Mike Strain (R-Covington) is up on the Louisiana House blog discussing his bill to provide tax credits for biofuel producers. Strain was also one of the authors of last year’s bill to mandate the sale of ethanol-enhanced gasoline in Louisiana. The bill was hotly debated, and passed only with the stipulation that it wouldn’t be enforced until ethanol prices dipped within two cents of gasoline prices. The law was ultimately associated with Bob Odom.
Mike Strain is running against Bob Odom for Agriculture Commissioner this year. His new bill may be a way to break free of Odom’s legacy. The two even differ on how best to ban cock-fighting (enjoy these days, because the jokes about being the only state to allow the practice won’t last long).
The Baton Rouge Business Report points out that even without last year’s ethanol-laced gasoline initiative, ethanol plants are flocking to Louisiana because of its location and a federal fifty-one cents per gallon subsidy for ethanol production. Ethanol has become the cornerstone of President Bush’s program for renewable energy and reducing foreign oil dependency, though the federal government’s financial commitment to ethanol (and renewable energy) has been questioned (you must watch an ad for a day-pass to Salon).
Louisiana has begun growing more ethanol-destined corn, which the Business Report calls atypical of the region due to a fungal parasite called Aflatoxin. [When I was a grunt at LSUA's Agricultural Research Station in 1998, I remember that a number of farmers surrendered their corn to the toxin to file insurance claims.] According to Bob Odom, “land planted in cotton has decreased from almost 800,000 acres to about 300,000 acres, while corn acreage has increased 150% as more farmers look to alternative fuels as their future.”
Corn-based ethanol, with certain exceptions, is the least ecological (Salon link with ad) and least sustainable way of producing ethanol. Some of this could change if DOE grants and private enterprise are successful in developing ethanol from cellulose. Cellulose comes from non-edible organic material, which does not increase food prices like corn-based ethanol. As far as air quality in the long run, though, ethanol may not be much better than gasoline.
Over a century and a half ago, some of my Irish ancestors came to America when diminished biodiversity and an agricultural fungal parasite collaborated to increase food prices.
Mike Strain’s current proposal for biofuel tax incentives is what the oil lobby was asking for last year in lieu of ethanol-additive mandates. Ironically, the two policies are the two halves of another powerful lobbying group’s strategy for milking the short-term advantages of corn-based fuel. 25×25 calls for twenty-five percent of America’s energy to come “from the land” by 2025.
There will always be some non-renewable energy costs associated with producing ethanol, and as we have seen not all ethanol is created ecologically equal. Salon’s Amanda Griscom Little quotes Nathanael Greene, an expert on renewable-energy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, (Salon link with ad) commenting on 25×25′s national strategy:
If these plans aren’t drafted with sustainable guidelines, clearly that could be a problem. We have to get the incentives structured right so that farmers are rewarded for being sustainable.
Moreover, the Business Report article cited above quotes the LSU Center for Energy Studies Director Robert Baumann, who states,
“Has the farmer made a lot money? Not really, though grain prices have gone up a little bit,” Baumann says. “The farmers that have made money are the ones that invested in the plant.”
It’s good to see that Strain’s bill includes higher incentives for cellulose-based ethanol and guarantees that 20% of ownership will lie in the hands of Louisianians. Overall, it will probably be good for the state economically. Nevertheless, state and national leaders must be prodded to commit to increasing environmental or energy sustainability. Is ethanol the best we can do? Is it creative enough to solve our interrelated local and national problems.
What will happen to Louisianians who commit to growing corn when tariffs on cheap foreign ethanol imports are lifted?