Biofuels Done Right?

Images from the “slow-motion catastrophe” that began last week 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana brought to mind a bit of sarcasm I offered to a colleague almost exactly a year ago. The NRDC was running the below ad on Capitol Hill, saying, “Biofuels. If we’re going to use them, let’s do it right,” with a picture of the deforestation that many assumed would occur from use of biofuels.

NRDC-- Biofuels Done Right Ad

My facetious idea was to run a counter ad, with pictures from the Exxon Valdez disaster, asking NRDC if they considered “biofuels not done at all” to be done right. And perhaps that ad could have been rerun on March 31, as the Obama administration announced with purely Orwellian logic that plans for expanding offshore oil drilling were “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

Now, of course, 5,000 barrels of oil each day are spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruptured pipes of a deep sea oil well, creating an oil slick covering 400 square miles. While not yet rivaling the Exxon Valdez disaster, where 258,000 barrels leaked, the threat to wildlife and sensitive wetlands still exists. And consider, an estimated 90 rigs drilling in the Gulf of Mexico provide 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, nearly one-third of total US production.

Today, President Obama is touring a POET biorefinery in Missouri and talking about the need for increased biofuel production:

For decades, we’ve talked about how our dependence on oil from other countries threatens our economy. But usually our will to act kind of rises or falls depending on the price at the pump. We talked about how it threatens future generations, even as we witnessed some funny things going on in terms of our climate change, and recognizing the environmental costs of relying on fossil fuels, but, frankly, we always said we’ll get to it tomorrow. We talked about how it threatened our security, but we’ve grown actually more dependent on foreign oil every single year since Richard Nixon started talking about this danger of dependency on foreign oil.”

But of course, cellulosic and advanced biofuel production has fallen short of goals, primarily due to a lack of capital needed for rapid scale up. Investor confidence in the sector was undermined in 2008 and 2009 by a combination of the economic recession, wild volatility in feedstock costs, and predictions of impending doom by opponents of biofuels.

Investor confidence may be slowly recovering, according to recent indications, but the overall mood still remains skeptical. A few of the more choice pronouncements indicate the general mood.

Want to become a millionaire investing in publicly traded advanced biofuel stocks? One way would be to start as a multi-millionaire.”

“Very few investors in any cleantech sector are going to be investing the amounts of capital we saw at the height in 2008,” when venture capitalists were investing in production facilities, says Dallas Kachan, managing director of the Cleantech Group, a research and consulting firm that tracks venture-capital spending in green technology.

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Ways and Means Should Include Job Creation of Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts in Green Jobs Leg

On Wednesday, April 14 the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on Energy Tax Incentives Driving the Green Job Economy. The focus of the hearing is to examine the effectiveness of current energy tax policy and identify additional steps that the Committee can take to ensure continued job growth in this area while at the same time advancing national energy policy focus on a discussion of current and proposed energy tax incentives. Witnesses for this hearing have not been announced and we do not know how much of the hearing will focus on transportation fuels however, energy tax incentives for biofuels and biobased products should be a significant area of focus for this round of green jobs legislation. These technologies are ready to deploy and create near term job opportunities.

Industrial biotechnology is the key enabling technology for producing biofuels and biobased products like bioplastics and renewable chemicals to aid in reducing our dependence on foreign sources of oil, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also have the ability to crate jobs, jobs that are currently moving overseas due to their reliance on petroleum as a feedstock or more favorable economic or political environments.

The United States has invested considerable amounts of taxpayer dollars to try to revive our economy. Too often, though, the resulting jobs are being created overseas, as other countries invest in green technology deployment. As a result, the opportunity to improve our economic competitiveness is lost. The United States is a leader in the research and development of green technologies, but to maintain that lead we must invest in the companies that are putting that green technology to work in our economy. These industries have shed hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs over the past two decades, as petroleum producing countries have attracted more capital investment. For example, U.S. chemical and plastics companies have increased capital investment outside the United States by 32 percent over the past decade, while increasing investment within U.S. borders by only 2 percent.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) enacted as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 sets the minimum level of renewable fuel that must be produced and blended into the US transportation fuel supply at 36 billion gallons by 2022. 21 billion gallons of that requirement must be cellulosic or advanced biofuels. Direct job creation from the advanced and cellulosic biofuels volumes in the RFS could reach 29,000 by 2010, rising to 190,000 by 2022. Total job creation could reach 123,000 in 2010 and 807,000 by 2022. Jobs will be across many sectors of the economy. Some projected job creation sectors are: labor/freight, mixing and blending machine operators, shopping/receiving/traffic clerks, truck drivers, chemical equipment/technicians, chemical plant/system operators/electrical, sales etc.

The Ways and Means Committee can aid in accelerating this job creation by incentivizing biorefinery construction here in the United States. In 2008 Congress enacted a cellulosic biofuels production tax credit and enhanced depreciation for advanced biofuels facilities as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, both of which are scheduled to expire on December 31, 2012. Due to an overall downturn in the worldwide economy, this tax credit has not yet been utilized by cellulosic biofuels producers. This credit needs to be extended now in order to signal to investors that a plant being constructed this year, will have certainty in the availability of that tax credit once the plant begins to produce the advanced biofuel. A tax credit that expires before or shortly after production begins, does not create economic security for a yet to be built advanced biofuel biorefinery looking for funding. Furthermore, capital costs for construction of next generation biorefineries, which utilize renewable biomass to produce next generation biofuels and biobased products, are a substantial barrier to commercialization. Congress should provide an investment tax credit to help accelerate construction of next generation biorefineries and speed deployment of next generation fuels, chemicals and products.

Historically, the U.S. chemicals and plastics industry was the envy of the world. At its peak in the 1950s, the industry was responsible for over 5 million domestic jobs and a $20 billion positive trade balance for the United States. Jobs associated with the industry were typically among the highest paid in U.S. manufacturing. However, the petro-chemicals and plastics industries are now hemorrhaging jobs overseas. Conversely, biobased products and chemicals production, like domestically produced biofuels, will stay in the U.S., in close proximity to their biomass feedstocks. Total US employment in the chemicals industry declined by over 20% in the last two decades and is projected to decrease further. The US is a world leader in industrial biotechnology with a wide range of companies pioneering new, renewable pathways to traditional petroleum-based chemicals and plastics.

The potential job creation from bio-products is immense. Consider that the nascent biobased products industry employed over 5,700 Americans at 159 facilities in 2007 and every new job in the chemical industry creates 5.5 additional jobs elsewhere in the economy. Currently the biobased products portion represents only about 4 percent of all sales for the industry. Congress should create targeted production tax credits that can help them to expand their share of the market and grow additional domestic jobs. With an industry with the potential to grow by over 50% per year, bio-products can form the basis for a strong employment growth engine for the US.

Clearly commercializing the advanced biofuels and biobased products industries is an integral solution to creating high caliber domestic green jobs in the United States that will catapult this country to be a leader in successful high tech, sustainable technologies. BIO will be urging the Ways and Means Committee through written comments to recognize that innovations such as these are some of the most promising sources of green jobs and economic growth for the future.

Compounded Climate Accounting Errors

Timothy Searchinger, visiting scholar at Princeton University, Dan Kammen of the University of California Berkeley, David Tilman of the University of Minnesota and other authors from the Environmental Defense Fund published an interesting new proposal in the Policy Forum section of Science magazine today. The argument put forward is that “Replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy does not by itself reduce carbon emissions, because the CO2 released by tailpipes and smokestacks is roughly the same per unit of energy regardless of the source.”

The premise behind this proposal is that the world is facing such a great need to reduce carbon emissions that future sources of energy and biofuels cannot make use of any currently sequestered carbon. Maybe… but there’s a perverse consequence of using this logic. Fossil fuels are a source of sequestered carbon. If you then say that all existing biomass is an untouchable source of sequestered carbon, you are essentially counting that sequestration as a benefit of having used fossil fuels for the past 150 years.

The logic is particularly tortured when a foregone sequestration penalty is attributed to biofuels when none is counted for petroleum.

There is much in the paper to agree with — particularly in recognizing carbon sequestration benefits from improved land management practices and energy crops. And certainly, the challenge of climate change is so great that implementing best practices for carbon sequestration is a necessity.

But a proposal that attributes carbon sequestration in trees as a plus in the accounting of fossil fuel use is counterproductive.

Weekly Blog Wrap Up

There’s a lot going on in the blogosphere about the world of biofuels this week. Yesterday, the World Wildlife Fund released a report,which according to NCTechnews.com,

“concludes that industrial biotechnology can provide dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and provide strong progress toward a green and sustainable economy. WWF calls for increased political backing for the industry to leverage the positive environmental effects. The findings are based on peer-reviewed research from Novozymes, the world leader in bioinnovation, as well as contributions from experts and WWF”

Renewable Energy World writes about the “The Algal Advantage.” Algae is big because,

“The big pay-off in algae biofuels will be as drop-in replacements for gasoline or jet fuel. Successful test flights have already been run on mixtures of petroleum and algal-based jet fuels. Chisti says, “generally, only a portion of the crude algal oil is suitable for making biodiesel, but all of it can be used to make gasoline and jet fuel.” For this, the fatty acids in the algal oils are refined by hydrogenation and hydrocracking.”

Algae is also big because, Sapphire Energy has developed a car that runs on algae derived fuel, that can cross the country on just 25 gallons of fuel. The Singularity Hub writes about the car, called Algaeus and has this to say,

“According to the press release, the coast to coast trip will be a ten day journey (September 8 -18) that culminates in the nationwide premier of the new movie Fuel by Josh Tickell of Veggie Van fame. See the trailer below. While the media coverage of the movie is sure to be hyperbolic, I’m much more interested in the premises behind Sapphire Energy. This San Diego based company hopes to use its algae-based fuel to work in the three major petrol markets: gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. They plan on ramping up production to a rate of than 2 million gallons of diesel per year in the next two years. That’s a small blip on the petroleum market, but a blip that is arriving much sooner than many expected.”

Still in the world of biofuels, Green Tech writes about making better biofuels,

“Research on nuclear energy and hydrogen has yielded what backers say is a technology that could replace U.S. oil imports with biofuels made from agricultural by-products.
Scientists at Idaho National Laboratory have been working for the past year and a half on a process to convert biomass, such straw or crop residue, into liquid fuels at a far higher efficiency than existing cellulosic ethanol technologies.”

“The key advantage is that bio-syntrolysis would extract far more energy from available biomass than existing methods, said research engineer Grant Hawkes. Using traditional ethanol-making techniques, about 35 percent of the carbon from wood chips or agricultural residue ends up in the liquid fuel. By contrast, the bio-syntrolysis method would convert more than 90 percent of that carbon into a fuel, he said.”

The New Energy World Network, picks up the story with a post about Continental airlines,

“Biofuels are increasingly being seen as a viable alternative to conventional jet fuel in the US, according to Continental Airlines’ managing director for Global Environmental Affairs, Leah Raney. The Houston-based carrier has also been implementing its green initiatives across its ground services fleet in its major hubs in Houston, Newark and California by switching to electric vehicles and related infrastructure and using biodiesel in cold weather locations.”

Do you like dates, the fruit, not the social activity? Can you imagine those little packages of sweetness being turned into biofuel? They can in Iraq.

According to the Bioenergy Site,

“Iraq’s prime minister has approved a project by a United Arab Emirates-based company to make biofuel from dates that would otherwise be wasted because they have started to perish, Iraqi officials said on Sunday.”

“Faroun Ahmed Hussein, head of the national date palm board, said the Emirati company would produce bioethanol from dates that farmers cannot export because they are starting to rot. It would be used domestically at first, then possibly later exported.

He declined to name the company, estimate the cost of the project or say how much bioethanol it was expected to produce.

He said Iraq produces 350,000 tonnes of dates annually, a sharp fall from 900,000 tonnes produced before the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein but still more than the 150,000 tonnes it currently consumes. Some are fed to animals, he said.

“They can’t export the left over quantities owing to their poor quality,” Hussein said. “Farmers will be happy to sell their rotten dates instead of throwing them away.”

And finally the world of biofuels winds up with a serious policy issue, that is a “Greater Distinction Needed for Biofuels as Fuel Component under Cap and Trade,” writes 25x’25, they go on to say,

“As Congress continues its debate on comprehensive climate legislation, any measure adopted must adequately recognize and incentivize the extensive benefits biomass and the production of biofuels can provide to address global climate change. The 25x’25 Carbon Work Group has recently reemphasized the need for policy makers to modify pending cap-and-trade provisions to more clearly recognize those agricultural and forestry practices that can contribute to climate change regulation and make those practices eligible as offset projects. Policy makers also should make clear in a final climate change bill that biofuels, including the biofuel component of fuels blends, are not obligated under the emissions cap and are a preferred alternative to fossil carbon-based transportation fuels.”

That’s it for this week. See you next week.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

The EPA has released its long-awaited proposed rules for the Renewable Fuel Standard, including calculations of the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for various biofuels. Unlike California, the EPA is proposing to “discount” the greenhouse gas emissions of both biofuels and the baseline petroleum gasoline. The discount rate that EPA uses for most of the calculations it presents is 2 percent over 100 years, although it also proposes using a 0 percent discount rate and a 30-year time span and is taking comments on other combinations. Biofuel critics immediately decried the use of the 100-year timeframe because the resulting calculation produces a better outcome for biofuels.

Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll writes:

But the mere fact that it would consider measuring ethanol’s carbon impact over 100 years — or should we say guessing at it? — is evidence enough of the ethanol lobby’s stature.”

And the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steve Mufson report:

The EPA raised the possibility of computing greenhouse gas costs over a 100-year period instead of a 30-year period. The longer time frame would make the benefits of corn-based ethanol seem greater while discounting the initial costs, such as the loss of untilled land, over time. For example, the EPA said corn-based ethanol is 16 percent better than regular gasoline if its costs are calculated over 100 years, but 5 percent worse over 30 years.
‘EPA has left open the option that an exception to good science could be made in the case of a favored special interest,’ said Frank O’Donnell, who heads Clean Air Watch.”

Both biofuel supporters and detractors should be wary of these calculations and of the precedent they could set. It’s abundantly clear that few people understand what the numbers mean.

The timeframe being discussed is for application of a “foregone sequestration” penalty — the number of years that converted land is considered to be foregoing its preferred use for carbon sequestration as forest or grassland. This penalty is added over and above the initial assumed release of carbon from conversion of the land (and note that there is no comparable penalty for not leaving petroleum carbon “sequestered” underground). Under normal circumstances, industry would prefer a short timespan – fewer than 30 years. After this period, the land would be considered agricultural land rather than former forest and would no longer accumulate a carbon penalty.

The choice of a discount rate is intended to measure present day valuations of costs and benefits over time. So, what are the costs and benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that EPA is discounting? In the analysis, it is the cost of converting forest and grassland to agricultural land in order to obtain the benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in the future – the “payback”. What the EPA should have measured, though, is the cost of converting our petroleum-based system of transportation to a biomass-based one versus the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The results in the EPA’s proposed rule are skewed by two indefensible assumptions. First is the assumption that the baseline for greenhouse gas emissions from petroleum should be discounted. The law requires establishment of a baseline for gasoline in 2005. To apply a discount rate assumes that the baseline will improve by some rate of change over time. And since petroleum is not assessed a foregone sequestration penalty, the cost of taking carbon from well below ground and putting it into the air is essentially free.

A positive discount rate says that future reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are less important to Americans than the present day costs. Since EPA applies the discount to the petroleum baseline, it is in effect saying that Americans will care less and less about reducing greenhouse gas emissions over time if it means that they have to change their driving habits today. In other words, don’t worry, keep using petroleum and be happy.

Second is the assumption that biofuels are causing land conversion around the world and that the land conversion is always and everywhere accomplished by burning the ground cover and immediately releasing massive amounts of carbon. This unfounded and unproven assumption skews the results of the analysis to the point that the application of a highly unfavorable discount rate appears to benefit the industry and draws the wrath of environmental advocates.

But the reaction from O’Donnell and Carroll shows that biofuel opponents will decry any outcome as politics trumping science — unless it’s their politics that trump science.

EPA Ready to Release Rules for RFS

The White House Office of Management and Budget has completed its review of the EPA’s rules for the Renewable Fuel Standard, which will contain the lifecycle analysis for U.S. fuels. Reuters and the Des Moines Register have reported on the significance of the rule, though EPA has not made clear when the rule will be published in the Federal Register, beginning the comment period.

The rule, much like California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (CARB), will include an estimate of carbon emissions from indirect land use change attributed to biofuels. The estimates are based on economic modelling that is based on circular reasoning — the models automatically assume that biofuel feedstock production by definition causes a shift in agricultural crop production.

An analysis by John Sheehan of SheehanBoyce LLC makes the point clearly:

The CARB/GTAP and Searchinger models for land use change are, in a way, based on circular reasoning. They set up conditions such as fixed pre-biofuels land demand (in the case of GTAP) and constant yield (in the case of Searchinger), which make it almost impossible to avoid indirect land use changes.”

A previous analysis by Thomas Darlington of Air Improvement Resource Inc. raised the exact same point, saying:

The model is therefore answering the question “What are the land use changes if all the ethanol increase is shouldered in one year (in this case, 2001)?” However, we would submit that this is not the correct question to answer. The real question is how much new land is converted either domestically or internationally if the 13.25 bgy ethanol increase is phased in from 2001 through 2015?”

Both analyses make the point that indirect land use change effects can be measured more accurately by dynamic models that account for crop production yield and demand changes.

An analysis prepared by the New Fuels Alliance further points out that while CARB and EPA have extended lifecycle analysis for biofuels by including a risk assessment of their economic impacts, both agencies are relying on existing estimates of the lifecycle emissions of petroleum fuels.

Considering the magnitude of the GHG emissions associated with petroleum fuels, the calculation of the indirect GHG effects including the appropriate fate or coke, residual oil and the demand for fuel oil for crude transport would be appropriate.”

The New Fuels Alliance points out that “Road building in forested areas causes relatively small direct emissions, however the roads are often a magnet for subsequent deforesting activities, providing access to previously inaccessible land.” This is a point made earlier on this blog.

The New Fuels Alliance analysis stops short of conducting a general equilibrium analysis of the economic impact of petroleum, but points out that there is an existing model for doing so. CARB had claimed that they simply did not know how to do such an analysis for oil.

EPA should use the comment period that will begin when they publish their rule in the Federal Register to investigate better models for analyzing the indirect effects of both biofuels and oil.

CBO Calculates Ethanol’s Impact on Food Prices

According to a newly released Congressional Budget Office report, ethanol contributed between 0.5 and 0.8 percentage points (10-15 percent) of the overall 5.1 percent increase in food prices between April 2007 and April 2008. That estimate is considerably lower than previous estimates. The report also calculated the increase in costs for federal food aid programs, which was the initial reason that Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and James McGovern (D-Mass.) requested it.

Despite that purpose, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, American Meat Institute, National Turkey Federation and National Council of Chain Restaurants were quick to publicize the report in their anti-ethanol Food Before Fuel campaign.

However, the report leaves a very large question open about the true causes of food price increases. The CBO notes that energy costs contributed another 1.1 percentage points (22 percent) to the 5.1 percent increase. That means that 3.2 percentage points (roughly two-thirds) are unaccounted for. And note, the 5.1 percent rise came on top of 2.5 percent and 4 percent food price increases in 2006 and 2007.

The other cited causes of increased food prices are growing global demand for meat, the depreciation of the U.S. dollar, which made U.S. corn cheaper than overseas corn, and speculation in corn futures due to expected poor harvests and overall hype about demand for corn. Is it possible that ethanol’s impact on food prices is much lower than the impact of certain groups simply raising food prices?