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US eyes shift from corn ethanol

Worried about high food prices, Congress tries to push the industry to use nonfood crops.

Dirk Lammers/AP/File

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America’s love affair with corn-based ethanol is cooling – at least in Washington.

Some legislators blame the rising use of corn as a biofuel as a key factor behind high food prices. Others want to freeze the federal mandate on biofuels production at current levels, reversing legislation passed just a few months ago that increases it through 2022. Still others are pushing to shift tax incentives away from corn-based to cellulose-based ethanol in the nearly completed farm bill.

These moves represent a dramatic backlash against corn ethanol, which until a few months ago was widely viewed as a boon for both farmers and consumers. Many experts worry that Washington’s new skepticism will undo important progress the US has made in replacing foreign oil with domestic energy alternatives. But others say that done right, a shift toward cellulose – nonfood plant material like grasses and crop residues – could reduce US reliance on imported oil just as well as corn does. And it would accomplish it with fewer food and environmental trade-offs.

“I think there could be some really productive results from all this hand-wringing,” says Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. The key is to encourage experimentation with biofuels to see which one can deliver the most value with the least environmental side effects, he adds. “Tax credits [for cellulose] have the right intention, but they’re focused on trying to pick the winner instead of picking the best performance.”

At this point, corn ethanol is the runaway winner among biofuels. The US produced almost 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol last year, representing less than 5 percent of US gasoline supplies. Cellulosic ethanol, by contrast, has not even been commercialized.


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