AP finds new angle to make no news into new news about well-known & foolhardy ‘renewable’: corn ethanol

[Update: For another look at this story, see Paul Raeburn's post.]

  For years media have been killing the same horse: corn ethanol. It has been beaten upon so many times that few reporters who have been anywhere near the science beat would still suggest that turning corn kernels into combustible ethanol is a good way to reduce the USA's greenhouse gas emissions. The stuff's advantage over just refining crude straight into gasoline or diesel, after one accounts for the hard work and energy that goes into growing corn with the help of fossil-derived energy and fertilizers and then running it through a distillery gets awful small. Factor in the dislocation in food prices and the displacement of other crops off good land and the green hue is gone. Such elements have been at the heart of many news accounts for the better part of a decade.

   Yet the nation persists in making it a pillar of climate-friendly policy. Once more, the severe limits to power of the press stand revealed. The farm lobby is one reason. But even the most devoted government agents in the EPA and DOE and other agencies, people who know full well that corn ethanol is a loser, have stuck with it. The reason may be the nation's renewable fuel standard. It demands that a portion of transportation fuels come from renewable sources, chiefly vegetation or algae transformed by bacterial or enzyme chemistry into something that'll gas up an engine. Corn ethanol was supposed to get the ball rolling. By now we were to have big distilleries and other such things chomping through corn stalks, cheat grass, jojoba, algae, wood chips, city garbage, and other cheap and abundant stuff and spitting rivers of alcohol, biodiesel, and other fuels that can make engines roar. But instead of being a bridge to renewables, corn ethanol has become a dismal, seemingly endless causeway to nowhere.

   So, what is the world's most essential wire service doing killing this dead horse all over again?:

  The package is large. An advisory that AP sent to editors a week ago spells out its scale. It is being offered in 4000, 2900, and 1300 word versions, graphics, a timeline, a Q&A with two of the reporters, and state-specific versions for the corn belt.

   It is magnificent reporting. The reporters got close to a lot of farmers doing their best to be stewards of their land but are surrendering to the ethanol juggernaut. While I confess to sighing 'not this again' upon first encounter, it comes up with a fresh angle: land use changes and sacrifice of a lot of marginal, open land that is best left as natural biodiversity reservoirs but is now being plowed up and set to corn. Vast expanses that once were checkerboarded with woodlots, fallow stretches of meadow and brush, and fields of varying crops are now endless corn monoculture. Plowing to expand corn's empire itself releases so much CO2 that it would take years – if ever – of ethanol production to make it up. And, the AP reports, exactly such largescale land conversion was predicted by some while members of the Obama administration insisted, in public anyway, that they would be minor at worst.

    Maybe this package will make a difference. Hope so. Reporters cannot just call it quits on issues such as this. But despair lurks in the heart.

    Speaking of news of despair in the climate change department:

  • The Daily Climate – Douglas Fischer: Worlds apart: Indigenous leaders abandon faith in UN to find climate solution ; This is an odd story, filed from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, not far from real-deal pueblos, once home to Georgia O'Keefe. Why would the editor of this news service go there to a meeting of representatives from several native communities in North America, from the Arctic to Mexico? The participants are talking about climate change. But  while heartfelt and perhaps wise, their advice has about as much chance at stopping global warming as the millennialist ghost dances among western US natives did of bringing peace in the late 19th century to the scattered, imprisoned tribes or of stopping the expansion of US settlement. The meeting's congress gets one thing right: the UN's meetings have accomplished little.
  • AP: Typhoon casts pall over U.N. climate talks in Poland ; A Philippine delegate breaks down in tears. One finds no byline on the copy. If somebody has it and lets us know, I'll add it.

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