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Nathanael Greene’s Blog

Op-ed on biofuels, food prices, and GHG emissions

Nathanael Greene

Posted May 13, 2008 in Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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It has already been such a crazy week that I'm only just getting a chance to do my own PR. On Monday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an op-ed coauthored by my friend Lee Lynd and yours truly. Lee is one of the foremost thinkers on consolidated bioprocessing of lignocellulosic biomass into fuels, a professor at Dartmouth, and the chief technical officer at Mascoma. So he knows what he's talking about, and it's always a pleasure to piggyback on the clear thinking of smart people.

I've written about the gist of the article here before, but to reiterate what I think are the three most critical points:

  • The  solution to the food vs. fuel debate and the concerns about the GHG emissions of biofuels are one and the same--use the nonfood part of the plants and get the biomass off the land in doesn't interfere with food production or convert our wild landscapes rich in carbon (and biodiversity) into crops.
  • There is ample reason to believe that there is a significant amount of biomass that meets this criteria and that much more can be produced if the regulations guide the market to develop this material.
  • We need to build on the safeguards and standards adopted as part of the RFS in December with a low-carbon fuel standard and technology-neutral and performance based incentives.

The editor did a pretty good job cutting our 885 word original down to a svelte 663 words. For posterity's sake, I've pasted the full, original text below. There are two important substantive cuts both having to do with the importance of the context of biofuels.

The first came in the first paragraph where the second sentence originally read:

While these concerns should motivate greater efforts to do biofuels right, we must not throw the biofuels baby out with the bathwater – especially given the dearth of viable alternatives to power a sustainable and secure transportation sector.

But the part about the dearth of viable alternatives was dropped. I wrote about the reasons that we bother to struggle with biofuels a few weeks ago.

The second big cut came towards the end when this entire paragraph was dropped:

We need efficient vehicles, mass transit, and plug-in vehicles, but along with reducing demand for liquid fuels, we need to find new ways to sustainably produce them. A major focus of the renewable fuel standard is expanded production of cellulosic biofuels. Farmers and producers involved in the existing biofuel industry are generally open to such an expansion as long as they are not left holding the bag.

So now, for your reading pleasure, I offer the unedited original text of our op-ed:

Rethink Biofuels But Watch the Bath Water

Nathanael Greene and Lee Lynd

Biofuels were riding a wave of popularity only a few months ago, but now suddenly they’re being roundly condemned in light of rising food prices and recent studies showing that biofuel production can exacerbate climate change. While these concerns should motivate greater efforts to do biofuels right, we must not throw the biofuels baby out with the bathwater – especially given the dearth of viable alternatives to power a sustainable and secure transportation sector. Rather than retreating from current policies, which do more for smart biofuels than many realize, Minnesota and the nation should follow California and Massachusetts in building – wisely – on this foundation.

The current rise in food prices is causing a humanitarian crisis that we must address. But if we want to fix the problem, we first need to understand what’s behind it. Biofuels are a modest part of the food price picture, consuming only 4 percent of world grain, and there is little evidence that food prices would be much lower if we did not produce biofuels. The primary reasons for skyrocketing food prices include our rising energy costs, increased demand for meat in developing countries, drought, and misguided national and international agricultural policies.

Global warming is also a crisis, and two recent papers in Science identify issues that we must pay attention to if biofuels are going to contribute to lowering global warming pollution. The papers point out that if the demand for biofuels causes unmanaged forests or grasslands to be converted to row crops, we must account for the global warming pollution released during that conversion, and that these emissions can overwhelm the benefits of displaced gasoline or diesel consumption. However, showing that these undesirable results could happen given unsustainable practices in no way establishes that they must happen. There are solutions.

We can produce biofuels in ways responsive to these challenges. This can be done by making biofuels from non-food biomass (woody material, grasses, stalks and stems), while also producing this “cellulosic” biomass in ways that neither compete with food production nor cause increased global warming pollution that comes from converting wild landscapes to row crops. In other words, using the right part of plants and producing them in the right ways take biofuels out of the food price equation and makes them part of the solution to global warming.

Such cellulosic biomass is available from a greater diversity of sources than row crops, including wastes, land that cannot grow food crops or is not needed for food production, and potentially new approaches that coproduce food and biofuel feedstocks. Several studies have shown that wastes from the forest products industry, crop residues and winter cover crops could provide hundreds of millions of tons of biomass annually and certainly enough to comply with the recently adopted 21 billion gallon federal renewable fuel standard for “advanced biofuels.” Higher production levels are likely possible, particularly in light of emergent market forces and public policies.

The renewable fuel standard, signed into law in December as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), is the first biofuels policy to mandate a shift in our production practices in a way that directly addresses global warming pollution and indirectly – by promoting sustainable cellulosic biofuels - will address the food production challenge. The Act establishes minimum global warming pollution standards for biofuels and critical land-use safeguards. New biofuels projects that increase global warming emissions—including emissions from land conversion—are not permitted under EISA. Most of the mandated 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol production capacity required by the Act is already in place or under construction. As expansion beyond this level is unlikely to be favored by either market forces or regulation, the ceiling of corn ethanol production appears to be in sight.

The low-carbon fuel standard, first embraced by California and recently by Massachusetts, goes beyond setting a minimum standard and rewards the best solutions. This approach requires that oil companies reduce the average global warming pollution of their fuels, but lets the market decide the best mix of options. Biofuels that provide the most reductions will certainly play a big role, but so can other technologies such as plug-in vehicles that use electricity and natural gas powered cars and trucks.

We need efficient vehicles, mass transit, and plug-in vehicles, but along with reducing demand for liquid fuels, we need to find new ways to sustainably produce them. A major focus of the renewable fuel standard is expanded production of cellulosic biofuels. Farmers and producers involved in the existing biofuel industry are generally open to such an expansion as long as they are not left holding the bag.

In the middle of April, six committees of Minnesota’s House and Senate jointly gave the low-carbon fuel standard a full initial hearing. We should build on foundation provided by the renewable fuel standard and follow the state level leadership with a federal low-carbon fuel standard as part of comprehensive climate legislation. We also need to realize that better biofuels policies are no excuse for not addressing world hunger head on through better agriculture and food aid policies. More generally, we should go beyond all or nothing headlines and pursue a transition to biofuel strategies that realize the compatible objectives of replacing oil, expanding opportunities for existing producers, and securing both food supplies and a sustainable future.

Nathanael Greene is a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Lee Lynd is a Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth and Chief Scientific Officer of Mascoma Corporation.

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Comments

Earl KillianMay 14 2008 12:09 AM

Using Ag residue is a good strategy. What is the plan for getting the ash content of the residue back to the fields to prevent mineral depletion?

How much fuel can be made from Ag residue? ORNL suggests 170 million tons (154 million tonnes) of corn stover is possible. If one assumes 0.38 L ethanol per kg for cellulosic conversion, then you get 58 billion liters or 15 billion gallons, which would make 18 billion gallons of E85. Using 86.4 MJ/gal for the LHV of E85, and 121.3 MJ/gal for the LHV of gasoline, this means the E85 is the equivalent of 13 billion gallons of gasoline. If we assume a fleet average of 60 MPG in 2050, this represents 778 billion miles of VMT. For 420 million people at the current VMT per capita of 9300, we will want to drive 3.9 trillion miles, so this is 20% of US 2050 VMT.

So where does the other 80% of VMT come from?

Raphael TischMay 20 2008 11:11 AM

This is a great piece. I just graduated from Columbia University with an MPA in environmental science and policy. While at school I co-managed a research project for the NJDEP modeling biofuel feedstocks and developing sustainable harvesting guidelines. My team looked at how waste grease, food waste and soybean oil could contribute to emissions reductions under RGGI when used for electricity generation.
I've developed a sincere interest in how biofuels can help address the energy crisis the US and the world is facing. I was also very intrigued by the Searchinger and Fargione articles in Science. Their findings offer significant support for the development 2nd generation biofuel feedstocks, especially food waste - which we found to have net negative CO2 emissions due to avoided methane emissions from landfills.
One of my biggest concerns with biofuels how they are perceived. The concern regarding 1st generation feedstocks is understandable, but serious efforts need to be undertaken to promote the incredible benefits of 2nd gen. biofuels - especially the ones that do not yet require cellulosic technologies to process.

I would be happy to share our report with you if you are interested.

Tom AndersonMay 22 2008 01:25 PM

I favor and support the development of 2nd generation biofuels. However, I find this article and the NRDC in general to be completely hypocritical in support of biofuels and opposition to other new technologies. Biofuels now contribute to GHG emissions, but "we must not throw the biofuels baby out with the bathwater." "... showing that these undesirable results could happen given unsustainable practices in no way establishes that they must happen. There are solutions." "... we should go beyond the all or nothing headlines and pursue a transition to biofuel strategies that realize the compatible objectives of replacing oil ... and securing both food supplies and a sustainable future." Every one of these arguements can be made for coal-derived fuels, which emit less CO2 than conventional gasoline when carbon capture is employed, and much less than corn-ethanol. Yet when it comes to being open to this improving technology solution, NRDC is decidedly closed-minded.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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