Recognizing the complexity of biofuels issues

By Bill Kovarik and Scott Sklar

At a time when the need for public understanding of environmental science and energy technology issues has never been greater, the debate over biofuels illustrates a serious problem.

Because the issues are extraordinarily complex, participants in the debate often resort to misleading oversimplifications even when their concerns are quite legitimate.

C. Ford Runge’s Yale360 article, “The Case Against Biofuels”  illustrates the point.

For instance, Prof. Runge argues that biofuels require massive federal subsidies. A less polemical and more helpful approach would include a comparison of all subsidies received by energy industries. The Environmental Law Institute reported in Sept. 2009 that ethanol received some $16.8 billion in subsidies over the 2002-2008 period, while the oil industry received $72 billion over the same period. Not surprisingly, the gap between federal subsidies for traditional energy industries (coal, oil and nuclear) and federal subsidies for renewable energy industries (biofuel, wind and solar) increases with historic perspective.  (1)

The point is also made that biofuels drive up food costs, contributing to famine in the developing world. Cartoonists like to depict this “food or fuel” debate with a fat American fueling up his SUV with the same food that a starving child could have used.

Again, the concern is legitimate but the issues are extraordinarily complex. Ethanol’s actual contribution to food costs, according to an April 2009 Congressional Budget Office report, was between 0.5 to 0.8 percent, compared to an overall food price increase of 5.1 percent in 2006-2007. Other factors, including the rising cost of petroleum, were far more significant.  And the 2009 decline in corn prices, given the continued increase in biofuels production, argues against Runge’s simplistic conclusion. (2)

The cartoon version of the food or fuel debate is based on the faulty premise that corn is being diverted from human food to ethanol. In fact, nearly all US corn production goes to livestock feed. Most of this corn is sent through grain mills that separate starch, oils, proteins and other components. If the starch is not used for high fructose corn syrup, it is often used for ethanol or other products. In any case, the protein goes on to feed the livestock and has little if any impact on world food supplies.

Yet there are very serious concerns in the food or fuel debate, as policy analysts like Lester Brown have pointed out for decades. One is that competition from energy industries can displace crop land and farm infrastructure in developing nations. This is a component of a larger international concern having to do with an imbalance between export crops, staple foods production, and surplus US grain shipments that tend to undermine local agriculture and make countries more dependent on the US.

In 2007, it was widely reported that Dr. Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, said that using agricultural lands to produce biofuels as a “crime against humanity.” Yet it was not widely reported that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization responded to Ziegler by saying that other issues are more significant in driving food insecurity, including lack of rural development, infrastructure, energy cost, and fair trade standards for agricultural products.

“Biofuels present both opportunities and risks,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf. “Current policies tend to favor producers in some developed countries over producers in most developing countries. The challenge is to reduce or manage the risks while sharing the opportunities more widely.”

Yet another very serious concern involving the management of risks involves potential loss of biodiversity with the expansion of biofuels production into tropical rainforests. Again, the issues are complex. Most of the loss of tropical rain forests is associated with timber and livestock production for export. For example, in Brazil, sugar cane is the ethanol feedstock, and thin Amazonian soils do not support sugar cane production. Yet soybean production for food use, and some biodiesel use, is in fact cutting deeply into the Amazon rain forest, and sugar cane is expanding into coastal bio-reserves of Brazil.

The policy question is how to apply international standards (or certification) to the biofuels trade in order to penalize production that leads to higher carbon footprint or loss of biodiversity.  The conflict between the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariff and the European Renewable Energy Directive is an example of the difficulty in this debate.  While the GATT would have all nations treat all products equally, regardless of production methods, Europe’s RED does discriminate against biofuels production methods that increase carbon footprint. Are environmental standards a form of  protectionism? Or are they necessary to ensure that the destructive potential for renewable fuels can be curbed?  This only scratches the surface of the biofuels certification debate.

Still another concern has to do with the carbon footprint or energy balance of biofuels, especially corn ethanol.

Prof. David Pimentel and others have argued that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than the energy contains. There are several problems with that argument. For one, Pimentel omits the energy value of the protein-rich distillers grains in calculating energy balance.  Agricultural economists, such as Prof. Bruce Dale, note that only one-sixth of the energy cost of growing corn involves imported liquid fuel; the rest is in fertilizer or pesticides made with domestic natural gas.  And Hosein Shapouri of USDA, argues that when all inputs are added, the energy benefit of ethanol is 34% over and above energy inputs. Its is not negative, according to USDA and most other studies, despite Pimentel and other critics views.

True, USDA’s 34% is not necessarily a great result, but it is important to remember that the main reason we use corn ethanol is not to reduce dependence on foreign oil or reduce carbon emissions. Rather, the historical reason for the rise of the corn ethanol industry in the 1980s and 1990s involved replacement of other, far more dangerous octane boosters in gasoline. Among these were the neurotoxin tetra-ethyl lead (phased out in the 1980s) and carcinogens like benzene, toluene and xylene.  The oil industry used a non-agricultural octane booster called MTBE until it was banned as a serious water pollution threat. Billions in MTBE cleanup costs are now pending, and ethanol production from corn soared because it was one of the few octane-boosting options remaining.

It would seem, then, that taking 10 percent ethanol out of the US fuel mix would mean a far higher exposure to “air toxics,” a point which is often lost in discussions about modeling studies of ethanol’s evaporative emissions, such as one performed by Prof. Mark Jacobson in 2007. Jacobson’s conclusion that ethanol use increases air pollution has been widely repeated, but without a broader cost-benefit discussion, including all forms of air pollution, the conclusion has limited policy implications at best.

Critics also point out that the corn ethanol industry is currently dependent on a highly carbon-intensive agricultural system.   Farmers are well aware of the problems, and changes are taking place in agriculture in ways that have very little to do with ethanol, which is, after all, only a very small component of that very large system. Overall, fertilizer and pesticide use is dramatically declining, as a November 2009 USGS corn belt stream survey confirms. Farmers are switching to cheaper, more biologically based, less fossil intensive methods. (3)

Critics rightly note that the ethanol industry has had its own air and water pollution problems which are only beginning to be addressed.  And the industry has been astonishingly deaf to criticism, content to fight a “treetops” campaign in Washington for its subsidy but not really explaining the complexities of its issues to the public.

As a result, many people have concluded that the case against biofuels has been proven. We couldn’t disagree more.

There is great danger in simply killing off the emerging biofuels industry and leaving the future fuel problem entirely in the hands of the oil industry, which has never been particularly interested in putting environment or national security ahead of its own profits.

The Obama administration’s move to stimulate non-food ethanol through cellulosic biofuels and research on third generation biofuels has risks, true, but the policy is meant to cap the amount of corn ethanol and move into far more environmentally benign forms of biofuels production. Whether that can happen remains to be seen, but at least the policy direction is a generally positive one.

At the very least, the biofuels debate should be seen as one of many complex science and technology issues that we oversimplify at our peril.

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