Throwing (bio)fuel on the fire

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The debate over the relative merits of plant-based biofuels is not likely to end anytime soon, as evidenced by a report last week from the National Research Council.  

Congress requested the report, which is titled “Renewable Fuel Standard: Potential Economic and Environmental Effects of U.S. Biofuel Policy.” The report’s authors conclude it is unlikely the United States will achieve several of the goals specified in the current Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) by 2022 without significant advancements in technology and revised policy. And that’s not all. The report also raises serious questions about the environmental and economic benefits of biofuel development.

Shortly after the report appeared though, critics including biofuel industry groups, the 25x ’25 Alliance and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack challenged the report’s validity and questioned its conclusions.

Major findings in the report include:

  • Absent major technological innovation or policy changes, the RFS2-mandated consumption of 16 billion gallons of ethanol-equivalent cellulosic biofuels is unlikely to be met in 2022.
  • Only in an economic environment characterized by high oil prices, technological breakthroughs, and a high implicit or actual carbon price would biofuels be cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels.
  • RFS2 may be an ineffective policy for reducing global GHG emissions because the effect of biofuels on GHG emissions depends on how the biofuels are produced and what land-use or land-cover changes occur in the process.
  • Absent major increases in agricultural yields and improvement in the efficiency of converting biomass to fuels, additional cropland will be required for cellulosic feedstock production; thus, implementation of RFS2 is expected to create competition among different land uses, raise cropland prices, and increase the cost of food and feed production.
  • Food-based biofuel is one of many factors that contributed to upward price pressure on agricultural commodities, food, and livestock feed since 2007; other factors affecting those prices included growing population overseas, crop failures in other countries, high oil prices, decline in the value of the U.S. dollar, and speculative activity in the marketplace.
  • Achieving RFS2 would increase the federal budget outlays mostly as a result of increased spending on payments, grants, loans, and loan guarantees to support the development of cellulosic biofuels and forgone revenue as a result of biofuel tax credits.
  • The environmental effects of increasing biofuels production largely depend on feedstock type, site-specific factors (such as soil and climate), management practices used in feedstock production, land condition prior to feedstock production, and conversion yield. Some effects are local and others are regional or global. A systems approach that considers various environmental effects simultaneously and across spatial and temporal scales is necessary to provide an assessment of the overall environmental outcome of increasing biofuels production.
  • Key barriers to achieving RFS2 are the high cost of producing cellulosic biofuels compared to petroleum-based fuels and uncertainties in future biofuel markets.

A news release from the 25x  ’25 Alliance challenges these conclusions. The 25x'25 Alliance states its vision thusly: “By 2025, America's farms, forests and ranches will provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States, while continuing to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed and fiber.”

The group quotes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack saying the report bases its conclusions "on information that's not as accurate as it once was." Even the NRC study co-chairs acknowledge in the preface that, "our clearest conclusion is that there is very high uncertainty in the impacts we were trying to estimate."

The alliance release also cites Dr. Virginia Dale, the director of the Center for BioEnergy Sustainability at U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and one of 16 experts on the NRC committee that crafted the report. Dale acknowledges that the RFS study represented a compromise among the largely academic committee members, including her. But she also says there is a paucity of data on the subject, requiring the committee members to largely base their report on model projections. Dale goes on to point out that with any scientific process, it is difficult to reach a conclusion when the data are inadequate, some models are applied at scales inappropriate to the situation or  key processes are not included in the theories. All of these limitations, she says, are applicable to current analyses of the effects of biofuels.

The 25x'25 Alliance concurs with Dr. Dale's assertion that biofuels represent a complicated issue, but that today's biofuel ventures must be willing to take the risks inherent in a new industry, despite many uncertainties and constraints. The eventual success of private enterprises for feedstock production, transport, conversion, delivery and use of biofuels, she says, depends on "contextual socioeconomic and environmental conditions."
Read a summary or the entire report from the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the 25x ’25 release questioning the report’s conclusions.

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Texas  |  October, 10, 2011 at 02:47 PM

I've heard that if all the biomass was turned inito fuel, it would only provide 20% of what we consume. Farm animals need reliable energy sources and farmers and ranchers need cheap and abundant energy sources. Liquid petroleum is more versatile and available and reliable than biofuels. is

Kentucky  |  October, 10, 2011 at 04:50 PM

A friend once commented on the whole bio/ethanol/alternative fuel debate (this is not sticking up for petro based fuels just a comment on practical matters) that Henry Ford designed his first vehicles to run on alcohol but how many cars are using it today and "I can buy whiskey cheaper than I can make it"

Roger Herman    
Barnesville MN  |  October, 10, 2011 at 06:24 PM

Has any one included the lives lost and billions of war dollars spent protecting foreign oil production and needed suppl that have been expendind in the last twenty-five years are the amount of fuel it takes to refine and transport those products. By using closer byproducts I have been able to reduce my feed costs.

Tony N    
Wickenburg AZ  |  October, 11, 2011 at 07:08 AM

This is why we cannot use food for fuel , 20 Signs That A Horrific Global Food Crisis Is Coming . Please take a Look at the Dow Chart, , and please take a look at this Grain Yield chart, , that shows the rise in Yields over the same time as the Dow rise , and you will see the comparison in capital expansion and supply-side economic growth , notice the Charts similarity over the last 10 years and then you will see why we are not seeing a sustainable equity growth by a willing group of private finance Long Term debt funding agencies any more CORN RESERVES: The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the nation's corn reserve is at its lowest level in more than 15 years,0,577364.story

Tony N    
Wickenburg AZ  |  October, 11, 2011 at 07:11 AM

we need to consider the information below when we consider food for fuel . This is why Bio Algae makes great sense in growing facilities like lhis ,

NY  |  October, 13, 2011 at 03:36 PM

Livestock farmers and more specifically meatpackers and grocery stores do not have a God-given right to cheap feed. Corn should go to the use which provides the greatest economic value. Richt now consumers value ethanol motor fuel at $11.00 per bushel (plus $2.50 per bu. corn coproducts) but the packers will only pay $3.50 per bu. as beef to the corn farmer. When society values beef (or pork or chicken) at the same at the same rate as motor fuel corn will go to the livestock farmer.

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  October, 14, 2011 at 09:51 AM

Why is fewer people never considered to be part of the solution to the problem?

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