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Let's Not Go Backwards on Biofuels: Fixing the Climate Bill's Biofuels Provisions

Frances Beinecke

Posted July 7, 2009

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I welcomed the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act last month. It is a good bill that gets us going down the road toward clean energy and climate solutions. But passing the bill in the House required some last-minute deal making, and one of the most troubling concessions made--and one my colleagues and I will push to change in the Senate--are the biofuels provisions.

At NRDC, we have long seen the promise in biofuels. Done right--using sustainable crops and assessing the carbon footprint from soil to fuel tank--biofuels can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, bring new markets to rural communities, and be a real part of the solution to global warming.

But biofuels can also be done wrong, and if the ACES provisions don't get fixed, that is what will happen. Biofuels production will start threatening forests and wildlife habitat and even increase global warming pollution.

Biofuels done that way is something NRDC can't support. And it is something the American public won't support either. Americans have been willing to embrace biofuels as a clean energy solution, but if it turns into just another dirty fuel, they won't buy it. Nor will they tolerate the huge mandates and generous tax credits that direct more public money to biofuels than any other form of renewables.

I don't want to see that happen. I want to see America realize the promise of biofuels. That's why NRDC will be fighting to stop the three most problematic parts of the ACES biofuels policy from going forward. My NRDC colleague Dave Hawkins is testifying today, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on biofuels and other aspects of the ACES bill (follow or read his testimony here). These are some of the things we intend to fix:

1. Using Faulty Carbon Accounting

Current law (the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007) requires the use of a huge amount of biofuels-36 billion gallons-and requires new biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Now, however, as a result of an eleventh-hour change, ACES weakens this requirement by forcing the EPA to use faulty carbon accounting.

Rep. Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and entrenched Big-Ag interests held ACES hostage, demanding changes that strip away the existing requirement that biofuels producers do a full lifecycle accounting of their carbon emissions, including market-driven impacts such as international deforestation.

This means that if a biofuels company persuades a farmer to grow biofuels feedstock instead of soy, it doesn't have to account for the fact that this decision impacts the global food market, and that somewhere in the world, another farmer is likely to clear carbon-storing tropical rainforest in order to grow soy to make up for the lost American supply.

In this fuzzy accounting system, we wouldn't have to acknowledge that the carbon released from deforestation is greater than the carbon pollution we were trying to limit by burning biofuels in cars.

Unless we fix this, the only responsible course for Congress is to temporarily suspend the renewable fuel standard, which creates the 36 billion gallon requirement. If we can't tell whether our biofuels are taking us in the right direction, we shouldn't require people to use them.

The truth is American farmers can produce biofuels from biomass that doesn't disrupt the food supply or raze our lands by reviving degraded farm land and using residues from agriculture, forestry, and recycling. But without the right signal--a requirement to fully account for lifecycle carbon emissions--American farmers won't have the incentive they need to explore biomass opportunities that prevent deforestation and genuinely reduce carbon emissions.

2. Watering Down Criteria for Biomass Sources

The ACES compromises took another step backward from existing law by dramatically weakening the guidelines for what constitutes renewable biomass--a change that leaves our native grasslands, wildlife habitat, old-growth forests, and federal lands in danger of being cleared to produce energy crops. ACES now eliminates all sourcing guidelines on non-federal lands and significantly dilutes the level of protection for our federal forests.

3. Giving Biofuels a Big Loophole

The entire purpose of the American Clean Energy and Security Act is to track carbon emissions and account for them under the carbon cap. But lawmakers decided that emissions from burning biomass would not be covered under the cap. If a coal power plant replaces half of its coal with biomass, it only has to buy carbon allowances for half of its pollution. 

This makes sense if the biomass is sourced in a sustainable, low-carbon way, but if the biomass comes from old growth trees or plowed under forests, then burning that biomass constitutes a major increase in carbon pollution. It should be covered under the cap, not given a free pass.

Undermining Public Support for Biofuels

The American public already tempered its support for biofuels when last year's spike in biofuels production was held responsible for rising global food costs.

Once people learn that lawmakers such as Representative Peterson are trying to strip away the guidelines that protect tropical forests, safeguard American wildlands, and ensure that biofuels are genuinely low-carbon, they will rightly grow more skeptical of the biofuels industry.

If we can repeal the last-minute biofuels amendments to ACES, we can replace that skepticism with a belief that biofuels done right can be a real, American-grown, global warming solution.

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Robin RotmanJul 7 2009 11:34 PM

Well said! Biofuels have a great potential to help wean America off of fossil fuels, but if they are not done right, they will be a step backward rather than a step forward. A backward step at this stage in the game threatens to undermine the public commitment to finally do something about climate change.

George BirchardJul 7 2009 11:34 PM

In summer 2008, before the economy tanked, corn ethanol was driving up the price of food by driving up the costs of grain and grain fed animals. Chicken processors in North Carolina went bankrupt because the high cost of feed and fuel. Biofuel that competes with food crops is a recipe for hunger and starvation.

There isn't enough net energy in biofuels for them to replace fossil fuels. We don't have close to enough cropland to grow the feed stocks to fuel our cars. When fuel can be produced efficiently from byproducts and waste, it's a win-win. Otherwise, biofuel is, at best, marginal.

I agree, that the EPA must do a full accounting of the energy and carbon costs of biofuel. Moreover, the effects on global food supplies and costs must be considered.

The last minute biofuels amendments must be stripped from the legislation. However, healthy skepticism of biofuels continues to be warranted as many possible costs and unintended consequences need to be examined. Decisions should be based on facts and science, not belief.

George TesserisJul 8 2009 09:09 AM

There wasn't enough biomass to fuel the industrial revolution 300 years ago. How anyone figures there's enough to meet our energy needs today - with ten times the earth's population and far greater incidence of air-conditioned homes and two car families than in the 18th century - is beyond me.

But all this may turn out to be quite academic, with the food crisis tsunami on its way back:

Jenny HoffpauirJul 8 2009 09:22 AM

Biofuels are not the answer to reducing our country's carbon footprint, and the amount of money the federal government pours into them would be better spent elsewhere. The biofuels industry benefits from subsidies to corn farmers, subidies for ethanol research, and now, subsidies for carbon emissions. At the very least, given the amount of money we spend, we need better accountability to determine whether that money is being spent wisely. Full lifecycle carbon accounting and stringent criteria for biomass sourcing are absolutely necessary.

As George aptly notes, the effect on world food supplies is another critical consideration. The food riots of last year were caused by increased food prices driven in part by the U.S. government's push for biofuels. Food vs. fuel should not be a policy choice determined by Big-Ag.

Thanks for highlighting this critical--and potentially overlooked--aspect of the ACES. This last minute amendment must be stripped from the Senate version so that biofuels are not simply given a greenlight.

Frances BeineckeJul 8 2009 04:08 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. NRDC certainly agrees that biofuels or bioenergy more broadly are not THE answer to climate change, but unfortunately there is no single answer.

Our aim is to get the right policies in place so that energy efficiency, other renewables, and bioenergy all combine together to stop global warming.

Passing ACES is a critical step towards that end. But without fixing the problems I’ve outlined above, we’ll end up with too much bioenergy and the wrong kind of bioenergy.

Don ScottJul 8 2009 05:44 PM

I really don't understand the attitude expressed here that NRDC would advocate use of petroleum as our sole source of transportation fuel, rather than a responsible mix of sustainable biofuels?

Everyday we burn fossil fuels, we are spewing carbon into the atmosphere that took millions of years to sequester deep within the Earth's crust. This is an irreversible process that is responsible for 80% of human-induced greenhouse gases.

Contrast that to biodiesel, which reduces carbon emission by 78% compared to petroleum while helping put food on people's table. That's right, in contrast to the assertion that biofuels are in competition with food supplies; unless you live on a diet consisting only of salad oil and margarine, biodiesel creates many positives for food production. For every 1.5 gallons of biodiesel produced, more than four times as many pounds of protein rich soybean meal will be available for human and animal consumption. Soy meal may be the only affordable protein available in developing countries where deficinecy of protein is acknowledged to be a serious problem.

Todd BrinkmanJul 9 2009 10:04 AM

We're on pace for record corn and record SOYBEAN production this year. So far, the theory doesn't hold up. We're producing plenty to supply cow feed and ethanol.

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