Crop Damage Sparks Fuel Versus Food Debate

Dry conditions that continue to grip Midwestern states, damaging crops and threatening to push up food prices, stirred new debate this week after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released crop yield projections capturing the severity of the drought. Though the U.S. is the largest producer of corn and soybeans, the report puts corn production at 10.8 billion bushels, down 13 percent from last year’s yield and 17 percent from July projections. It also slashes soybean yields, though not as sharply as corn.

The low projections are bumping up corn prices. The price spike in corn is causing some livestock farmers to turn to other sources, even candy, for their animals’ nutrition. While the USDA announced it will buy up to $170 million worth of meat to help relieve some of these farmers, low yield projections still mean feed could be more scarce next year. “I think this will help some in the short run, but what we really need is to change the ethanol mandate,” said Bob Ivey, a hog farmer and general manager of Maxwell Foods, of the USDA announcement.

Like Ivey, others renewed debate over the use of corn for ethanol production this week, putting more pressure on the U.S. to divert its corn crop to food. As required by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is currently used in ethanol production, with the rest going to food, animal feed and exports. With agricultural production in other major exporting countries such as China and India suffering and the global food price index up six percent in July, some are concerned about global shortages of certain food commodities. As some legislators called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue a waiver of the corn ethanol RFS for the next year, the top United Nations food official, José Graziano da Silva, told the Financial Times that an “immediate, temporary suspension” of the mandate could help head off another world food crisis as poorer countries bear the burden of rising food costs. The Renewable Fuels Association urged the EPA to reject the waiver request, saying it “would do more harm than good to America’s economy and its energy security.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is poised to approve the use of sorghum to create advanced ethanol. It would join imported sugar-cane-based ethanol and domestic biodiesel to become the third “advanced biofuel” in the U.S. (Advanced biofuels produce fewer greenhouse gases over their lifetime.) A sorghum-based ethanol could be a welcome addition to the U.S. biofuel supply because sorghum is not an important ingredient in human foods (it’s mainly used as animal feed), it is more drought-tolerant than corn, and it produces the same amount of ethanol as corn using one-third less water.

Study: Temperatures May Climb 7 Degrees

If droughts weren’t enough, global warming and urbanization could cause temperatures in cities to climb seven degrees by 2050, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. That’s two to three times higher than the effects of global warming, says Climate Central’s Michael Lemonick.

One scientist affiliated with MIT is pursuing a technology that would help in droughts by mitigating water lost from reservoirs through evaporation. The technology involves coating the water with a thin layer of vegetable oil, which could possibly reduce evaporation by up to 75 percent.

Energy in the Arctic

Shell’s plans for drilling in the Arctic faced another delay—not one due to ice, but rather to failure to complete construction on a spill response barge, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “So it’s not a matter of ice. It is a matter of whether Shell has the mechanical capability to be able to comply with the exploration effort that had been approved by the government,” Salazar said. The window to drill is closing, The Wall Street Journal warns, as exploration in the Chukchi Sea must end by Sept. 24 and the end of October in the Beaufort Sea.

This came as the first comprehensive plan to manage the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska was announced, leaving open the possibility for a pipeline to transport oil and gas from the Chukchi Sea onshore. The plan would allow drilling on half of the 23 million-acre reserve estimated to contain 549 million barrels of recoverable oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In the renewable energy sector, wind made headway in 2011, adding about 6,800 megawatts of power generation, which made it second only to natural gas of all new U.S. electric capacity. Specifically, wind accounted for 32 percent of energy, pushing U.S. wind power capacity to 47,000 megawatts.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.