Team Ethanol got together recently at the Department of Energy for Biomass 2009: Fueling Our Future — a conference on all things biofuel. Needless to say, they’re still singing the same old song. More subsidies, a higher blend wall (a cheer that USDA Chief Tom Vilsack knows well) and much crowing over the promise of cellulosic ethanol, which uses “non-food crops” such as switchgrass and wood waste rather than corn.

They all clearly got the memo about carbon neutrality, which explains why Richard Hamilton, CEO of Ceres, one of the ethanol bigwigs, was saying things like this:

[L]arge increases expected in crop productivity, as well as better utilization of fallow or marginal land, will absorb the demands being placed on U.S. farmers by bioenergy. “And if we look at improved ways to roll-out advances in plant science globally, and rely primarily on non-food, low-carbon crops like switchgrass, sorghum and Miscanthus, then the math behind biofuels looks even more promising,” he said.

Hamilton noted that direct land-use policies hold the greatest promise for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by providing a predictable, transparent carbon playing field.

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“By having landowners and governments be directly responsible, we can drive efficiencies in farm practices, such as conservation tillage, expand the use of high-yielding, low-input crops and varieties, and encourage other sequestration practices, such as the use of winter cover crops. From a policy and practicality standpoint, it makes greater sense to be tackling the problem head-on,” he said.

It sounds positively sustainable, doesn’t it! Ignored in his analysis, of course, are the indirect effects of using land to grow fuel — whether the crop is a food or not. If that land is no longer being used for food, then food will be grown somewhere else — likely in former rainforests, as a team from Woods Hole Research Center discovered. And Lester Brown points out that profitable crops grown on marginal land will provide too much temptation; farmers would invariably try to grow them on prime land, thus further displacing food crops.

And if there was any doubt about the current carbon footprint of ethanol production, Phil Brasher of the Desmoine Register erased it when he noted concern among participants that “new biofuels plants will face greenhouse gas emission targets they can’t meet when EPA releases a long-awaited formula.” But wait, I thought ethanol was a low-carbon “solution.” Guess not.

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All that said, we will likely need low-carbon liquid fuels well into this century — it’s not, however, the concept of biofuels that are the problem. Algal biofuel (which may turn out to play a crucial role in carbon sequestration) or ethanol fueled by wood waste (or waste products) may yet be in our future fuel mix. But forcing agriculture to provide crops exclusively for use as fuel makes no sense for a planet wracked by climate change and struggling to feed our growing population.

Sadly, with the politics of ethanol all about “reducing dependence on foreign oil” and providing a means to use all that corn our screwed up system of agriculture subsidies produces, we lack a means for our political institutions to connect the dots. Making matters worse, there’s no powerful, well-funded interest groups pressuring for the decoupling of crops and fuel nor an institutional pressure point on which to act. What a biomess.