The Unicorn and the Fairy: Corn declares war on cellulose

August 26, 2011 |

The National Corn Growers Association declares War on cellulosic biofuels, calling them “non-existent”, then mysteriously removes the blog post. What gives?

Ten days ago, Cathryn Wojciki, communications manager for the National Corn Growers Association, wrote a blog post in which she tossed the cellulosic biofuels industry under a bus.

Referring to cellulosic biofuels targets in the Renewable Fuel Standard, she wrote: “Much as parents may tell stories about unicorns and fairies, some players in the ethanol and environmental industries pushed a product which they were not prepared to deliver. In both scenarios, optimism created a beautiful vision of a world that does not exist.”

Earlier this week, an astute OPIS journalist, Rachel Gantz, picked up the story and reported “With commercially available cellulosic ethanol ‘non-existent,’ EPA’s current mandates for the fuel are “an impossible demand” and the agency should readjust its focus back to corn-based ethanol, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) wrote in a recent blog post.”

On Wednesday evening, the Digest wrote to NCGA president Rick Tolman for some explanatory comment. The NCGA did not offer a comment, but yesterday the NCGA pulled the blog post, without further explantation.

Like a unicorn or fairy itself, the NCGA appears to have taken the view that the story never happened. A change of heart, or sheer embarrassment – we are not quite sure.

The Unicorn and the Fairy: the original NCGA post

Here it is, pilgrims, the post that was so controversial that the NCGA took it down.  You can view it via Google’s cache, or click here to download a screenshot.

Unicorns and Fairies: a Digest Fable

Unicorns and fairies. That’s an image that will stay with biofuels leaders for a long time.

Unicorn: You didn’t like my blog post about George Washington.
Fairy: (heard it before) Remind me.
Unicorn: Where he says “we had better hang together, or we shall certainly hang separately.”
Fairy: I like mine better.
Unicorn: How does it go?
Fairy: Once upon a time, there was a little piggie, and he built a house with walls made of corn.
Unicorn: Is that really an ideal material? What did he eat?
Fairy: Apparently, he had extra. Something about price supports, it’s hard to follow. So, when he got tired, his friends helped him. And then his friends said, “Why don’t you add some straw? It will make the walls stronger.
Unicorn: Not to mention more eco-friendly.
A Large Vulture: (stopping by) Could you direct me towards the Renewable Fuel Standard?
Unicorn: First left, head for the shining city on a hill. Past the front door, a Little Dutch Boy is trying to pull a paper out of the document shredder. That’s the RFS.
Large Vulture: (grins) Little Dutch Boy, eh?
Unicorn: Poor kid, been there for days without food or water.
Large Vulture: Ah, I see. Very good. (flies away)
Unicorn: (Turns to the fairy) You were saying.
Fairy: Yes. So the piggie said to everyone, “No straw! Corn, corn, corn and corn!” Like a crazy guy.
Unicorn: And then the Big Bad Wolf came.
Fairy: Drove right down there in his Prius. And he huffingtoned, and he puffingtoned, and he blew  the house down.
Unicorn: Weak walls.
Fairy: Yep.
Unicorn: And the piggie?
Fairy: Well, let’s just say the wolf had bacon for supper, all summer long.

On the record

For the record, comments came in from groups like BIO and the Advanced Ethanol Council.

“Obviously, NCGA is trying to point out that corn ethanol is mature technology today that can stand on its own feet and continue to grow, while offering environmental benefits here and now,” commented BIO EVP Brent Erickson. ” But by disparaging advanced biofuels, they are hurting the entire biofuels industry, creating uncertainty for investors, and playing into the hands of recalcitrant incumbents within the fuel industry whose goal is to undermine the RFS.

“While the national economic downturn slowed advanced biofuel commercialization efforts as capital dried up, the science involved in producing advanced biofuels has advanced tremendously,” Erickson added. “The USDA and DOE are moving forward with loan guarantees, and the DOD has outlined a program that can help build pioneer biorefineries, if funded.

“I firmly believe the aphorism “united we stand, divided we fall.” It is clear that the RFS is about to come under attack from all sides. That is unfortunate. The RFS is the bedrock policy foundation for both advanced and conventional biofuels. This kind of statement sends the wrong signal to policy makers. BIO will continue to work for maintenance of the RFS as the stable, long-term policy necessary for continued progress for all biofuels.

A similar theme was echoed by Brooke Coleman, Executive Director of the Advanced Ethanol Council.  “The blog posted by the National Corn Growers Association is inaccurate and does little to advance the public discourse about cellulosic ethanol,” he commented. ” With the consequences of foreign oil dependence getting worse by the day, now is not the time to take our eye off the ball. The advanced ethanol industry is emerging, even in an extremely difficult economic climate.

“The Advanced Ethanol Council appreciates that the NCGA stood publicly with the advanced and cellulosic industry in support of extending tax incentives for advanced ethanol during the VEETC discussions this summer,” Coleman added, ” and has reinforced its commitment to the industry in recent days. The AEC looks forward to working collaboratively with groups dedicated to promoting forward-looking biofuel policies that create American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

The Renewable Fuel Standard: Will it stand or fall?

The point of the post? Observers expect that the goal of the corn growers is to re-open the RFS, and expand the allotment for corn ethanol. Why now? With the VEETC tax credit expiring at the end of the year, industry veterans tell the Digest that an expected reduction in ethanol demand (that comes with the price increases that VEETC’s expiration is expected to bring), may expose the industry to overcapacity problems, and cause a collapse in ethanol prices. In turn, that would ultimately rattle corn prices. Adding more mandated demand for corn ethanol would shore up prices, goes the theory.

There is a lot of support growing for penning up the Renewable Fuel Standard. The algal biofuels industry would like to see it re-opened to make the standard more fuel and feedstock neutral. Observers tell us that the American Petroleum Institute would like to see it re-opened and have the entire advanced biofuels pool removed.

A Late Addendum

After our original post, Rick Tolman’s staff at the NCGA sent the following through.

By Rick Tolman, NCGA Chief Executive Officer

Blog posts by definition are meant to be “edgy” and create and stimulate discussion and, to some degree, controversy. Bloggers are generally given a lot of latitude to do that. The National Corn Growers Association blog and our bloggers are no exception. A recent NCGA blog posting has created some misunderstanding about where NCGA stands on cellulosic biofuels and the Renewable Fuel Standard. Let me set the record straight and be clear about where we stand.

NCGA is a strong and firm supporter of the Renewable Fuel Standard. We support policies that expand the use of domestic energy such as renewable fuels. It is our policy that ethanol derived from materials other than corn starch, such as switchgrass, wood chips, corn stalks and corn fiber, etc., can be complementary to ethanol derived from corn.

We support the cellulosic ethanol industry. We believe that it can and must be expanded. We have been tireless in our efforts to expand infrastructure and support policies that will help expand the demand for ethanol and other biofuels.

We support the current requirements in the RFS2. We support second- and third-generation technologies and believe that these will be built on multiple feedstocks, including corn starch, corn stover and other forms of biomass and cellulose.

And finally, let the record be clear. It is our policy to work with all partners in the ethanol industry to create a unified strategy to expand ethanol usage and production.

The Digest’s Take

The Digest is qualified, as a blog, to comment directly on what blogs are, or are not. We reject the idea that blogs are, by definition, meant to be edgy and to create controversy. They are some times used in that way by irresponsible people and groups.

We certainly accept Rick Tolman’s clarification on NCGA policy. But we point out that there is a vast gulf between “some players in the ethanol and environmental industries pushed a product which they were not prepared to deliver” and “We support the current requirements in the RFS2”. We believe that the NCGA has lost institution control of its communications.

After all, this is not correcting a spelling error, or a thought written in the heat of the moment and quickly regretted. It stood for nine days on the internet, and went viral on Twitter. Isn’t anyone in management reading the NCGA blog? If it was good enough to delete in day 10, it was good enough to delete the day it was written, or simply not be published in the first place. The stakes are high, and characterizing allies with disdain is bad for industry, and for the movement it represents. CEO Tolman could give some deep thought to cleaning house.

Note to readers. We lost a couple of paragraphs here earlier this morning due to a WordPress malfunction, so we have restored the conclusion of this story as close as possible to the original. And we thank the readers who responded with comments – both happy and unhappy – and have tried to incorporate several suggestions into the flow.

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Category: Fuels

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