Toward More Sustainable Biofuels
The conversion of millions of acres of land all across the country into industrial crop production for ethanol has impacted many kinds of wildlife species who depend on that lost habitat. Because the largest losses have occurred on grasslands in the Midwest and Upper Great Plains, species in those areas are most at risk.
The iconic monarch butterfly, which migrates all the way from Mexico to Canada and back each year, has declined in numbers by about 80 percent over the last decade, since the implementation of the ethanol mandate. Habitat loss and pesticides are believed to be two of the main reasons.
Agricultural expansion in the Prairie Pothole region of the Dakotas and Minnesota also threatens America’s “duck factory,” since more than 60 percent of all waterfowl are reared there before migrating to other parts of the country. The region’s many seasonal wetlands and adjacent grasslands are vital habitat that support billions of dollars in economic activity from hunters and birdwatchers all around the country.
This same region is also the wintertime home of about 40 percent of the nation’s commercial bee colonies, which are responsible for pollinating $15 billion of crop production each year. Bees, butterflies, ducks, swift foxes, and other species can’t use corn fields for food or shelter, meaning that the expansion of crop fields reduces biodiversity on the landscape and can isolate animal populations from one another.
Beyond Corn: Better Fuels
The law that created the current ethanol mandate was supposed to foster development of biofuels made from materials other than corn. All plant materials have the sugars needed to make ethanol, but some plants require more processing to be turned into fuel. Overcoming some of the initial technological barriers has been a challenge, and so corn ethanol has dominated the market. But innovative companies are trying to break through these barriers by creating fuels without the need for massive plots of land to grow crops. Utilizing waste materials, for example, provides a resource stream without competing with food crops for land. Here are just a few cases of promising innovation.
- Kelp can actually be farmed in the ocean and harvested for fuel. Researchers are working to improve the process.
- A company called Lanzatech is trying to turn carbon monoxide produced in steel mills into jet fuel.
- ZeaChem is going to use corn stalks and wood waste to produce its fuel.
When done the right way, biofuel producers can create a sustainable energy source that does not threaten wildlife habitat, and in some cases can even enhance it. Changes to the ethanol mandate could do more to help make these fuels replace corn ethanol in our gasoline, while we work to convert our ground transportation system to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.