From Pacific Rim Summit: Specialty Crops, Renewable Feedstocks & Sustainability

This panel on the second day of the Summit consisted of Richard Gustafson from the University of Washington, Gillian Madill, an independent consultant representing views of the environmental NGO community and John Sheehan, from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

While Mr. Gustafson and Mr. Sheehan gave informative talks on lifecycle assessment modeling and sustainability issues, Ms. Madill lit up the room with her talk titled, “Environmental Concerns with Energy Biotechnologies.” Ms. Madill started the conversation with the assertion that the environmental community and the biofuels community have the same goal, to supply energy in a new way that preserves the environment and our earth. Renewable energy and technology are tools to get to that end.

The environmental community has several valid concerns over widespread biofuels production. They see biofuels as a transition technology on our way to an energy future less dependent on liquid fuels, some would say zero liquid fuels. Zero because of the belief that no biofuels are carbon neutral. The question asked by environmental groups is, Why incentivize an unsustainable industry? Some concerns raised by Ms. Madill on behalf of the environmental community include deforestation of sensitive lands such as rain forests, environmental degradation, incorporation and containment of genetically engineered crops and organisms and intellectual property protection.

The biofuels industry plans to be a sustainable industry, but it is a new industry on the verge of commercialization with a formidable competitor. Ms. Madill’s point was that the environmental community and industry, while striving for some common goals, are currently at odds.

As I expressed to Ms. Madill, at the heart of this debate is the fact that most of the controversy centers around land use and protecting sensitive ecosystems. If biofuels went away tomorrow, other industries would compete for those same sensitive areas. After all, solar and wind farms require significant acreage as well, not to mention building schools or highways or the new grocery store that just opened in your neighborhood. Any industry that has a footprint will at some point, one can only assume in a future low carbon world, be mandated to quantify their lifecycle assessment, including land use and potentially indirect international land use, as biofuels are today.

My suggestion would be to partner to serve the common goal, protection of our vital and sensitive areas and resources which are important and treasured by all.

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,

“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.

Global Sustainable Bioenergy Initiative Discussed at World Congress

Professor Lee Lynd of Dartmouth, who is also the CSO of Mascoma, addressed a plenary session the 2009 BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology. He gave additional insight on the article he coauthored with David Tilman et al in a recent issue of Science and discussed the initiative that led to the article.

According to Lynd, it has been suggessted that we should forego the biofuel option, but before we do we should ask three questions: What are the alternatives? What benefits do we miss if we forego biofuels? and Can biofuel land use challenges be resolved gracefully.

Lynd says the new initiative starts from the premise that very large scale biofuel production — enough to meet 25 percent of world demand, which is the threshhold for making a significant contribution to oil replacement and environmental benefits — can be reconciled with food production and land use.

Lynd outlined the choice as either planning for a world of 10 billion people who have access to modern energy services or accepting a world of poverty.

Don’t Rush to Judgment

In 1953 Linus Pauling and Robert Corey published their structure of DNA, 3 strands twisted around each other. Shortly after that James Watson and Francis Crick published the correct structure of DNA, the one on which the biotechnology industry is built.That is the way science goes. Scientists make discoveries, publish their work, and others come along to either support or dispute those discoveries. Imagine if we had just rushed to judgment back then and gone no further? The technology that we appreciate today in science and medicine would have never been.

But it is a rush to judgment that we are in grave danger of exposing ourselves to. And, our nation’s very energy security hangs in the balance.

The issue at hand?  The spells it out,

“Rules expected out of the Bush administration soon could shape the growth of the biofuels industry for years to come.

Under the 2007 energy bill, new ethanol projects will have to meet standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or else the fuel the plants produce won’t qualify for meeting the nation’s annual biofuels targets.

It was left up to the Environmental Protection Agency to decide how the emissions of projects would be measured, and the agency is close to issuing its proposed rules.

Industry officials say the rules could chill investment in new projects because the agency’s formula will consider the impact new biofuel production will have on global land use. That’s based on the theory that when crops are used for fuel production rather than food, then land somewhere else in the world must be cleared and broken for production of food crops. Converting forests to cropland releases heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and those emissions would be attributed to the biofuels project.

Even projects that would make fuel from nonfood crops such as switchgrass could be affected by the EPA rules, if the land that the grass will be grown on is now planted to corn, wheat or other food crops.”

Many involved in this policy argument are relying on the study by Searchinger et al. (Science, 319, 1238-40, 2008). Although this is an important study, we must be careful not to rush to judgment. We need more research. Those thoughts are echoed in a policy forum in the October 3 issue of Science,

“Sustainable biofuel production systems could play a highly positive role in mitigating climate change, enhancing environmental quality, and strengthening the global economy, but it will take sound, science-based policy and additional research effort to make this so.”

The Searchinger study neglects some key issues as we pointed out in a previous fact sheet. The simple fact is, we need more research. We cannot stop here. If we do, we run the risk of going with the wrong scientific answer — that’s just bad science. And bad science does not make good policy. We have to do what Watson and Crick did; we have to examine the existing research, take the next scientific steps, and decide where to go from there. After all, that’s what got us this far.

Life Cycle Analysis, International Land Use Change and Uncertainty

Bruce Dale, University Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan State University, shared this presentation that he gave during a webinar hosted by the North Central Bioeconomy Consortium. In it, he highlights the number of factors in Life Cycle Analysis and Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) models that produce uncertainty – in other words, if the assumptions or data for these factors change, how much do the results change.

Dale is primarily examining the “carbon debt” concept that was introduced in the February 2008 Science papers by Searchinger and Fargione/Tilman. Dale argues that those papers failed to take into account how land converted to crop production might be managed. Dale recently submitted a paper to Environmental Science and Technology, testing the effect on land use change emissions if crop production is managed in a sustainable manner:

Sustainable cropping management practices (no-till and no-till plus cover crops) reduce the payback period to 2 years for the grassland conversion case and to 14 years for the forest conversion case. It is significant that no-till and cover crop practices also yield higher soil organic carbon (SOC) levels in corn fields derived from former grasslands or forests than the SOC levels that result if these grasslands or forests are allowed to continue undisturbed.”

Aside from assumptions about land management, life cycle analysis can be affected dramatically by changes in the amount and kinds of energy used in the biorefinery. American Fuels recently posted a note about some forthcoming research on the energy balance of biofuel production:

University of Nebraska at Lincoln researcher Kenneth Cassman concluded in a upcoming study that ethanol production has become more energy efficient.
‘Recent research conducted at the University of Nebraska clearly shows that estimates for the energy balance of corn-based ethanol are much more favorable – in fact two to three times more favorable, than previous estimates.'”

Since energy inputs are such a large factor in biofuel production, improvements in efficiency will significantly reduce the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels when compared to gasoline.

More Models to Measure Land Use Change

As the U.S. EPA and California’s Air Resource Board seek to implement their respective Renewable and Low-Carbon Fuel Standards, economists continue to refine models to measure and predict indirect land use change emissions associated with biofuels.

Many of the original critiques of the Searchinger paper in Science that initiated this debate commented on the uncertainty in attributing indirect land use change to biofuels. Prof. Roger Sylvester-Bradley of ADAS UK Ltd., for instance, summarizes many of the issues that must be worked out in the analysis of indirect land use change. According to Sylvester-Bradley, “Deforestation may also be driven by meat production, timber extraction, accessibility, migration, and other changes. To what extent should ILUC be attributed to the biofuel?”

A few groups have advocated dividing biofuels into groups that are more or less likely to produce land use change. E2 is a national community of business leaders who advocate for good environmental policy while building economic prosperity. They are allied with the NRDC. In a position paper they state, “Current food crops have a large indirect land-use penalty and that will continue unless productivity improvements can outpace demand for food and fuel resulting in no increase in total land use.”

Still other researchers are attempting to model and measure the exact effects of biofuels on land use change.

According to University of California Berkeley researchers active in helping to define California’s LCFS, “The market-mediated climatic land use effect of crop-based biofuels appears to be very large.” These researchers sought to quantify and validate the model originally proposed by Searchinger. They found that any ecosystem converted to crop production releases a significant amount of carbon, not just rainforests. What matters is how much the world market for crops must expand in order to meet the biofuel mandates set by the United States and other countries. According to these Berkeley researchers, many factors create uncertainty in measuring indirect land use change, including whether other crops can be substituted in meeting the demand for corn, how much yields might increase through technological innovation, how baseline demand is measured, whether additional cropland is available, as well as trade policies, regulations, and investment dynamics.

Recently, the American Chemical Society held a briefing on Capitol Hill to explore the question, “How Do Biofuels Impact Greenhouse Gas Emissions?”
Wallace Tyner, a professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, gave one of the presentations at the briefing. He asked, “What do we need to consider to be able to isolate the effects of biofuels?” and presented the following short list:

  • Energy prices – major biofuels driver
  • Demand – population, incomes, etc.
  • Supply – yield increases, policy on idled land, water supply issues, environmental issues
  • Exchange rates
  • Policies in the rest of the world

Tyner recently contributed to an analysis of the combined effects of the U.S. and EU biofuel goals on land use throughout the rest of the world. The paper uses models data from 2001 to 2006 and uses it to predict rises in crop land and declines in forest and pastureland through 2015 as a direct result of U.S. and EU biofuel policies. The paper also factors in the effects that oil prices have had.

Will the Press Set the Record Straight?

Last week, Roll Call revealed that the Grocery Manufacturers Association paid for a PR campaign aimed at blaming high food prices on biofuels (call it the ‘vast chicken wing conspiracy’). But since the revelation, there’s been very little effort in the press to set the record straight.
The USDA this week held a press conference to tell reporters the true causes of food price increases. And on Tuesday this week, Michael W. Masters, Managing Member and Portfolio Manager of Masters Capital Management, LLC, testified before the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on whether institutional investors are contributing to food and energy price inflation:

Institutional investors are one of, if not the primary, factors affecting commodities prices today.
“When asked to explain this dramatic increase, economists’ replies typically focus on the diversion of a significant portion of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol production. What they overlook is the fact that Institutional Investors have purchased over 2 billion bushels of corn futures in the last five years. Right now, Index Speculators have stockpiled enough corn futures to potentially fuel the entire United States ethanol industry at full capacity for a year. That’s equivalent to producing 5.3 billion gallons of ethanol, which would make America the world’s largest ethanol producer.
“Turning to Wheat, in 2007 Americans consumed 2.22 bushels of Wheat per capita. At 1.3 billion bushels, the current Wheat futures stockpile of Index Speculators is enough to supply every American citizen with all the bread, pasta and baked goods they can eat for the next two years!”

So, what’s the solution? Purdue Agricultural Economist Dr. Chris Hurt told the Purdue Biofuels Symposium on Sunday May 18:

We must not throw out all the work that’s going on, the tremendous amount of research into cellulose, into increasing the yield ability of corn and the amount of ethanol we can get from that. Our fuel problems aren’t just going to go away. Agriculture needs support over the next several decades. That’s the message we all in agriculture want to get across. We’re into this now. We have huge potential. Let us continue to develop that potential.”

According to Alan Tracy, U.S. Wheat Alliance President, and Ron Suppes, USW Chairman,

Biotechnology is the best and most practical tool available to give the world the boost in agricultural productivity we must have to reduce starvation and environmental degradation. Continued mindless opposition to this applied science will only bring greater misery, poverty and environmental destruction to the world.
“The genetically modified crops now planted broadly across the U.S. require less herbicide and insecticide and consume less of the oil and energy it takes to make such pesticides. (Doesn’t it just make sense to build an insecticide into a plant rather than broadcast one onto the whole field?) Engineered herbicide tolerance brings better weed control, which leads to less tillage, which uses less fuel and preserves both the soil and its capacity to store away carbon. Higher yields mean that less new cropland has to be found to meet the needs of a growing world population. That means less forest and jungle and savannah get destroyed along with their air purifying and carbon storing capacity. Biotechnologically derived saline tolerance is now on the near horizon, meaning that we will be able to reclaim croplands that have been abandoned. Modern biotechnology is roving to be one of the most important environmental advances that agricultural science has ever discovered.”

Uncontrollable Forces

Two editorials in the New York Times this week have claimed that rising oil prices are “uncontrollable forces” and “not anyone’s fault.” (See The World Food Crisis, 4/10/08 and Grains Gone Wild, Paul Krugman, 4/7/08). The implication is that biofuel policy in the United States IS controllable – and eliminating use of food crops for biofuels will allow U.S. grains to fill markets throughout the world.

This scenario ignores the effect that oil prices have on food and grain prices. And as recently as March 2008, OPEC members declined to increase production of crude oil, despite increasing worldwide demand.
Also, the most likely outcome of reducing demand for biofuels in the United States is a reduction in planting of grains. The USDA released its 2008 “Prospective Plantings” on March 31. The data show that farmers in the United States respond to market signals just like every other farmer in the world, by planting crops that will earn them the highest price. So how do we cut the Gordian knot?

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown got it right today when he wrote to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda asking him as chair of the G8 group of industrialised nations to take action to deal with rising food prices. His specific proposals include:

Improving developing country agricultural production: Rising food prices provide an opportunity as well as a challenge for poor countries – with three out of four poor people in the world living in rural areas and dependent on agriculture. We must help smallholders address problems of limited and insecure landholdings, lack of access to inputs and markets, poor rural infrastructure and inadequate market information. A large aid for trade package will be crucial.

Technology and research: Continuing international support for agricultural research will be crucial, along with reform of the international research system to achieve even greater impact on poverty and hunger. We need to undertake research to explore technological solutions to improve the security and consistency of supply. We must take the initiative to further develop higher-yielding and climate resilient varieties of crop.”

The letter was also sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the IMF and Robert Zoellick of the World Bank.

Trying to Define the Indirect Land Use Issue

Michigan State University Professor of Chemical Engineering Bruce Dale recently sent a letter to colleagues interpreting the analyses by Searchinger et al. and Fargione et al. in Science. In the letter, Dale says, “The Searchinger and Fargione argument at its root is this: corn (and perhaps cellulosic) ethanol is not sustainable because it will divert land use for animal feed (over 70% of corn is fed to animals) to new lands that will release large amounts of greenhouse gases as they are cultivated.”

But Searchinger appears to go beyond accounting the carbon released from newly tilled soils in rainforests and grasslands. He includes as a cost the lost opportunity to store carbon in soils when they are converted from production of food and feed to production of biofuels.

In a published response by Timothy Searchinger to criticisms by Argonne National Lab’s Michael Wang and DOE’s Zia Haq, Searchinger says,

Prior studies all assign to biofuels the benefit of using land to take carbon out of the atmosphere by growing feedstocks, but fail to acknowledge that using land in this way has carbon costs, because it sacrifices other carbon benefits of land.”
“Even in the unlikely event that the world’s farmers could boost increases so high that the need for world cropland declines even with a higher population, each additional gallon of ethanol would still preclude some amount of cropland from reverting to forest or grassland.”

The DOE posted an official response to the Fargione study in which they question the assumption that Conservation Reserve Program land will be widely used for biofuel production.

Searchinger’s response and many other useful resources are published on a wiki discussion on the “Current Debate on Land Use” started by The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels. The wiki is open to the academic community for debate and discussion of the land use issue.