Opinion: Making sure we get it right on biofuels

This year we’ve had no shortage of examples of why we need to move away from fossil fuels, from the oil disaster in the Gulf and continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil to the record-hot temperatures in the Midwest that speak to the ever-increasing threat of climate change. A big piece of America’s effort to wean ourselves off oil is the development of biofuels, which hold the promise of a domestic fuel supply and a reduction in global warming pollution – if we get it right. But as we’re beginning to see, just because a fuel is made from a plant doesn’t make it smart policy.

California has long been a leader in forward-thinking policies that safeguard our air and water and the natural resources we depend on. The state’s latest effort is to address our climate problem with a broad range  of policies designed to reduce our carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020. One important element of that effort is the low carbon fuel standard, which mandates gradual emissions reductions from California’s transportation fuels.

Last year the California Air Resources Board (CARB) finalized the regulations governing this fuel standard, which include assessments of the emissions from all the different fuels in use in California.  One element of those regulations that received a lot of attention was determining emissions from something called “Indirect Land Use Change.”  These emissions account for the changes in land use that result when land that used to grow food grows fuel instead, leading farmers somewhere else to pick up the slack.  There is no doubt this is a tricky thing to evaluate, but without it the analysis is incomplete.  

While numerous efforts are underway to bring biofuels made from non-food sources into the marketplace, today America’s principle biofuel crop is corn. And as Purdue economist and author of a recent study on land use emissions Wally Tyner says: “With almost a third of the U.S. corn crop today going to ethanol, it is simply not credible to argue that there are no land use change implications of corn ethanol.”

What he means is that, when corn grown here is used to fill a gas tank rather than feed a person or animal, land somewhere else has to be converted to farmland to meet the need for food. Finding a method for quantifying that impact is tough, and certainly a work in progress for CARB and the panel of experts they’ve assembled to advise them.  But without doing this analysis, our accounting of crop-based biofuels would not be credible. It’s that simple. To meet the challenge, CARB is seeking out further expert council and research to aid the search for a solution.

In this area, as in so many others, California leads the way.  Just after CARB finalized their regulations, the EPA came to broadly similar conclusions, especially on the need for a formal accounting of land use change, as part of the federal rulemaking on biofuels. The EPA similarly recognized the need for more expert input to refine their analysis, and plans to ask the National Academy of Sciences to take up the same questions.

We can’t afford to take shortcuts that erode the credibility of the system for evaluating fuel performance. Our biofuels industry, with the exception of corn ethanol, is still in the fledgling state of its development. These innovators and startups are the engine that will drive us towards a clean energy economy, and in order to secure the capital investment to get their industries off the ground, they need the stability of a reputable system. That stability comes from public support, built over the long term, that the benefits of biofuels are real. And that is a belief which must ultimately be anchored on sound science and transparent government.

CARB is moving quickly and deliberately to ensure their regulations are based on up-to-date analysis that has been carefully reviewed. With a sound, science-based standard for California’s transportation fuels, we’ll have taken a great step forward in securing the global warming pollution reductions we need to safeguard our environmental and economic health.

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