Wrong Question: Can Biofuels Be Carbon Friendly?

The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to “fix” the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”

To be sure, use of bioenergy can only reduce the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in the soil (in root systems). And yes, individual biofuel or bioenergy producers could use only new biomass that has recently pulled carbon from the atmosphere (although other environmentalists may differ on that) or biomass that would otherwise be left to decay and emit the stored carbon anyway. The question then is whether there is enough of this type of biomass to meet energy needs.

But that is not the point of the current Kyoto protocol or of U.S. cap-and-trade legislation. Their shared goal is to reduce overall GHG emissions, over time, ideally lowering the cap until emissions reach equilibrium.

Searchinger cites recent modeling studies to say that not employing his fix to global carbon accounting “would lead to the loss of most of the world’s natural forest because clearing those forests for bioenergy becomes one of the cost-effective means of complying with laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” However, the fossil fuel industries are certain to receive allowances under the U.S. legislation. Employing a carbon accounting model that treats biomass as equivalent to fossil fuel would definitely make continued reliance on fossil fuel the cost-effective alternative.

Another interesting response to the Searchinger et al article comes from Geoff Styles of the Energy Collective, who extends the carbon accounting argument to electric vehicles. All alternative energy sources can be opened up to particular scrutiny. What is needed is a truly accurate and balanced accounting of fossil fuel use to compare these arguments.

The only other political option would be to drastically cut use of all energy. Models do project that the current worldwide economic recession has brought about a reduction in climate emissions by cutting energy use.

Searchinger does note that biomass and biofuels have the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions – depending on land management. A better question here is whether his models can show that fossil fuel use also has the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions with proper land management.

Opportunity Costs

The Washington Post this week reported on a carbon-credit proposal being put forward by Ecuador for consideration in UNFCCC Climate Change Talks. Ecuador is asking for carbon credits in exchange for leaving undisturbed one-fifth of its petroleum reserves, which are located beneath a protected national park that is part of the Amazon rainforest.

The proposal is similar to one put forward by Brazil last August, called the Amazon Fund, which asks foreign countries to donate money for investment in Brazilian businesses that would conserve the Amazon rather than cut it down – rubber production, for instance, rather than timber, cattle, and agriculture.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes natural and managed forests as potential carbon sinks, but not untapped petroleum reserves.

Ecuador’s proposal highlights one of the more obscure calculations in the life cycle emissions of biofuels included in the EPA’s proposed rule — namely “foregone sequestration.” Because natural forests store more carbon than managed agricultural land, biofuels are assessed an opportunity cost stemming from conversion of forest or grassland to agriculture. This is not actual carbon released from the forest or grassland, but a penalty for not preserving a carbon sink (or, in the case of grassland, not converting it to a forest).

The EPA has assumed and applied to biofuels a constant rate of foregone sequestration over a period of 80 years. In fact, the cumulative calculated emissions of corn ethanol include only this opportunity cost after the 20 year mark. The rate is equal to nearly half the calculated emissions of the gasoline baseline. The inclusion of this factor more than doubles the calculated emissions per acre of converted Brazilian forest land assumed to be caused by U.S. biofuel production.

A similar opportunity cost should arguably be applied to petroleum, particularly if Ecuador’s proposal moves forward and the international community recognizes untapped petroleum reserves as potential carbon sinks. In the case of Ecuador, this opportunity cost might include both the emissions that could have been avoided by leaving fossil carbon in the ground and the deforestation caused as roads, pipelines, and drilling sites are cleared from the Amazonian forest.

Midnight Rule

The EPA apparently missed the statutory deadline (Dec. 19) to publish the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the Renewable Fuel Standard. The Bush administration last summer announced that it would not promulgate new rules during its final 30 days, in order to stay away from “midnight rulemaking.” That self-imposed deadline (Dec. 20) also passed.

The rule is said to be a victim of lobbying on the part of the biofuel industry and environmental groups. Marianne Lavelle, a former reporter with U.S. News & World Report now with The Center for Public Integrity, analyzes the activities of both sides, saying, “In the waning days of the Bush administration, a lobbying frenzy is now underway over the indirect impact this homegrown energy solution may have on land use around the world.” Lavelle reports that the dispute is over how to properly measure the theoretical impact of U.S.-produced biofuels on land use around the world. As she summarizes it, “‘Previous accountings of emissions for biofuels haven’t adequately considered that land is a scarce resource,’ said Jeremy Martin, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the experts who met with OMB.”

According to TIME magazine’s Michael Grunwald, the dispute is over whether the EPA will use a “strong” or a “weak” test: “The EPA is now devising a “life-cycle” test designed to measure whether various biofuels really reduce overall carbon emissions from the field to the tank; the farm lobby is already pushing for a weak test, because a strict one could halt the biofuel revolution.” Grunwald, of course, is already convinced that biofuels are worse for the environment that gasoline. (See earlier post here.)

Grunwald’s article represents the problem with the EPA’s announcement of numerical calculations: neither the industry nor the environmental groups would be willing to accept them as accurate. Many environmental groups would like to convince the American public that biofuels are either worse than gasoline or that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is so small that it wouldn’t be worth it. That task might not be very difficult in the current economic climate.

With daily drops in the price of oil, biofuels now are assumed to be unable to compete on price with gasoline. Susan Wilson, a writer at Tech.Blorge, poses the question “Are biofuels still economically feasible?” She writes:

While the abundance of fuel and decrease in gas prices has been a welcome relief to most people in this awful economy, it has also lowered the perceived need for immediate fossil fuel replacements.
“Improving our air quality is a marvelous goal as long as it doesn’t inconvenience people too badly or cost too much. When gas prices were high, switching to cleaner cars and fuels was not only seen as good for the environment but patriotic. Now, it costs too much for people reeling from the collapse of our economy, massive job losses, and uncertainty over what lies ahead.”

If Americans are really wondering why this year’s recession occurred, the first place to look would be the $100-a-barrel swing in oil prices. Perhaps TIME should have considered the barrel of oil for its Man of the Year.

Does Oil Cause Indirect Land Use Change?

I’ve been paying a lot of attention recently to new analyses attempting to model carbon emissions from indirect land use change, which is the conversion of land needed to maintain an international balance of supply and demand for agricultural crops, an effect that is heavily determined by crop prices. These new analyses raise a question about the existing assumption that oil has zero effect on land use change.

Tim Searchinger, the lead author of one of the Science papers that brought this debate to national attention, says, for instance,

The amount of land used to produce a gallon of gasoline is extremely small — according to some energy experts we have quickly consulted, it is less than 1 percent of the amount of land used to produce a gallon-equivalent of ethanol. Much of the world’s oil is either produced in deserts or offshore or on land that still remains in productive agricultural use. Because the effect of oil production on emissions from land use change is small, it is reasonable to omit it.”

Similarly, Dan Kammen and Thomas Hertel, et al., in a recent letter to the administrator of California’s Air Resources Board encouraging the inclusion of a large indirect land use emission number for biofuels in California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, say,

Our judgment incorporates recognition that land use effects of fossil fuels need to be compared to those of biofuels. Briefly, petroleum (with the important exception of strip-mined oil sands and oil shale) affects tiny amounts of land compared to biofuels per unit of energy obtained. Oil is extracted from open water, from deserts, and in any case from very small land footprints.”

The statements primarily address the direct land use change emissions of petroleum, assuming that because oil does not displace crop production it does not have an indirect effect on land use. However, indirect land use change is heavily mediated by crop prices. And as we’ve seen over the past year, oil has a significant impact on crop prices.

For biofuels to meet the new U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, they must achieve “at least a 20 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to baseline lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions … for gasoline or diesel … sold or distributed as transportation fuel in 2005.”

A recent paper from Purdue University professors Thomas Hertel, Wallace Tyner, and Dileep Birur, assesses land use change in the 2001-2006 timeframe as a baseline for predicting land use change through 2015 in response to the U.S. and EU renewable fuel standards. The researchers find that in 2006, grain output in the U.S. increased by 7 percent. “The majority of this (5.6% output growth) was driven by higher oil prices,” and the change did lead to declines in output of other agriculture and forestry.

Searchinger’s original paper cites an estimate of the baseline carbon emissions for gasoline of 92 tons of CO2 per megajoule, and most analyses appear to adopt that figure. And Searchinger has publicly stated that it “makes little sense to reduce fossil fuels at expense of greater land conversion” when calculating the carbon emissions.

However, there is a need to study and model the true effect of biofuels and petroleum on land conversion and carbon emissions before drawing a final conclusion.

Do Biofuels Always Bring Rainforest Destruction?

The debate over “carbon debt” created by changes in land use has recently expanded to include the issue of competition between food and fuel and its effect on developing countries.

David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, one of the lead authors of the “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt” article in Science, recently held an interview with Newsweek magazine in which he says,

In order to grow biofuels, farmers have gone to fertile land near them, rain forest or grassland, and they have started to grow biofuels.

“If you use farmland in North America to grow biofuels, [you’re forcing a farmer somewhere else to clear-cut forest to grow food crops]. You’ve effectively cut down a rain forest.

“We looked at all of the current biofuels that are being made around the world and asked if they were causing native ecosystems to be turned into land that would be used to grow the crop. Essentially, all of them are doing that.”

Tilman’s arguments tie together the issues of greenhouse gas emissions and food production. The argument is that developing countries must expand food production in order to replace imports that have become increasingly expensive due to biofuel policies in the United States. MoveOn.org and other organizations have made the connection explicit in a new campaign titled AVAAZ.org.
The AVAAZ.org web site states, “Increased demand for biofuels is driving up food prices and accelerating climate change, as rainforests are destroyed to grow fuel. But with strong global sustainability standards, we can ensure that biofuels help, rather than hurt.”
An advocacy letter drafted by AVAAZ.org to members of the G8 says, “Some biofuels are good, others are a disaster–and our policies must tell the difference between the two.”
The argument that U.S. biofuel production competes with food production is a myth that BIO and many other groups have tried for some time to dispel.
Rising worldwide agricultural prices certainly do encourage farmers to increase production, as pointed out by the UN-Energy report “Sustainable Bioenergy : A Framework for Decision Makers”.
As Tilman readily admits, “It’s not ethical to try to deny people in developing countries the right to clear their land to grow food and feed themselves.”
And biotechnology is already helping farmers around the globe sustainably expand the food supply through increased yields rather than expanded land use. According to the annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, more than 12 million farmers around the world have chosen biotech crops because of the significant socioeconomic, environmental, and agricultural benefits they provide. From 2006 to 2007, global use of biotech crops increased nearly 12 percent, with global biotech crop acreage reaching a historic 282 million acres in 23 countries.
The National Corn Growers Association also poses an interesting thought, “Detractors argue that grain markets should adhere to a hierarchical approach that emphasizes grain’s utility as food and feed. But what about the fundamental societal needs of energy, security and mobility?”
NCGA data show that increased demand for corn is being met with increased supply here in the United States, helping to level out grain prices.