23 scientists call for careful policy for cellulosic biofuels

Today, 23 leading soil, water, plant, wildlife, and other scientists called for careful science based policies to guide the development of cellulosic biofuels in an article in Science (author list available but subscription required for full article). This is an important and carefully balanced statement that should be required reading for all Hill staffers and other policy makers thinking about biofuels. Here's some more coverage of the article.

The authors are hard hitting: "... [W]e know that grain-based biofuel cropping systems as currently managed cause environmental harm."

But also practical: "[B]ecause grain-based ethanol will likely remain in the nation's energy portfolio, it is important to understand that appropriate practices can soften its environmental impact."

And critically, they make the following point that is often lost in the policy debate:

we know that the development of cellulosic feedstocks has substantial promise for avoiding many of the environmental challenges that face grain-based biofuels.... But however promising, these environmental benefits are by no means given. Whether they are realized will depend on which, where, and how cellulosic biofuels are produced And tradeoffs are unavoidable.

And their conclusion is just too spot on not to quote at length:

Decision-makers at all levels need to understand that applying best available practices to biofuel crop production will have positive impacts both on the sustainability of our working lands and on providing a long-term place for biofuels in our renewable energy portfolio--and that the policies necessary to ensure this outcome are not currently in place. Legislated environmental performance standards for cellulosic ethanol production could, for example, go far toward 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.

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.

We cannot repeat enough the point that cellulosic biofuels can be good but only will be if we decide through our policies to require them to be good. Furthermore, we know enough to act now to position the industry in the right direction.

I think the GHG standards and sourcing safeguards in the RFS are major step in this direction, but I heartily agree with the authors that policies to promote broadly sustainable biofuels are not in place. The article also starts off pointing out that between the EU's policies and our own farm bill policies, there are an ever mounting mix of policies pushing biofuels. Together and individually not only do these not provide a comprehensive set of incentives for good performance, instead they (as the abstract of the article states "will rapidly accelerate adoption and place hard-to-manage pressures on efforts to design and implement sustainable production practices." 

Given this, it's all the more disturbing that we're hearing that some players in the cellulosic industry are trying to get policy makers to weaken the safeguards and standards in the RFS. Getting biofuels right might cost more especially in the early stages, but if we can align the tax credits, farm bill policies, and the RFS, we can make advanced biofuels part of the solution from day one.