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The U.S. biofuels industry has boomed in recent years, thanks to high oil prices and a growing demand for alternatives. Today, fuel and other types of energy produced from biomass roughly match hydropower as America's largest source of renewable energy.

But that growth has also brought questions and concerns about the impact of bioenergy on land use, food production and even global warming. Current proposals before Congress would take bioenergy in the wrong direction, increasing global warming pollution while causing harm to forests, grasslands and the wildlife that lives there.

Some big companies are using the thirst for bioenergy as an excuse to try to get rid of many safeguards that protect America's few remaining natural places -- threatening thriving wilderness and wildlife habitat under the guise of creating "renewable energy."

The challenge is making sure that biofuels and bioenergy are better than the fossil fuels they're meant to replace. That means ensuring that all bioenergy is produced in ways that conserve our natural resources and don't destroy wildlife habitat, create water pollution or contribute to global warming.

What's needed is government action that would increase the amount of electricity and fuel produced from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass -- but would also ensure that the biomass used to make energy comes from sustainable sources, not natural forests and grasslands that provide critical and intact habitat for wildlife or those that have been cleared and converted into bioenergy crops.

The Next Generation of Bioenergy

Today's biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel, produced from crops such as corn, soybeans and pressed sugar cane. In a few years, biofuels will likely also be produced from forestry and agricultural waste, such as corn stovers, rice husks and mill residues.

NRDC supports the development of bioenergy that reduces environmental impacts, such as global warming pollution, and avoids creating social impacts such as higher food prices while protecting the critical ecological values of our natural forests and grasslands.

The smart approach is to adopt new sources of biomass and new bioenergy technologies that have less potential to affect food prices and land use.

What is biomass? It's what we call plant matter that was recently alive. It can be used to make all kinds of energy, including heat, electricity and fuel. Although biofuels -- and specifically ethanol from corn kernels -- get the most attention, burning wood waste for heat and power in the lumber, pulp and paper industries is actually the most common form of bioenergy today.

Biomass can be:

  • Burned in power plants to produce heat or electricity.
  • Fermented to produce fuels, such as ethanol, for cars and trucks.
  • Digested by bacteria to create methane gas for powering turbines.
  • Heated under special conditions, or "gasified," to break down into a mixture of gases that can be burned for electricity or applied to other uses.

The future of sustainable biofuels may lie with the cellulose derived from various plants. (That's the part of the plant you don't eat.) High oil prices, federal and state incentives, and the drawbacks associated with today's biofuels have all spurred researchers to develop cellulosic fuels.

Once commercialized, these new biofuels can be adopted far more widely -- and we'll be able to produce fuel doesn't compete with food for land. Fast-growing, cost-efficient trees, such as poplar and eucalyptus, and grasses such as switchgrass and alfalfa could all be harvested as cellulosic biofuels.

But even these cellulosic crops aren't immune to the same issues raised by today's ethanol and biodiesel. Cellulosic crops must also be managed in a way that protects soil fertility, water quality and wildlife habitat and doesn't compete with food for land.

Biofuels aren't going to solve world hunger or deforestation, but we need to make sure that they aren't exacerbating these critical challenges.

Setting the Standards

The Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007 calls for 21 billion gallons of "advanced biofuels" -- based on materials other than corn -- to be produced by 2022. The act creates safeguards for biofuels designed to ensure that they reduce greenhouse gas pollution and don't cause environmental harm.

Federal standards are a good start. The next step is to develop rigorous international standards to ensure that biofuels are produced sustainably throughout the global market. Standards such as those being developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, hold the best promise for identifying the most sustainable biofuels for the future.

Aggressive action to develop these advanced biofuels could allow America to produce the same amount of energy by 2050 that we currently import in the form of oil from the Persian Gulf. If we also make our vehicles more efficient and plug-in hybrids widely available, advanced biofuels could help virtually eliminate our demand for gasoline.

For American farmers, this new era means the challenge of embracing new crops, new practices and new polices that reward performance, rather than production. But the potential rewards are great: An alternative to fossil fuels that can repower America with clean, homegrown energy.

last revised 4/27/2009

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