With friends like these, the Earth might run out of luck

Kate McMahon, biofuels campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, a coalition of grassroots environmental groups in 76 countries, said her group is leading an effort to end the subsidy (of ethanol) when it expires at the end of this year.

“This week we released a letter from 90 different organizations, all opposed to the extension of ethanol subsidies,” McMahon said.

The letter to congressional leaders is signed by dozens of groups spanning the political spectrum. It includes conservative organizations, environmental groups and farm associations.

“We’ve got Clean Water Action on the same letter as the National Chicken Council,” McMahon said. “Or we have MoveOn.org with Freedom Works.”

Livestock groups say by boosting corn prices ethanol has raised their feed costs so high it threatens their economic well-being. Conservative groups say the subsidy is wasteful government spending. Environmentalists believe ethanol emissions can increase air pollution and threaten water quality.

Efforts to convince the House and Senate to gut the subsidies received a boost when Congress’ investigative arm renewed its recommendation to end the ethanol subsidy. The General Accounting Office said the 45 cents per gallon blenders’ credit is not needed.

Another federal program already is doing the same job as the credit, the GAO said.

The federal Renewable Fuels Standard mandates that petroleum companies blend nearly 14 billion gallons of ethanol into their gasoline this year. The GAO said that guarantees a robust ethanol industry, even if the blenders’ credit is ended.

But that sort of logic does not impress the ethanol industry.

“The current debate about the tax incentive for ethanol use is awfully short-sighted,” said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the pro-ethanol Renewable Fuels Association.

He said the anti-ethanol lobby is turning a blind eye to other energy subsidies.

“It focuses only on the ethanol component and ignores the billions of dollars that are currently provided each year to very mature technologies like oil production,” he said.

Hartwig said Congress should include all energy subsidies in the discussion and keep the ones which improve the nation’s energy future. He said if that were done ethanol would prove valuable because it helps the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

“We need a policy that focuses on the energy technologies of tomorrow, not the technologies of the past,” Hartwig said.

Our Take:
We think “Friends of the Earth” might get unfriended on Earth’s Facebook page.

The alternative to ethanol is tar sand oil. That is what would replace ethanol in American gasoline tanks if the US would end its grain-based ethanol program, as “Friends of the Earth” would have us do.

Words hardly convey the reality of the moonscape left behind by surface mining operations that take beautiful northern old growth forest in Alberta Canada and turn it into miles of forbidding dust and rock that doesn’t provide habitat for anything except perhaps insects and microbes.

In situ tar sand recovery–operations that leave the surface mostly undisturbed while capturing the oil deep in the ground–this process uses vast amounts of clean water, superheats it (with a sky-high carbon footprint to go along with it) in order to get the oil to rise to the surface. The used water becomes vast toxic tailing ponds that contain benzene (a well documented carcinogen), sulfur and even radioactive elements that lie safely below layers of rock, which will now impact any living things that have the misfortune of existing near to these operations.

Friends of the Earth opposes ethanol because it opposes major farm program crops like corn.

They have a misguided notion that the earth’s growing population can be better fed on alternative forms of agriculture. In order to feed the estimated 9.2 billion people on earth by 2050, our agriculture system needs to ensure a yield/productivity growth of 1.7 percent per year–we are currently on a trend line of 1.4 percent (Pro-Exporter, Inc. analysis). A false step that reduces productivity now will mean the starvation of millions of people. Believe it or not, taking the three percent of the world grain supply that US ethanol producers consume is a key element of the demand package that ensures US industry and technology companies will bring to bear all the resources necessary to achieve that yield increase goal. Without that incentive to maximize yield, it’s unlikely farmers can sustain that 1.7 percent trend line.

Groups like Friends of the Earth also oppose crop agriculture on the basis that large stands of corn or soybeans don’t provide enough wildlife habitat or that nutrients escape farms in precipitation runoff and contribute to the low-oxygen fish-kill zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another alternative to farm-based ethanol is offshore oil wells like Deep Horizon. The lesson there appears to be lost on Friends of the Earth. Farmers are actively working (and succeeding) at the reduction of nitrogen loss to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Can we count on oil companies to prevent offshore oil rig catastrophes?

Deer and pheasant and many other creatures appear to find the marginal lands found on many farms to offer attractive shelter and food–the same can’t be said for Alberta tar sand strip mines and in situ mines, which are expected to eventually spread over an area the size of North Carolina. Roads and other necessities of this development can and will prove to be a major disruption to caribou and other mammals that call Alberta home. Alberta is also directly along the migratory fowl flyway and tailing ponds have caused documented deaths of waterfowl that have made the mistake of setting down in these poisonous waters. Can Friends of the Earth find a single farm pond or ditch that has killed waterfowl? 

We think Friends of the Earth ought to consider a name change to “Friends of Convenience”–we see in the report of this letter with 90 signatories groups that otherwise wouldn’t blink at throwing their newfound friends under a bus–Clean Water Action and the Chicken Council–CWA is actively trying to regulate the poultry and broiler industry out of existence in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. We find hypocrisy and a lack of integrity in the involvement of any agriculture group who would pursue profits for themselves but deny a fair profit to other farmers, through the ability to sell grain for energy uses.

A strong America needs prosperous farms, strong renewable energy and strong livestock industries. It also needs to preserve and in some cases rehabilitate the natural environment. Constructive discussions among the groups that want to achieve this goals is possible, even necessary, to ensure the best outcome.

Environmental groups that use loaded rhetoric and convenient relationships to harm farm-based renewable energy are harming their own goals. They are jeopardizing the best chance we have to achieve a sustainable balance of these benefits–strong rural economy and jobs base; safe, economical and dependable food production system for the US and the world; and an environment that all can enjoy and that supports the web of life.


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