Obama announced strategic biofuels roadmap

But questions remain about counting lifecyle emissions from and indirect land use

Guest blogger Jake Caldwell is the Director for Agriculture, Trade and Energy Policy at American Progress.

The United States must reduce our dependence on oil — one fifth of which comes from nations that are “dangerous or unstable” for travelers according to the State Department. Surface transportation is responsible for 65 percent of our oil use, so using less in cars and trucks provides the biggest opportunity for reductions. There are a number of important measures to reduce oil use, including significantly more efficient fuel economy standards, investments in public transportation and high speed rail, and the production and use of alternative fuels, including natural gas and advanced biofuels. Each of these steps can increase energy independence by reducing oil use by millions of barrels.

Advanced, cellulosic biofuels — made from agricultural waste, wood chips, or low input crops such as switchgrass — hold great promise to reduce oil use and greenhouse gas pollution. Advanced biofuels that deliver measurable life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, minimize the use of food based feedstocks and, minimize public health and environmental impacts should be encouraged. But, in order to capture the promise of advanced biofuels, we must also make the short term investments in the infrastructure for the current generation of biofuels.

On Wednesday, President Obama announced three key initiatives to build this infrastructure so that we can increase biofuel production, improve nationwide efforts in the development of biofuels, and lessen our dependence on oil.

The newly-released Renewable Fuel Standard  (RFS) implements a mandate imposed by Congress and requires biofuels production to grow from 11.1 billion gallons in 2009 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. Significantly, 21 billion gallons of this total must come from advanced biofuels.

The Administration also announced a more comprehensive approach to the Biomass Crop Assistance Program that will allow farmers to earn income from growing switchgrass and other advanced biofuel feedstocks, and an overall strategic biofuels roadmap that ensures the efforts of several federal agencies are better coordinated as we build a low carbon fuel future.

In combination with an economy-wide price on carbon pollution, the RFS announced this week will act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinforce a predictable price signal that will drive innovation and investment to produce cleaner fuels, create jobs, and deliver more renewable energy in the transportation sector.

The new RFS will help diversify our energy needs, and create a greater role for the next generation of advanced biofuels, while providing a critical bridge to the current generation of biofuels.

The RFS is a step toward rewarding the performance characteristics of biofuels””those produced in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with the gasoline they displace””and not simply a standard based on the sheer volume of production levels.

The next generation of biofuels that are potentially part of the solution include cellulosic ethanol””which is less energy-intensive and can be made from agricultural plants and waste””or dedicated crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus, or even non-crops such as algae (if carbon pollution from production can be reduced). Another key source for biofuels with low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions is municipal waste, which is largely disposed of today.

Significantly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in issuing the RFS recognizes that the science and methodologies used in the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions and indirect land use (wherein the potential effect of biofuel production in the United States on land use in other countries, such as increased crop growth overseas to compensate for U.S. biofuel production, is taken into account) evaluation process are evolving and will require constant improvement and updating as more information on the greenhouse gas emissions of various fuels and feedstocks becomes available.

Legitimate concerns regarding the need for more scientific data to constantly inform the life-cycle greenhouse gas analysis have been expressed by the existing biofuels industry and must be taken into account. EPA has indicated its commitment to incorporating the latest scientific data from the National Academies of Science while performing constant reviews and updates of the standards. They should be held to this commitment. At the same time, measuring the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from all biofuels is a critical component of ensuring a better transportation fuel future and must be encouraged.

The biofuels announcements issued this week are a significant step forward. In the short term, the United States must build on the goals and performance incentives of the Renewable Fuel Standard, seek to reward more farmers for their contributions to lessening our dependence on oil through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, and strive to produce advanced biofuels that deliver measurable lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions and adhere to environmental safeguards. The biofuels initiatives announced this week represent progress in the right direction.

22 Responses to Obama announced strategic biofuels roadmap

  1. TomG says:

    Joe, have you heard of Coskata?
    They claimed to have the cellulosic ethanol process perfected and they have a small plant up and running.
    From what I understand all they needed was investment capital.
    I don’t know how they are making out, but it sure sounds promising.
    I believe they’re at:

    [JR: I haven’t. I don’t usually comment on individual companies, unless they have a truly unique advance.]

  2. Wit's End says:

    Mr. Caldwell, can you please direct me to any sources for data on the content of emissions from biofuels? I would also appreciate any information about who might be monitoring nitrogen deposition from migrating fertilizer.

    The article you have written mentions monitoring the life-cycle impacts of growing and distributing but I see no reference to the actual emissions. This study from Stanford indicates that in the case of ethanol, the damage to human and vegetative health is actually more significant than emissions from fossil fuels because it produces more ozone precursors:

  3. CP says:

    Wit’s End
    That’s an interesting study, but in determining the rule making, EPA had to consider GHGs, and not ozone. You also must consider that this is a new study, and the EPA’s comment period took place over summer and ended the last day of September, so the study would not have been considered at all. Also, I didn’t read anything in the study you posted that indicates damage to human and vegetative health IS ACTUALLY MORE significant THAN emission from fossil fuels. Just that E85 results in small increases in ozone, and the effects vary depending on where you live. That is, the Stanford study indicates that in the case of ethanol, an up-tick in ozone emission is probable, but it says nothing as to weather it’s enough to be a concern, nor does it really compare that to the benefit of reducing other GHGs. But if that is the case, it should certainly be considered.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    I suggest the biofuel be food, eaten by you to propel your bicycle.

    Or just walk.

  5. Wit's End says:

    CP, thanks for your response. However, I didn’t really mean to direct my question towards the rationale behind the EPA ruling (although, this earlier Stanford study, which reaches similar conclusions, is from 2006:
    and it states:

    “Laboratory data and the first three-dimensional computer model simulations on the subject suggest that E85 fuel (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) will increase atmospheric levels of ozone and peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN), leading indicators of photochemical smog, in the Los Angeles basin, the most polluted airshed in the U.S.”

    Since ozone and smog are well-documented to be destructive towards human and vegetative health, any increase will obviously mean that there will be an actual increase in such damage over fossil fuels. I suppose whether you consider that significant would depend on if it is your child that gets debilitating asthma, or somebody else’s.)

    Another question is, if biofuels are going to increase – or even just replicate – the harm to health, why would the government subsidize producing them versus truly green energy, like wind, solar, geothermal, or bicycles?

    But to get back to my original question, and I would really love an answer because I have been searching to no avail, and you obviously are much better versed in this subject than I –

    Is anyone monitoring emissions from biofuels? Is there any data on what the emissions are, where they originate, where they travel to, how they fall back to the earth? Is anyone researching the impacts of the emissions on human or vegetative health? And what of the nitrogen based fertilizers to raise ethanol? What impact does that have on the ecosystem?

    Thanks again,

  6. boycott Joe says:

    Biofuels is a crazy notion. Unless you hate people and want to spread starvation. Marxism is loaded with wild notions.

    Stupid people don’t know it takes more fossil fuel to create bio fuels than the btu’s provided by the bio fuels.

    Need to keep city idiots away from the food chain.

    These notions call for devastationg farming practices.

  7. John Kazer says:

    You might find this UK website of interest. It contains the latest report from our scheme which monitors and regulates biofuels.

    Typically a life cycle analysis will take into account the fertiliser (including manufacturing and effects once applied to soil, such as N2O emissions). This is a major reason that many current sources of biofuel are not really any better than fossil fuels.

    However, as the RTFO report shows there are some sources which are worth pursuing, and newer technology will improve the situation (e.g. new plant breeds, gasification etc.).

    The energy security issue is sort-of similar to food security but it must be remembered that most countries who are planning on increasing biofuel production already eat too much.

    I would rather import food from an unstable country and help it develop economically than import oil, which often has unfortunate economic side effects (e.g. Nigeria, Venezuala etc.).

  8. TomG says:

    Eat a lot of straw boycott?
    I suggest you read up a bit on cellulosic ethanol.
    Your lack of knowledge is showing.

  9. Wit's End says:

    John Kazer, thanks for that link. I haven’t read every single word in the report, but searching in the relevant sections I can’t find any reference to biofuel emissions. There is consideration of nitrogen from fertilizers, but basically it says that ways must be found to monitor, because it contributes a potent greenhouse gas that increases global warming – but nothing about direct impacts on ecosystems.

    There is also a section about Brazil, but there too the only reference to impacts on health is the smoke from burning sugar cane to create fuel, not anything about the impacts from fuel emissions themselves.

    If I’m missing something please let me know. Meanwhile, I’m still hoping for any answers to questions in comment #5!

  10. John Kazer says:

    There is some work on the impact of chemicals and climate change on ecosystems (LCA in the broad sense often does this), but it’s very hard to actually quantify the effect (e.g. you can say that activity X creates Y chemicals but not what impact Y will have on reduced biodiversity).

    In terms of health, I think the results of burning biofuels are at worst equal to burning fossil fuels (after all, the chemicals are much the same) and are often better. There is some evidence that ethanol is better at converting stored energy into usable energy than gasoline – Lotus have used it quite a bit in racing cars for this reason.

    Diesel fuel burns more efficiently than gasoline and so may be considered better in terms of it’s impacts on climate change – but produces more local emissions (particulates, NOx etc.). Is anyone able to trade these 2 effects off against each other? Not really…

    So there are 2 parts to your question – do new fuels produce different/more pollutants than the old ones and if so what are the relative impacts of those pollutants? The first part is still being researched and the second part may be impossible to resolve except by deciding which environmental issues we must fix vs those we should fix.

  11. Wit's End says:

    Oh, I think they CAN resolve what the effects on the ecosystem are and will be, (see this video from National Geographic they just, for the most part, don’t WANT to.

    There appears to be a concerted effort by government to rush to biofuels for political reasons, to keep the engines running basically, which is utterly heedless of the long-term effects. The Environmental Prostitution Agency is nothing but a front for an industry interested solely in profits, they are not looking out for the health of people, animals, or the biosphere:

  12. James Newberry says:

    Food and farming as “petroenergy.” Pure environmentally, fiscally and global population threatening, disasterous corruption for the benefit of global corporatists (locally known as most of the ag lobby), in my opinion.

  13. John Kazer says:

    Well, indirect land use change as described in your 2nd link in #11 involves 2 issues.

    1. It is a valid technique to ignore indirect land use change. The land use change caused by a crop displaced by biofuels should be attributed to that displaced crop, not the biofuel crop (otherwise it gets hopelessly confusing – how on earth do you find this out?!).

    2. It is direct land use change that should be avoided, regardless of who does it.

    When I said that you can’t necessarily trade ecosystems off against one another, I was referring to examples when the relative impact of a chemical is not know or they are affecting different things (e.g. human health vs greenhouse gasses).

    The methodology that the UK report uses (which I linked to in #7) does include *direct* land use change but doesn’t currently require reporting of it. However, the report has done the work for the biofuel companies and provides this data for comparison.

  14. John Kazer says:

    Although re-reading the article in #11, the EPA just adjusted how they deal with indirect land use change – it’s still there as a factor.

    As I said, I think calculating it will be very hard in practise.

    What you really have is a fight between biofuel producers in the US and folk who import produce from (e.g.) Brazil. Because of indirect land use change, the environmental impact of their Brazilian products may increase.

  15. John Kazer says:

    Another way of looking at the problem is to consider the diet of Western countries. We eat too many calories as it is, so maybe we should reduce our consumption to match the productive land lost to biofuels?

  16. Wit's End says:

    John Kazer, the reason I put the link to the story about the EPA is not so much their manipulation of accounting for biofuel production impacts on food crops, but rather to illustrate just how assiduously government agencies leave the impacts of biofuel emissions completely out of the discussion. It’s as though there aren’t any.

    In an earlier remark #10, you said “…do new fuels produce different/more pollutants than the old ones and if so what are the relative impacts of those pollutants? The first part is still being researched…”

    By WHOM? Who is researching that? The only research I can find are the two studies I linked to way at the top of this thread, from Stanford.

    I’m not trying to be difficult or argumentative, and I appreciate your taking up this discussion, especially since the author of this column has responded to my questions in #5 with a deafening silence, so far. I just really, really want to know who is studying exactly what you described – do new fuels produce different/more pollutants than the old one?

    The Stanford studies both said, the answer is YES.

  17. CP says:

    Wit’s End
    To answer your question, yes people are researching emissions from biofuels. A whole lot of people. In fact if you had actually read up, you’d have known that the whole basis of qualifying for this program revolves around emissions scores. Just because they didn’t count the ozone in the scoring doesn’t mean they aren’t tracking emissions. There were months of discussions with the EPA, with comments coming from lots of scientist about how to score these emissions. Specifically with corn, they found that when produced in modern efficient methods, the fuel provides a 20% GHG reduction. Are people researching other emissions? Well Stanford obvisoul is, so I’m assuming others are. I mean, the whole point of this process was so the government could make sure it got enough science that it could make a decision with. Emission were not left out of the discussion. They were the discussion. And he corn lobby won, but they only won by showing that corn ethanol can have a 20%GHG reduction if produced the correct way.

  18. All this is an excellent discussion of proposals that try to solve one problem by making another worse.

    Everyone is seeking ways to push economic vitality in ways that may reduce emissions — but notions that cause damage in other ways are very short-sighted and seem contrary to the agency directives.

    The EPA needs to act with a ruthlessly adhere to it mission

    “The mission of EPA is to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment — air, water and land — upon which life depends.

    EPA’s purpose is to ensure that:

    * all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work;
    * national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information;
    * federal laws protecting human health and the environment are enforced fairly and effectively;
    * environmental protection is an integral consideration in U.S. policies concerning natural resources, human health, economic growth, energy, transportation, agriculture, industry, and international trade, and these factors are similarly considered in establishing environmental policy;
    * all parts of society — communities, individuals, businesses, and state, local and tribal governments — have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks;
    * environmental protection contributes to making our communities and ecosystems diverse, sustainable and economically productive; and
    * the United States plays a leadership role in working with other nations to protect the global environment.

  19. Specifically, I cannot understand why the EPA is mandated by the RFS to:

    “drive innovation and investment to produce cleaner fuels, create jobs, and deliver more renewable energy in the transportation sector.”

    Those goals are laudable, but those are secondary and outside of the EPA mission. Those are economic stimulus acts, not science based needs to protect.

    Clearly the EPA is totally gun shy about suppressing, curtailing or halting blatantly harmful emissions. This is double-talk.

  20. Wit's End says:

    CP, I am glad to hear that “lots of people” are researching the emissions from burning ethanol. I have had no luck finding them, but that of course could be because I don’t know where to look.

    Can you name one or more people doing such research, or direct me to any links to their work?

    At the risk of sounding deliberately obtuse, I honestly can’t tell if you are answering my question or a different one. Are the emissions from BURNING ethanol responsible for that 20% GHG reduction calculation, or just a portion, or not included at all?

  21. fj2 says:

    Concur with Lester Brown’s strong advocacy against bio fuels:

    1. Has dramatically raised the global price of food increasing starvation rates without really effectively lowering the cost of fuel since the price of food depends on the cost of fuel.

    2. The amount of grain to produce the ethanol necessary to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank feeds a person for one year.

    3. It takes space away from farming especially, urban farming; where local farming will provide large cost, energy, and green house gas reductions.

    4. There should be a rapid reduction in dependence on the use of cars where bicycles and vehicles of similar size and weight use less than 1% of natural resources; even a senior designer from GM has indicated that automobiles do not fit in the future when considering resource and space requirements and the industrialization of India and China.

  22. John Kazer says:

    Wit’s End #20, yes, the method of life cycle analysis includes the emissions from burning biofuels compared to burning fossil fuels. The 20% reduction therefore covers the production and burning of both types of fuel.