Reminding Al Gore: 5 'Encouraging Truths' About Ethanol

Having an appreciation for Al Gore's commitment to science and advocacy of responsible policies on energy, the environment, and the economy, I was disappointed by his treatment of ethanol and other biofuels in his new book.
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Having an appreciation for Al Gore's commitment to science and advocacy of responsible policies on energy, the environment, and the economy, I was disappointed by his treatment of ethanol and other biofuels in his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.

During the late 1970s, Gore was an early supporter of grain-based ethanol and other efforts to promote biofuels. Now, as he writes in his new book, Our Choice, he has changed his mind.

Because of his devotion to science and the facts, I have sent him a detailed letter, filled with what I hope he'll consider encouraging, not inconvenient, truths:

Encouraging Truth #1: Ethanol has come of age.

Ethanol has come a long way since when Gore first championed it. With 10.5 billion gallons set to be produced and sold this year, ethanol is a major factor in America's motor fuel supply. Today's ethanol industry is helping support nearly 500,000 jobs, providing more than $20 billion in new household incomes. Last year alone, the use of ethanol reduced emissions by the equivalent of removing 2.1 million gallons from American highways.

Encouraging Truth #2: American agriculture and the US ethanol industry are improving their productivity without jeopardizing the environment.

The average corn yield this season is 163 bushels per acre - up from 101 bushels in 1978. Higher yields have been achieved through better technology and farming practices, not through increased use of fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs. In fact, there has been a 27% decrease in irrigation water use per bushel, a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per bushel, a 37% decrease in the land required per bushel, a 37% decrease in energy required per bushel; and 69% reduction in soil loss per bushel.

Encouraging Truth #3: 'Food vs. fuels' is a false choice.

Gore writes "...further diversion of cropland from food to fuel will put upward pressure on food prices at a time when many impoverished regions of the world are facing growing concerns about food security." But the increased use of grain for ethanol in the United States has not reduced the amount of grain available for livestock feed, food processing, or exports. Furthermore, cropland is not being "diverted" from food and feed production.

Instead, increased productivity per unit of land has ensured that adequate supplies of grain are available for all uses, including biofuels. The US achieved a new record for corn exports in 2007, amid a significant biofuels boom. Corn exports have topped 2 billion bushels in four of the last five years, the first time in history that such volumes have occurred in a five-year span.

None of this obscures the moral and practical urgency of world hunger. But, as Gore well knows, the problems are access to food and food security. Producing ethanol is not the cause of these crises, and curtailing the production of biofuels is not the cure. There cannot be food security without energy security

Encouraging Truth #4: Ethanol doesn't increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Gore also writes: "largely because modern agriculture is so petroleum intensive, net greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol turn out to be almost equal to the emissions from gasoline." But corn ethanol production is not a "petroleum intensive" process. In a 2006 analysis, a group of researchers at U.C. Berkeley found that producing one unit of ethanol energy requires 20 times less petroleum than producing one unit of gasoline energy.

Encouraging Truth #5: Today's ethanol builds the foundation for the next generation of biofuels.

While Gore writes, "The production of ethanol in first generation biorefineries has been a disappointment," he goes on to admit: "However, it has... led to the emergence of an infrastructure that will prove highly valuable when second generation technologies are available to produce ethanol from nonfood crops." This includes shipping ethanol via pipelines, which occurs today all across Brazil and in the state of Florida.

That is one reason why corn-based ethanol is not a mistake. Rather, it is providing a strong economic and environmentally sustainable foundation upon which the next generation of biofuels, including improvements in existing technologies, will be built. Therefore, utilizing what is available today, the US should expand the demand, distribution and transportation of ethanol so that we can build a strong foundation for the next generation of biofuels.

Mr. Vice President, an objective review of the facts as they exist today lead to one inevitable conclusion: biofuels must be part of "our choice."

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