Is hemp the newest threat against the ethanol mandate?

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2018

Already under siege from the petroleum industry, advocates for corn-based ethanol may soon face a threat from an unexpected corner: hempsters.

Fans of industrial hemp say the cousin of marijuana would make an environmentally friendly alternative to corn for ethanol production, if only federal regulations that treat the plant like its controversial relative would be relaxed.

They received a boost recently when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced legislation to remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, ending what Wyden called an “outrageous anti-hemp, anti-farmer and anti-jobs stigma” to the plant, which doesn’t share marijuana’s levels of the drug THC.

The legislation (S. 2667) comes on top of a measure McConnell championed in the 2014 farm bill to allow hemp to be grown for research purposes. Kentucky is a leading state for such projects.

“By legalizing hemp and empowering states to conduct their own oversight plans, we can give the hemp industry the tools necessary to create jobs and new opportunities for farmers and manufacturers around the country,” McConnell said in a news release.

Hemp supporters, including the California-based Hemp Industries Association, have been pressing lawmakers for years, pointing to the plant’s value in items ranging from rope to clothing to biofuel. A group called Rethink Ethanol, which opposes the renewable fuel standard, added its voice recently.

“Hemp is friendlier to the soil and water. It needs less chemicals. All of that would be good from an environmental perspective,” said Jerry Jung, the group’s founder. “It would easier for the farmer to grow.”

The hemp plant can be used in two ways for biofuel. Seeds are pressed, and the oil used for biodiesel, producing about four times as much oil as soybeans, according to a research paperfrom the University of Gävle in Sweden. The stalks can be broken down for use in ethanol.

The main roadblock has been the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has stood firmly in favor of keeping hemp, as well as marijuana, on the list of controlled substances. Farmers haven’t been allowed to grow it since the 1930s.

Earlier this year, the Hemp Industries Association sued DEA after the agency classified hemp and its extracts as a Schedule I drug. Wyden, along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Tom Massie (R-Ky.), filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

More than 90 percent of ethanol produced in the U.S. comes from corn, according to the Department of Agriculture. Around 34 percent of corn grown in the country goes to that purpose, USDA said, a percentage that’s grown as a result of the RFS, first enacted in 2005 and updated two years later.

Corn is attractive for ethanol because of the sugar in its kernels, which is easy to convert to biofuel, Jung said. The process is harder with cellulosic sources such as hemp and hasn’t made economic sense on a big scale, yet, he said.

“It’s doable, it’s just not economically feasible right now,” said Jung, who sees the potential growing in the next five years. “I don’t think it would take decades.”

Hemp supporters say they hope to use an upcoming event, Hemp History Week, from June 4-10, to highlight the plant’s virtues.

McConnell and Wyden’s legislation would allow states and American Indian reservations to regulate hemp within their borders. It would also provide for research funding through USDA and open the federal crop insurance program to hemp.