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February 11, 2008

Biofuels Deemed a Threat? Compared to What?

The recent studies reported in Science and discussed in the New York Times article Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat (NY Times, subscription) could be more harmful than greenhouse gases. These studies actually risk creating more alarmist fodder about biofuels and could lead to serious and perhaps intended consequences – no research and development into new biofuels. Thankfully, there have been some smart and rational responses to the studies by organizations like NRDC and 25x25 to help frame the issue properly.

The United States is on the verge of tremendous scientific and technological breakthroughs driven by the new renewable fuel standard (RFS) contained in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  Recent advancements in cellulosic biofuels technologies will provide the country with a real alternative to oil - in an effective, safe and environmentally responsible fashion.  It's important that these technologies (and their corn-based predecessors) receive the support required to bring them out of the research box and into the market place in order to fully develop.  If we don't do it soon it is very likely there won’t be anyone left in a financial community to spur biofuels investment, or consumers that can afford to buy it.

It appears that every time a study of this nature becomes public everyone is quick to forget why we are researching and developing alternatives to our current oil nightmare.  Interestingly enough, there always seems to be a missing argument against oil use in the studies.  Please do yourselves a favor, every time you see a new study like this, ask yourselves "compared to what?".  More oil?

An excerpt from the Times article:

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

"When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially," said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. "Previously there's been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis."

Land use has most certainly not been left out of prior analysis.  Appropriate protections against the land use issues raised in the studies have already been addressed in the recently passed RFS.

Somehow greenhouse gases and credits do not calculate very well when compared to emissions of war in the Middle East and death of our soldiers, the threat of world terrorism fueled by oil, Iran's nuclear program, peak world oil and lack of oil alternatives, world energy demand outpacing supplies, record oil company profits and the increasing rates of poverty and starving children without health care (in the United States too) – much stemming from high oil prices and the lack of alternatives. These moral issues always seem to be left out of the anti-biofuels argument and therefore are unfairly "deemed" not valuable.

Growing energy demand and lack of oil are going to force many countries to choose alternatives to oil. Coal, tar sands, nuclear – you pick, because you may not have a choice.  Researchers should start thinking outside of their "what if" box and turn their tremendous brain power to the "what can be" box and help get biofuels technology out of the lab.  I am confident technology can once again lead the way to evolutionary progress in our thinking and fuel mix.  Technology has led to the solutions of many moral and economic problems we have faced in every other sector and at every other time in our history – with the exception of oil and gasoline.

Creating yet another hurdle with these types of studies in the effort to demand the "perfect silver bullet" that has to be 50% better that oil before it can replace oil -- at this time should be considered catastrophic to future investment and development of biofuels.  Today's biofuels have cracked oil's 100-year stranglehold on energy policy and gasoline markets.  Biofuels are making progress towards sustainability in many ways and politicians are demanding ways to make biofuels accountable and sustainable.  Today's biofuels solutions, even if they are version 1.0, need to be let out of the box before coal; oil, nuclear are unleashed by environmentally and morally bankrupt economies that could care less about anything other than supplying their energy needs.  Biofuels need to be an option.

The world is at war. That war is fueled by oil. The alternatives to biofuels are environmentally reckless in comparison and are controlled by many that do share the same virtues as those of our researchers.  It is simply not responsible or virtuous to begin placing roadblocks on technologies so early in the development game – unless there is another end-game in mind. With regard to one of the proposed solutions, just relying on more "sugar" (food) cane ethanol from Brazil (the one with the rain forests) is not a long-term solution to our oil problems or the future of biofuel development.

Burl Haigwood, CFDC

Director of Program Development