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Jun. 16 2010 - 12:59 am | 1,242 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

Another (unintended) Consequence of BP’s Oil Spill

British Petroleum’s recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to cause both immediate and prolonged environmental disaster as well as long-term economic distress in the Gulf region.

In the urgent short run: the corruption of beaches, the despoiling of fisheries and the pollution of wetlands demand concentrated and immediate attention.

The protracted effects of the spill, however, may be as diffuse and indefinite as the plume itself.

In a recent paper with Georgia Tech Industrial Engineering graduate student Dexin Luo and Professor Valerie Thomas, we found strong evidence of competition between the constituents of corn yield – corn for food, feed stocks, and export – and the production of corn based ethanol for fuel.[i]

This competition between corn yield for fuel and other uses has greatly strengthened – even as the overall corn harvest has increased over the past thirty years.

The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 mandated an increase in ethanol production to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.[ii] In 2009, the United States produced about 11 billion gallons of ethanol fuel – an increase of more than 6000 percent since 1980.

At the same time, the total U.S. corn production has (only) doubled. The environmental impacts of this mandate (net energy budget, effect on corn based commodities, greenhouse emissions, etc.) are unresolved, significant, and addressed (better) elsewhere.[iii]

This was the landscape prior to the Gulf disaster.

A recent Slate column illustrates how the oil spill offers an especially advantageous occasion for ethanol producers to position ethanol fuel as a desirable, “clean” alternative.[iv]

President Obama himself, in a recent speech at an ethanol plant, called for a tripling of U.S. biofuel production over the next 12 years.[v]

We might have expected losses of oil output from the recent disaster in the Gulf – direct losses from production and indirect increased costs – to place additional pressures upon the fuel supply. We would then expect, in ordinary political terrain, for these pressures to further exacerbate competition among corn for feed stocks, exports and food and corn to ethanol.

The current and future mise en scène, a direct result of the spectacle of BP’s oil spill, may foster a growth in ethanol production far beyond previous expectation.

It is debatable whether it is a good idea to treat fuel as fungible and to increase the replacement of oil with ethanol. This is a debate that must be engaged, especially in view of the spectre of the oil spill.

The effects of increased ethanol production – on the energy budget, on the production of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, on land use change – have not been fully accounted for.

These inadequately measured, and higher order, effects are another (unintended) consequence of BP’s oil spill.


[i] Abayomi K,. Luo D., Thomas V. “Statistical Evaluation of Effect of Bioenergy on Crops and Land Use” ISYE Working Paper, Georgia Institute of Technology. (2010)

[ii] Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Publication 110-140, 110th Congress, (2007).

[iii] Tilman, D.; Socolow, R.; Foley, J. A.; Hill, J.; Larson, E.; Lynd, L.; Pacala, S.; Reilly, J.; Searchinger, T.; Somerville, C.; Williams, R. “Beneficial Biofuels-The Food, Energy, and Environment Trilemma.” Science (2009), 325, 270–271.

[iv] Bryce, R. “The Ethanol Trap.” Slate Magazine (June 10, 2010). Available at: http://www.slate.com/id/2256461/pagenum/all/#p2

[v] Remarks of President Barack Obama at POET Biorefining in Macon, Missouri. April 28, 2010. The President touted a new “fighter jet” named the “Green Hornet” designed to run on a biofuel mixture.


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  1. collapse expand

    I’m not against ethanol – hey, maybe it is better to burn the corn than to put in the candy – I’m saying it’s like fix-a-flat in a punctured tire. Not a fix, and sometimes worsens the problem.

    I like cars – ALOT. Yet, consumption (of (even) biofuel, oil and oil by products) must be addressed.

  2. collapse expand

    Once again, the US is operating on quick-fixes without considering the big picture, the thousands of vehicles that are not equipped to run on “corn fuel”, if you will. Will it be less expensive? Will we all have to purchase new vehicles? This is from a layperson’s standpoint, not scientific one. What effect will using corn fuel have on the environment? Will it be as bad or worse than the BP oil spill?

  3. collapse expand

    There’s no quick fixes and im beginning to think its too late for any fixes. these kinds of disaters happen many times a year in places like nigeria and no one seems to be “waking up”…

  4. collapse expand

    Unfortunately this article completely fails to account for several important factors.

    1) There are millions upon millions of acres of farmland sitting in reserve, with farmers being paid not to produce in order to maintain stable commodities prices.

    2) The market economy still works. If commodity prices soar, more farmers will leave the land reserve program and/or start farming more acerage.

    3) The vast (and I mean VAST) majority of US corn production does not go for human food. It’s used to create corn syrup, corn oil, and livestock feed. There won’t be a single table that goes without canned corn or corn on the cob because of the change in the ethanol market.

    • collapse expand

      These are points, but not rebuttals of the article.

      1) and 2) The competition between corn yield outputs is significant and measured only on the amount of each constituent that is produced in each year. Any mitigating factors are “accounted” for whatever goes into each year’s production.

      What I think Ben is trying to say is that *he* believes there won’t be any ill effects from increased competition on food prices or availability. That may be so – unproved, and unstudied though. While it is of course premature to suggest that corn based foodstuffs may suffer – neither the article nor the paper it references say this – it is a complete ‘nother thing to claim that this will never happen ever.

      2) and 3) Read the paragraph above. These “market” fixes are conjectures that should exist in the extant data from 1980-2009. Yet, we still see competition/dependency in the corn constituent outputs.

      3) Agreed. But this comment is a red herring. The article/paper do not claim anything to the contrary. At the same time – and here I reference an July 2010 article in Harper’s on the food bubble in 2008

      http://harpers.org/archive/2010/07/0083022

      - it is a fact that while American families may still (always) have the food they need at reasonable prices, its hard to say that same thing worldwide.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    A friend forwarded me this and it’s good. Thanks for linking to the original paper too.

    Green Hornet? The agro-industry already depends on oil-based fertilizers to produce corn crop from maxed out topsoil in the U.S. and elsewhere. Seems like accelerating production would at least in the short term have immediate effects in the viability of ethanol as a “green” resource.

  6. collapse expand

    Fascinating study and comments. Thanks.

    We need major changes in policy that address both the supply and the demand for energy. We are not going to consume less on our own, it seems.

    In terms of supply, we need leaders that fund alternative energy research. I am always amazed by how little progress has been made on this front given technological advances in so many other areas. In terms of demand, we need examples that associate real numbers that people can understand with their own behavior(s) to incentivize them to consume less. For example, how does demand change if everyone who can works from home one day a week. Someone ( a researcher, perhaps) needs to think of a way to present information in a way that makes the lay person both understand and realize that their behaviors are costly.

    We need someone to wake us up before it is indeed too late.

  7. collapse expand

    Wonderful discussion.

    In a mad dash to fix our nations environmental ills, dependence on oil and other talking points, government has somehow misplaced the ability to think through issues especially in an election year. Politicians strive to be reformers only to be met several years later with their own unintended consequence. Glad you’re doing the thinking and planning for us, now let’s hope someone hears you.

    Keep it coming.

  8. collapse expand

    I am trying to conserve myself. People do not realize that when they wash their dishes with products such as Dawn, they are using a significant amount of petroleum products.

  9. collapse expand

    From NYT op-ed:

    The limited slack in the world’s food system, particularly its grain production, can amplify the effects of disruptions. Remember that two years ago, when higher oil prices encouraged farmers to shift enormous tracts of cropland from grain to biofuel production, grain prices quickly doubled or tripled. Violence erupted in dozens of countries. Should climate change cause crop failures in major food-producing regions of Europe, North America and East Asia, the consequences would likely be far more severe.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/23/opinion/23homer-dixon.html?pagewanted=2&hp

  10. collapse expand

    This is great. I had never thought of it this way. I just really wonder how it would affect world-wide. I mean… outside USA. In my country, 99% of the people are not even aware of other sources of fuel – even forget about corn!

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