Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Brief History of Corn Biofuel in Canada

A recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Corn-based ethanol: The negatives outweigh the positives, spurred me to do a little research about this. I had some opinions on the matter which I hadn't really taken the time to thoroughly examine, but I felt that columnist Jeffrey Simpson was being a little too gentle in his criticism.

According to a Library of Parliament primer, the federal government has been preparing for a biofuel push since the mid '90s - the Liberal Party era - through various economic incentives. In 2006 the Conservative government announced a strategy to have ethanol and biodiesel account for 5% and 2%, respectively, of what's sold at the pumps, which included $345 million for research and agricultural development. In 2007 that number was increased to over $2 billion, and a tax rebate for "green cars" was introduced. This is notable because the rebate was quietly removed from the 2008 budget. Which makes you wonder: why would it be better to funnel money into corn ethanol rather than low-emission vehicles? You might argue that it's simply a matter of spending efficiency, but the evidence would not be in your favour.

A recent report (among many similar ones) from the non-partisan C.D. Howe Institute is quite damning. It concludes that, even if corn biofuel has any positive net effect on greenhouse gas emission, the cost per tonne of CO2 reduction is seven times that of the alternatives. Furthermore the environmental impact of growing, harvesting, milling, transporting, and fermenting the corn is arguably worse than that of simply burning gasoline, and many of the published green-house gas (GHG) reduction figures are per litre consumed, which hides the fact that ethanol produces less energy, resulting in lower fuel efficiency. So even before considering all of the distribution-related factors, the decrease in GHG emissions is already slim. After considering other factors, it is possibly nil or even negative.

The main question on my mind is whether or not any of this was known when the federal government's policies were enacted. Most of the research cited in the Howe Institute report comes from the 2000-2007 period, which leaves a bit of uncertainty, but it seems clear that at the very least, there was significant debate about whether or not corn ethanol offered any benefits when the Conservatives made their big announcements. We have a great many ways to spend $2 billion with more clear-cut benefits. Why this?

Here are a few things we know.
  • Canada's canola and soybean crushers were lobbying for the biodiesel move - precisely the one announced in 2006 - since well before the current federal government came into power.
  • A side-by-side comparison between a map of 2006 federal election results and a map of agricultural land usage is fascinating, if unsurprising. Guess who voted Conservative?
  • Food prices were already well into their rise in 2006 and corn ethanol was already a suspect at the time.
  • Once upon a time, Kory Teneycke was head of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, a lobby group for Canada's biofuel producers. He has a history of involvement in politics, spanning all of Canada's major right-wing parties. His sister-in-law works as an assistant to the Prime Minister's wife. In 2007 he joined the Conservatives as Director of Research, and as of this month he's the PM's director of communications.
  • Our Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Gerry Ritz, has a personal relationship with ethanol industry lobbyists.
  • Many of these lobbyists have ties with the Conservatives. I don't have a unified source for this, but look up some names and the trend starts to become pretty clear. This is not particularly surprising or contentious, given that conservative policies tend to be most favourable to industry, but it's still worth bearing in mind because conservative policies don't tend to favour the environment. When they do, I tend to wonder what else is going on.
At the very least, there are some massive conflicts of interest and callously ill-informed decision-making driving the Conservatives' biofuel policy. That's being charitable. I'll let you come to your own conclusions, but my own is that Canada has been scammed, big-time.


Nadim said...

Michael, thank you for this illuminating post! I've just written one examining the moral/developmental implications of biofuel production - and it's nice to see some correlation:

Michael Reimer said...

Thanks Nadim, good to know that these things actually get read by someone else. I'm generally in full agreement with what you wrote, but here are some quibbles/questions:

Divide 4.86 billion by 13 and we have 374 million starving children who could have been fed, all by a single country!!

This is a little sensationalist, since it doesn't consider distribution. I.e. there's a big jump between how many people the corn could feed, in theory, and how many people the country could feed with that corn, in practice. That said I have no doubt that your general point is correct - if all of those resources were devoted to feeding starving children, the number should still be impressively large. I point this out mainly because I think it's important that we aren't just writing pieces like these for one another, but also for people who might be approaching our position skeptically, and they will be more easily thrown off by things like that. (It's entirely possible that I missed similar biases in my own writing, so I won't be offended if you point out any such hypocrisy.)

The only solution that will ensure a long-term future of peace and prosperity is spiritual — it can only be spiritual.

My understanding from a couple of Baha'i friends is that they are very open-minded about spirituality, and I'm not accusing you of evangelism here or anything, I'm just curious about your thoughts on the this:

Personally, I call myself agnostic. I've often heard it claimed by religious folk that I need some religion (typically their own) in order to be as moral as them, and I take exception to that idea - certainly it works for many people to hold their behaviour up against some divine standard, but I don't feel that it's the only way. By the same token, there is an association between the Christian right and the current American government (allegedly, Canadian as well), but that certainly isn't helping. I suppose there are different kinds of spirituality. So what exactly do you mean when you use the term?

Lastly, are you Canadian?