Politics & Government

Obama's energy policy: more corn ethanol, 'clean' coal

A cornfield in Kansas.
A cornfield in Kansas. Lauren Chapin / Kansas City Star

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Wednesday announced plans to boost the use of biofuels — including more ethanol from corn — and speed up work on a plan to capture carbon dioxide from coal, now the biggest source of global warming pollution.

The White House declared the moves were part of a plan to decrease dependence on foreign oil and create a clean-energy economy that will support many new jobs. Administration officials said the new moves were based on sound scientific research that now gives a green light for coal-based electricity and corn-based fuel.

President Barack Obama told a bipartisan group of governors that he was following a "non-ideological approach" to energy that included clean energy and efficiency but also offshore drilling for oil and gas, new nuclear power plants and new technology that would allow for continued use of coal without emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Emphasis on all those forms of energy — plus an expansion of energy from wood chips in the Southeast and fuel from corn in the Midwest — seemed aimed at pulling in support for a broader measure to limit greenhouse gas emissions and gradually raise prices on fossil fuels. So far, there's been no bipartisan approach to such a plan that could pass in the Senate.

Obama also told the governors that his "clean energy agenda" would advance two hugely popular goals — reduced dependence on foreign oil and more jobs.

"I happen to believe that climate change is one of the reasons why we've got to pursue a clean energy agenda, but it's not the only reason," Obama said.

He made the remarks in a meeting with 11 governors: Republicans Jim Douglas of Vermont, Bob Riley of Alabama and Mike Rounds of South Dakota; and Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Steve Beshear of Kentucky, Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, John Baldacci of Maine, Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, Christine Gregoire of Washington and Ted Strickland of Ohio.

Part of the announcement Wednesday was a new rule by the Environmental Protection Agency on standards for renewable fuels. Under a 2007 energy law, the nation was to have 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, including 21 billion gallons from "advanced biofuels."

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said new scientific studies concluded that corn ethanol, when produced with energy-efficient means, could have 20 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

Much of past criticism of corn-based ethanol focused on corn's heavy requirements for land, fertilizer, pesticides and water. Some reports found that corn ethanol resulted in large amounts of greenhouse gases throughout its production and use, especially when land use changes — such as cutting forests, which store carbon dioxide, to make room for corn — were taken into account.

Jackson said the new study also looked at land-use changes, but considered examples from a greater number of countries. They also looked at new data on crop yields and more efficient production methods.

"When we used updated numbers we got different results," she said.

Not everyone is pushing corn-based ethanol. Brazil, for instance, requires ethanol for all its vehicles and is now an exporter of ethanol. It uses sugar cane rather than corn, however. Studies have found that ethanol made from sugar produces less carbon dioxide than corn-based ethanol.

The Agriculture Department also proposed a new plan to provide financing for the conversion of biomass, or material made from plants or animals, to energy. The White House announced that the President's Biofuels Interagency Working Group produced a report, "Growing America's Fuel," written by Jackson, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Environmental groups offered a mixed reaction.

Nathanael Greene, the director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the new EPA rule confirmed that some biofuels reduce global warming pollution and other types pollute more than gasoline and diesel.

Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group, said the new EPA rule is an improvement over its approach last year, when it calculated a higher level of global warming pollution from corn-based ethanol.

The Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit environmental group, said in a statement that the EPA was right to continue to calculate how changes in land use around the world contribute to global warming.

The rule "relies on some very optimistic assumptions about how biofuels will be produced more than a decade from now" and "overstates the actual environmental benefits of many biofuels, including corn ethanol," it said.

The administration announced that it's creating a task force to speed up the development of a system to capture the carbon dioxide from coal combustion and store it permanently underground. The system is the only method to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from coal use, but it isn't commercially used in any coal-fired power plants.

The task force has 180 days to produce a plan to reduce the costs of carbon capture and storage and make it what Chu called "an affordable solution" in 10 years. It calls for five to 10 commercial demonstration projects by 2016.

The Energy Department is investing more than $4 billion in carbon capture and storage, and it expects industry to contribute an additional $7 billion for research and developing and testing at nine sites, he said.


White House release on biofuels and coal policies, with links to documents


Obama to Senate Democrats: Don't fret about your jobs

Obama, governors announce more 'clean coal' proposals

California's low carbon fuel rules are unconstitutional, say oil and trucking groups

Democrats in Congress balk at Obama's debt outlook

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