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Promoting Smart Biofuels Policy at the State Level
John Bacino on March 31, 2008 - 9:55am
Promoting Smart Biofuels Policy at the State Level
Monday, March 31st, 2008
Promoting Smart Biofuels Policy at the State Level
In the search for alternatives to oil, biofuels have emerged as a promising answer to wean us off our oil addiction. By some estimates, biofuels could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion tons per year, be cost competitive with gasoline and provide a major source of revenue for farmers.
However, not all biofuels are created equal and the rapid rush to develop biofuels is beginning to show some dangerous trends. Biofuel material is being grown on protected lands, fuel production is competing with food production, and recent data seems to indicate that almost all biofuels used today in the United States cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels when the full emissions costs of producing the biofuel is taken into account.
This Dispatch looks at some of the problems with biofuel production and how states can implement smart policy to ensure sustainable biofuel development.
The Problem with Bad Biofuel Policy
Biofuels are a type of fuel made from plants and other forms of biomass. The two main forms of biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is made from a variety of materials, including sugar cane, corn, trees, grass and even municipal solid waste. Cellulose, which makes up a majority of a plant's structure, can be broken down into sugars, which can then be converted into ethanol.
Most of the ethanol produced in the United States is from corn. According to the National Corn Grower's Association, 1.8 billion bushels of corn were used to produce 4.9 billion gallons of renewable fuel. Ethanol production consumes 20% of the corn crop in the U.S. and the new federal energy legislation, which mandates a doubling of ethanol made from corn, is predicted to increase that amount to one third of the total corn crop. Yet, environmentalists are seriously concerned with the heavy dependence on corn-based ethanol.
The myopic focus on only developing corn-based ethanol is leading our alternative fuels into a bad direction. Corn-based ethanol is among the least efficient, most polluting, and overall least sustainable biofuel feedstock. In contrast, Brazil has been very successful in developing an efficient ethanol source from sugarcane, which, unlike corn in the U.S., has a higher energy return.
The Dependence on Corn: For starters, growing corn relies on fertilizers and pesticides that are derived from fossil fuels. Beyond the energy needed to cultivate corn, ethanol has a tendency to absorb water so it must be transported by trucks or trains, instead of in the pipeline system used for oil and gasoline. When all the energy needs are taken into consideration, each gallon of ethanol takes the energetic equivalent of about three-quarters of a gallon of ethanol to produce.
Negative Environmental Consequences: Beyond the inefficient production process, the potential negative environmental impacts of corn-ethanol production have begun to be raised. An alternative fuel policy is certainly desirable, but not if the environmental consequences begin to outweigh the benefits. An Environmental Defense study drew attention to the increased water demands from new ethanol plants, particularly with the construction of new plants in areas with existing water stress, like the Ogallala Aquifer region, which supports the majority of agriculture in the southern Great Plains.
Recently, the ability of corn-based ethanol to decrease greenhouse gas emissions has been called into question. A study published in Science looked at the overall effect ethanol production has on greenhouse gas emissions. The study found that once all the land use implications are taken into effect, corn-based ethanol actually doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years, instead of producing a 20% savings. The study argues that previous greenhouse emissions savings were calculated without taking into consideration the emissions from land-use changes. For exmaple, with more demand for biofuels, farmers will plow up more forest or grassland, which had previously acted as carbon sinks, releasing the stored carbon into the atmosphere.
In addition, another study analyzed the effect of nitrogen leaching from fertilized corn fields. The results show that the increase in corn cultivation needed to meet the renewable fuels goal of the federal energy policy would increase the amount of dissolved nitrogen in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers substantially. Excess nitrogen in rivers can be toxic to humans and cause water quality problems.
The problem with a hastily developed ethanol policy is best seen in Iowa, a state known for its active ethanol production. Iowa's increased ethanol production has led to 394 instances in the past few years in which ethanol plants violated regulations meant to protect the health of citizens and their environment. As one of the state's environmental inspectors said, "It's very significant. We anticipated some issues, but were disappointed there were so many issues."
Food versus Fuel: Beyond the environmental impacts, there is the uncomfortable competition between growing corn for food and growing corn for fuel. In the rush to develop the biofuel market, mass subsidies were given to the corn industry. In 2006, corn ethanol subsidies totaled $7 billion for 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol. That works out to a subsidy of $1.45 per gallon of ethanol. In the long term, such a high level of subsidy makes ethanol use unaffordable. Additionally, it shifts the incentive for farmers to begin growing corn for fuel instead of for food.
The problem gets worse. Besides farmers choosing to grow corn for fuel instead of food, rising demand for corn increases its costs for consumers. If oil is at $50 a barrel, then converting corn into ethanol is profitable as long as a bushel of corn is less than $4. But currently a barrel of oil is twice that price, which translates into corn ethanol still being profitable if it trades at almost $8 per bushel. When the price of corn rises, food prices rise and not just in products that directly use corn, but also in indirect products like meat, eggs and milk.
Not all is lost, however. As stated earlier, not all biofuels are created equal. The key is ensuring that a smart, healthy biofuel policy is developed and implemented.
The Smart Way to Produce Ethanol
Even the studies that harshly criticize corn-based ethanol recognize the need for and potential of other biofuel sources. Some research also argues that the food versus fuel threat is overstated and the tension can be avoided with smart, sustainable policy that ensures the health of the soil and water resources and ensures fair prices for farmers. And, despite all the controversy, it does appear that there is a net greenhouse gas reduction from using ethanol last year. States are taking the lead in biofuel production and development and a few examples are listed below.
Diversifying Ethanol Production: Diversifying biofuel production is the first step. Cellulosic ethanol, for instance, is more efficient than corn-based ethanol and cellulose is more abundant. Cellulose is the fibrous material that makes up most of plant matter in wheat, switch grass, corn stalks, rice straw, and even wood chips. Cellulosic ethanol provides 540% of the energy used to produce it, compared with just 25% more energy returned by corn-based ethanol. The study in Science magazine points to ethanol production from waste products as a way to bypass the problems of ethanol production from food stocks. Waste products can include sawdust, peanut hulls, sewage sludge, cotton ginning waste, and chicken litter. Producing ethanol from these sources not only ends the food versus fuel competition, but also finds a productive way to deal with waste. This technology has not yet reached commercialization but would benefit from state support.
Strengthening Ethanol Delivery Infrastructure: Once ethanol has been produced, the delivery infrastructure must be in place to ensure that people can actually use and have access to ethanol.
Providing Incentives to Encourage Ethanol Use: There are several levels at which states can provide incentives for ethanol use.
Finding money to support production development is not always easy. Virginia did it through SB 444, which increased the state motor fuels tax rate by $0.02 per gallon with half of the revenue deposited into the Biofuels Production Fund to give grants for biofuels production.
Biofuels policies are complex. The urgency and excitement surrounding renewable energy can result in oversight of negative environmental consequences if policy is not designed to encourage the most energy-efficient versions of biofuels. Ensuring that biofuels are developed in a sustainable manner will lead to long-term gains and finally help wean us off our oil addiction.
International Food Policy Research Institute - When Food Makes Fuel: The Promises and Challenges of Biofuels
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy - Food versus Fuel in the United States
Natural Resources Defense Council - Bringing Biofuels to the Pump
Timothy Searchiner, et.al. - Use of U.S. Cropland for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change
Environmental Defense - Potential Impacts of Biofuels Expansion on Natural Resources
Des Moines Register - Feeling Iowa's Future
Virginia: SB 689
North Carolina: SB 1451
Florida: SB 2870
Arizona: Biofuels Conversation Program
Hawaii: HB 3179
Illinois: HB 5855
New York: AB 9051
Connecticut: SB 261
Virginia: SB 444
Kentucky: HB 529
Energy Future Coalition - Quick Facts on Biofuels
Clean Energy Minnesota - Growing Better Fuels
The New Rules Project - Ethanol and Land Use Changes
Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy - AgObservatory
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Policy Director
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