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Environmental Group Pushes Support for New Biofuels

IPR file photo by Amy Mayer
Residue left on fields after corn is harvested gets baled and stacked for eventual use as feedstock for cellulosic ethanol.

U.S. energy policy that effectively promotes corn ethanol is holding back a generation of more environmentally sound fuels, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

To grow corn for ethanol, farmers have been plowing up new land and fertilizing big crops. Some research says that means corn-based ethanol can have a larger carbon footprint than traditional fuel.

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, but that has been slow to develop on a commercial scale.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires oil companies to blend biofuels into the gasoline supply, mandates just a small fraction of renewable fuels come from non-corn-based sources.

"What we need to focus on is what they call `second-generation fuels,' fuels made from biomass like corn stover and switchgrass, to create lower carbon fuels," said Emily Cassidy, who wrote the report for EWG.

To encourage new biofuels, Cassidy suggests that Congress should motivate farmers to grow a different crop.

"Farmers are business people, too, and they want to make a profit," Cassidy said. "We need to see if there's a way we can incentivize them growing feedstocks that aren't as harmful to the environment."

Many in the corn ethanol industry dispute the notion that corn ethanol production stalls biofuels made from other sources. And the cellulosic energy industry has seen growth in recent months. DuPont Industrial Biosciences opened what the company says is the largest cellulosic ethanol plant in the world in October in Nevada, Iowa.

The EPA has said it plans to set 2015 and 2016 RFS targets by the end of November.  

Harvest Public Media’s Jeremy Bernfeld contributed to this report.