New Biofuels Manifesto

University of Minnesota Professor David Tilman, Princeton University Visiting Scholar Tim Searchinger, Dartmouth Professor Lee Lynd and others involved in the debate over the environmental and social impacts of biofuels have published in Science magazine what amounts to a new manifesto on how biofuels can be done right.

The authors list five biofuel feedstocks that are the best in terms of sustainability — “lower life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions than traditional fossil fuels and with little or no competition with food products.”

The authors conclude:

Three steps should be taken: meaningful science-based environmental safeguards should be adopted, a robust biofuels industry should be enabled, and those who have invested in first-generation biofuels should have a viable path forward.

The EPA’s proposed rule on the Renewable Fuel Standard was intended to outline a viable path forward for first-generation biofuels. The Best Case Natural Gas Dry Mill, the Biomass Dry Mill, and the Biomass Dry Mill with Combined Heat and Power scenarios outlined in the “EPA Lifecycle Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Renewable Fuels” all produce reductions in greenhouse gases that come close to or exceed the 20 percent standard in the RFS. The EPA’s definition of the Best Case is: “Best case plants produce wet distillers grain co-product and include the following technologies: combined heat and power (CHP), fractionation, membrane separation and raw starch hydrolysis.”

The question will be whether anyone invests in these technologies or in additional biofuel production at all, given the current economic and social climate in which biofuel companies are operating. One possible factor in choosing the best biofuels ought to be how soon they can become a reality and whether they can be improved from there.

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.

Clouding Assumptions

Science magazine this week published an exchange between Vinod Khosla, the venture capitalist who has invested a great deal in alternative energy, and Timothy Searchinger and coauthor Richard Houghton critiquing and defending the February 2008 study, “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change” The exchange reveals some of the nuances of indirect land use change arguments that have not been addressed.

Khosla’s comments raise two important issues, allocation and system boundaries, though they go largely unexplored. He writes,

It is inaccurate and misleading to allocate the cutting down of Brazilian rainforest, which is done often for timber production, to biofuels use. The economic signals driving biofuels or agricultural land-use changes are different from the timber-driven economic signals driving land-use change patterns. The deforestation estimates of Searchinger et al. are appropriate for biodiesel production in the Far East.”

Deforestation in Malaysia can be allocated appropriately to biodiesel production, in Khosla’s view, because ecologically sensitive land has been converted to palm oil plantations in part to meet demand for biodiesel. The system boundaries of that supply and demand dynamic are clear. Moving from U.S. biofuel policy, which emphasizes domestic production of biofuel over imports, to deforestation in Brazil is a broader system where responsibility must be allocated more carefully, taking into account the direct causes of deforestation such as Brazilian policy.

In their response, Searchinger and Houghton avoid the problem of allocation and instead raise a moral issue:

Biofuels that use good cropland anywhere in the world raise crop and meat prices and help spur the actual conversion to pasture or cropland by increasing their net economic return.”

The sentence does little to support the theory that U.S. biofuel production is tied indirectly to deforestation in Brazil. What it does is seek to set the system boundary for biofuel production at a worldwide level. In order to examine the effects of U.S. biofuel production in this system, all causes of increased crop and meat prices, as well as all policies to encourage or discourage deforestation, must be taken into account and allocated properly.
Searchinger and Houghton further reveal the moralistic tone of their argument in another part of their response:

Khosla correctly notes the capacity to boost yields in many developing countries, but the world must already unleash that capacity to feed a larger, selectively richer, world population while also reducing deforestation.”

This reminds me of when my mother told me as a child to clean my plate because there were starving children in Bangladesh. It’s a snarky comment, I know, but Searchinger and Houghton are attempting to argue that an interdependent worldwide market for food, land and carbon emissions already exists and can be modeled according to economic equilibrium principles. They need to present more evidence and avoid moral arguments.

This Week in Science

A group of preeminent academics put forward a policy proposal on regulating the development of cellulosic biofuels in the pages of Science magazine last week. They point out the urgent need to think about the unintended consequences of alternative fuels in order to achieve outcomes that are substantially better than “business as usual.” They conclude:

Legislated environmental performance standards for cellulosic ethanol production could, for example, go far towards promoting sustainable outcomes. Such standards could range from a prohibition of specific practices such as growing invasive species for feedstock or removing excessive annual crop residue to the provision of incentive payments based on avoided greenhouse gas emissions, both direct and indirect. We know enough today to begin formulating these standards, and both the industry and the environment will benefit from their early identification and refinement.”

There are many nongovernmental organizations already working to develop such standards. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, for instance, has developed Version Zero of the RSB Principles and Criteria for sustainability, touching on every aspect of environmental and social responsibility. The Council on Sustainable Biomass is another group developing voluntary guidelines on sustainable biomass and biofuel production.

Companies that voluntarily adopt such standards pass them on to business partners. Claus Stig Pedersen of Novozymes describes how they work with business partners to maintain their principles.

Weather, Not Biofuels Contributes to Food Crisis

Could it be, that weather, not biofuels, are responsible for the increase in corn prices?  That is what Tim of Environmental Economics suggests. 

 Citing rains and floods, as being responsible for leaving 4 million acres unplanted (according to the AP),  Tim quotes the AP,

“That would likely lift corn prices further, forcing consumers to pay higher grocery bills for meat and pork, as livestock producers would be forced to pass on higher animal feed costs and thin their herd size.”

This is further evidence to suggest that the solution to the global food crisis is not a one size fits all approach, but rather a complicated science-based solution to a complicated science-based problem.

Science is about gathering data, stopping, thinking, and then gathering data, stopping, and thinking some more etc.  To date, the hysteria surrounding this problem, has not been about science but rather gathering data, then having a knee-jerk reaction, after which there is a lot of running around and panicking.  To solve this problem, we need to get back to the science, gather some more data, then stop, and think carefully.

Tilman clarifies study

Much of the media coverage of the recent Science Magazine studies made it clear that many hadn’t actually read the studies before they reported on them. Some interpreted the studies as condemning corn ethanol production now, not as the worst case scenario of what could happen in the future.

University of Minnesota professor David Tilman, an author of one study, clarified it today in an interview with Minnesota Daily:

Tilman, who is currently on sabbatical from the University, said he feels the study is misunderstood by others in the industry.

“The goal of our paper was to point out if we do certain things, that those things would give us fuels that didn’t have very much environmental benefit,” he said.

Tilman said the paper didn’t say the problems were happening now, but instead that they could happen in the future.

The challenge to the biofuels industry, and one it’s willing to undertake, is to make sure that future growth continues in a responsible way so that biofuels can continue to improve the environment.

The Truth is Out There: But you have to look

Biofuels are great! There. I’ve been wanting to say that. And I say that not just because I work here at BIO, but because the science in the Science papers needs a little examining. There is misinformation all over the blogosphere. For example, Siko, in the German Carzone posting the following comments today,

“Two studies shows that replacing fossil fuels with corn-based ethanol would double greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades. The studies show that switchgrass, an alternative to ethanol that’s more weed than plant, would boost emissions by 50%.

How? It’s because, as I described in my piece, so much energy is required to fertilize, harvest and refine the fuels. It’s also because the growing of fuel plants replaces the growing of vegetation that actually consumes harmful greenhouse gases.”

One thing Siko fails to mention is the use of new cropping practices that are reducing the green house gas impacts of corn and other bioenergy crops, such as no-till farming: No till farming results in carbon being stored in the soil in the plant’s ‘root ball’, increasing sequestration 2-3 fold. Biotech corn varieties and collection of agricultural residues for biofuels production both allow for greater adoption of no-till farming. (See BIO report at

Unfortunately the studies in Science also fail to take this critical piece of information into account. And this is only the beginning of a list of inappropriate assumptions. Stay tuned for more to follow.