of land use impacts of expanding corn ethanol in the U.S. between 2001 and 2015 is zero.”

Accordingly, corn ethanol should not be charged with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from purported indirect land use change in the modeling currently underway at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resource Board (CARB).

“This report raises serious questions about previous analyses on the impact of increasing grain-based ethanol production on land use changes,” said Bob Dinneen, President and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. “At a minimum, federal and state policymakers need to carefully consider these findings, which advance the understanding of the effects of greater crop productivity and the value of nutrient-rich distillers grains.”

Utilizing the data from Informa Economics and Argonne National Laboratory, AIR’s analysis concluded:

  • Using a yield improvement path to 183 bushels of corn per acre in 2015, the increase in corn use for U.S. ethanol production can be met without a decline in corn exports or stocks.
  • Increases in productivity and steady U.S. corn exports mean that any land use changes occurring elsewhere around the world cannot theoretically be attributed to U.S. ethanol expansion.
  • According to Argonne, 1 lb of distillers grains replaces nearly 1.3 lbs of base livestock feed, including soybean meal. As such, the net amount of land required for ethanol production is much lower than previously estimated in other studies that assumed DG replaced only corn on a pound-for-pound basis.
  • The expected increase in agricultural productivity combined with the impact of DGs on livestock feeding will result in no new pasture or forest land needed to produce 15 billion gallons of ethanol from corn per year by 2015.

This analysis sheds important light on new data and the importance of using up-to-date assumptions in attempting to model the impacts of indirect land use change. The preliminary corn ethanol indirect land use change results published by CARB and EPA appear to be based on overly conservative projections for crop yield growth, significantly undervalued distillers grains credits, and other questionable assumptions. Notably, the model being used by CARB is static and must be “shocked” to estimate the land impacts of an instantaneous increase to 15 billion gallons of ethanol production rather than reflecting the dynamic nature of this expansion and market over time.

The AIR results provide a more realistic assessment of the land use impact of U.S. corn ethanol expansion to the levels required under the Renewable Fuels Standard in 2015.


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