Ethanol Rules

A quick check of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) website shows that the ethanol boom continues here. As of the year 2000, four ethanol plants were in operation but by the time I first wrote about ethanol last summer, there were a half-dozen plants in operation and about 20 more proposed for our state; and as of February 1, there are 53 plants and expansions in various stages of the permitting process, half of them applications submitted within the past six months.

Ethanol Producer Magazine notes in its February 2007 publication that the 2006 permit total alone represents 4.3 billion gallons of added capacity if all these projects are approved.

We’ve confronted water usage, mainly, in discussing the downsides of ethanol so far. Just as important is considering the ways this boom might affect how farmers–and others–view and use our land. Hog farmer Gary Asay of Osco, Illinois, had this to say in a Chicago Tribune interview:

Seated at his kitchen table this summer, Asay looked out the window over a fine stand of corn surrounding his farm. He intends to plant corn on every one of his 300 acres from now on, as long as the ethanol factories demand it.

Forget about crop rotation, he says. Asay will be dumping on the fertilizer and giving his new industrial neighbors what they no doubt will need in previously unheard-of quantities. “I’m planning on raising corn year after year,” he says.*

Farmers aren’t the only ones willing to change their game plans. Government at all levels has proven willing to accommodate ethanol by making “allowances” for the industry, some on the basis of national/energy security principles and others for its old-fashioned potential as a cash cow.

For example, EPA currently is considering air pollution permit rules changes:

A new rule drafted and currently under consideration by the EPA would exempt ethanol producers from the status of being a chemical processor. This change would increase the new source review major source threshold from 100 tons per year to 250 tons per year. Currently, major source criteria are 100 tons per year or more of emissions. The cap on hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions is 10 tons per year per individual chemical (of the possible 189) or 25 tons per year aggregate.

While the proposed rule would increase maximum emissions, the HAP emissions requirements would remain the same. [Howard] Gebhart [an air permit specialist], who spoke during the [Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo’s] June 22 session titled, “Environmental Compliance: Clearing the Air,” said there is an important distinction with the possible rule change. Fugitive emissions would be excluded from the total emissions. Gebhart explains fugitive emissions as those that can’t be reasonably captured (e.g., run through a vent or emissions device). An example is dust created by truck traffic, or a leaky valve. “It would significantly ease the burden of new source review if this rule change goes through,” Gebhart said.

It sure would:

An ethanol plant scheduled to get up and running in Hennepin this year is coming under fire from a citizens’ group that says the plant eventually will produce more pollution than permitted.

The group also contends that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is deliberately issuing lesser permits to this and other ethanol plants, and ignoring potential future pollution violations, to fulfill Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s desire to make Illinois a leading state for ethanol production. [snip]

At issue is the plant’s future expansion plans. Phase one, expected to be completed in December, is a 100-million-gallon-per-year natural gas-fired plant, for which the IEPA issued a “minor source” permit. But phase two, expected to be completed by January 2009, calls for the plant to expand to a 200-million-gallon-per-year coal-fired plant, which would require a “major source” permit that has not yet been obtained. Coal-fired plants emit mercury and other pollutants. [snip]

The group alleges that the IEPA ignored clear evidence that Marquis intends to build a coal-fired refinery when it issued only a “minor source” permit.

The EPA is expected to make its decision on the new rule next month, after which state agencies will follow suit. Ethanol producers are crossing their fingers that it will take effect, not only on behalf of planned expansions but also because many already are skirting the current limits on pollutants such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

By the way, dust raised by trucks is not innocuous stuff, especially dust from tires.

What will trigger the new rule is EPA deciding to pull “dry mill” ethanol fuel producers out of the “chemical processing plant” category and classify them the same as “wet mill” fuel and food-grade producers.** However, fuel ethanol must by law be denatured to make it unfit for human consumption, and denatured ethanol is considered an oil when it comes to spill prevention measures, as it is considered a potential contaminant of ground water. So, ethanol producers will still be considered chemical processors as concerns the water rules. Unless, of course, they change the water rules too.

The White House recently recommended that farming of biomass fuel crops on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, about 27 million acres, suggesting that there are ways this could be done without disturbing the wildlife.

Messing with zoning and other land-use restrictions is another disturbing trend arising from the desire to get a piece of the action–and it happens at the local level, too. Currently, ethanol plants in Illinois must be placed on sites zoned for heavy industry but ethanol producers pretty much want to locate in the middle of cornfields, which are naturally zoned for agricultural use. One would reasonably expect in these days of careful, long-term land-use planning that there would be a zoning change process complete with land-use evaluations and public hearings, but the Sangamon County Board recently found a way around this process, as Springfield blogger Will Reynolds describes:

Whenever a zoning change is proposed a LESA (Land and Evaluation Site Assessment) score is calculated by professionals. This is a measure of whether the proposed change fits in with the surrounding development. The score will tell us, for example, that a mega-hog farm doesn’t belong next door to a housing subdivision.

Predictably, the LESA score tells us that ethanol plants are industrial sites that don’t belong in the middle of a rural agricultural area. This presents a problem for those County Board members who like to follow the professional recommendation of those who calculate the score.

It’s my understanding of the process that allowing ethanol plants to be built in agriculturally zoned land will save the County Board from the embarrassment of having to defy the LESA rating. At least one Waverly resident involved believes it will also have an impact on the lawsuit brought against the county to stop the plant.

The measure passed. Conditional-use permits can now be issued to ethanol producers on agricultural lands in that county.

Similar zoning rule changes are being fought not only in Illinois, but also Minnesota and Indiana. Iowa, apparently, already allows fuel ethanol under its ag business (A-2) zoning designation, which perhaps helps explain the state’s early and continuing dominance of this industry.

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*Lack of crop rotation is widely viewed as abuse of the soil. Crop rotation helps to control plant diseases and pests and to ensure that nutrients aren’t exhausted. Without techniques like rotation, many more chemicals are required to keep the soil and crop alive. Search this link for articles on how small scale, sustainable organic farming can lead to yields comparable to those of huge factory farms, but without negative impacts to the environment.

**Go here to link to descriptions of wet-mill and dry-mill ethanol processes. Wet-mill processing is what the big corporate producers like ADM do. It takes more capital to start up, but yields more co-products (corn oil, sweeteners, etc.) than dry milling does.