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.

Visualizing the indirect effects of oil

It has been pointed out numerous times on this blog (herehere and here) that you can’t have a true comparison of fuels if you account for the direct effects of all fuels and the indirect effects of only one. But that is what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resource Board (ARB) have proposed. Both the EPA in their proposed RFS II rules and ARB in their Low-Carbon-Fuel-Standard have calculated the direct effects of all fuels and then only looked at indirect land effects and applied them only to biofuels.

Is it reasonable to claim that there are NO indirect effects from petroleum? One study, published in the academic journal Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining, suggested that accounting for the military protection of pipelines alone would double the greenhouse gas emissions of Persian Gulf oil. But if you don’t want to read through the study, just watch this video from the Renewable Fuels Association. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and in this case I think they’re right.

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.

Energy Matters

Some say growth in the biofuel industry can play a significant role in fueling this country’s economic engine. For example, there are about three-dozen cellulosic biorefineries currently in various stages of planning or construction. Six of these are already in operation producing biofuels.

Industry analyst Bio Economic Research Associates projects that advanced biofuel producers such as these can create more than one-hundred thousand new jobs by 2022. Many of these jobs will be in sectors hit hard by the current recession, such as agriculture and construction. Plus, analysts project that the growth of the industry could directly contribute over thirty-five billion dollars annaully to U.S. economic growth by 2022.

Another benefit, many believe, is that advances in biofuels can reduce annual oil imports by as much as $70 billion each year, also by 2022. This could save billions of dollars in oil imports over the next decade.

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What Do You Know, Oil Does Cause Land Use Change

In a recent post, I questioned the apparent assumption in the current debate over greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels that petroleum gasoline production does not have an effect on land use change. It turns out there is a well-developed literature on the direct land use change effects of oil exploration in the Amazon and South America.

Chris W. Baynard of the University of North Florida Department of Geology presented a study, “Venezuela’s Heavy Oil Belt: Monitoring Exploration and Production-Related Land Cover Changes,”, at the ESRI 2007 Southeast User Group Conference.

In it he says that most land use land cover change studies on deforestation in tropical regions points to two main drivers, agriculture and logging. The common thread is roads that provide access to these resources and deliver them to market. The same is true for petroleum exploration and production, though, according to Baynard:

Petroleum exploration and production also causes changes to land cover, but some practices create less disturbance than others. [There is a] lack of attention in land use and land cover change literature.”

His study finds that petroleum exploration, pushed by government policies to boost oil production in response to recent high prices (2001-2005), was the primary driver of observed land use change in connection with two large oil development projects in Venezuela’s heavy oil belt. “The extraction of natural resources produces marked impacts on the landscape,” he says.

Carlos F. Mena of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Alisson F. Barbieri of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil, also studied the direct land use change impacts of oil exploration and development in a paper titled “Pressure on the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve: Development and Land Use/Cover Change in the Northern Ecuadorian Amazon”:

We find that LULC patterns within and adjacent to the Reserve are influenced by (1) changes in land tenure regimes in newly classified Patrimony Forest, (2) petroleum exploration and production, (3) indigenous communities location, characteristics, and integration to the market economy, and (4) settlement patterns and household characteristics of colonists.”

In 2005, the U.S. imported 449 million barrels of oil from Venezuela (roughly 26% of imports from OPEC countries and 12% of total imports). It also imported 34 million barrels from Brazil, an increase from 19 million in 2004. In 2006, that number jumped to 49 million, according to U.S. Census data.

With global demand rising and supplies declining, evidence suggests that the price of oil will continue to be a driver of exploration and associated land use change in South America. Andy Coghlan of New Scientist recently found that “Unspoilt Amazonian rainforests covering an area almost as large as Texas have been provisionally earmarked for oil and gas exploration.”

Bruce Dale of Michigan State University made reference to this literature in his presentation during a webinar hosted by the North Central Bioeconomy Consortium: “Forest conversion is driven by combined forces: agricultural expansion + timber utilization + road access explain 96% of observed cases but any single factor explains less than 20%.” He correctly observes that so far, the discussion of land use change attributed to biofuels has not been balanced by a comparison to the land use change impacts of petroleum. In terms of regulatory policy being developed by the U.S. EPA, the examination would be relevant.

US Rep. Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) Questioning Big Oil (ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell)

Don’t miss US Rep. Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) questioning big oil companies:  ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell