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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.

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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.

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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.