Dueling polls, versions of the RFS, and views of biofuels

Illustrated by Daniel McCoy, University of Washington

No sooner had I hit publish on my post Wednesday night about the UN right to food guy calling the use of any arable land for biofuels a "crime against humanity," than two dueling polls poped into my inbox. One was published by Hormel Foods Corp and America's Second Harvest and reported in E&E News (subscription required). It concluded:

...60 percent of Americans believe ethanol is driving up the cost of food and is increasing hunger in the country.

Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said federal ethanol subsidies are helping lower U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but 47 percent also opposed subsidies they say are leading to higher food prices.

The second was commissioned by the Renewable Fuels Association and concluded:

...Americans believe that higher oil prices, increasing demand for beef, pork, chicken and other food items in China and other parts of the world, and drought are the main reasons behind the increasing price of food. One of the least cited causes was the increased use of ethanol.

The poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe rising oil prices is the number one cause of increasing food costs, followed by 15 percent citing increasing global demand. By contrast, just 7 percent of respondents believe increased ethanol production is the most important cause.

Of course polls are not going to resolve what is and vastly complicated and probably unknowable economics question. What they can however do is impact politics. And make no mistake about it that's most of what this is all about.

Take for instance these two dear colleague leaders currently circulating in the House. The first is the letter orchestrated by Rep. Van Hollen that I mentioned the other day. This letter calls for an RFS with strong environmental safeguards and performance standards. The second was lead by Rep. Stark and has 46 representatives on it and calls for a much greater focus on non-food crops and contains a major caution about impacting food prices.

Contrasting these letters with the language adopted by the Senate in HR6, and the only conclusion I can draw is that whatever one thinks of the Senate RFS language, it doesn't stand a chance of threading the needle in the House.

While most of this comes down to politics--the politics of oil, livestock, even the personal politics of key players in the House and Senate--part of what's coming through is the deeply divergent views of biofuels that is increasingly coming to the fore of the public debate. I mean, how can you have our federal legislators more or less ready to adopt some form of a 36 billion gallon mandate and a food expert call biofuels a crime against humanity at the same time? 

The answer is really tied up in the issue of land-use. Bruce Babcok et al have a nice short article in the most recent Iowa Ag Review online, that reviews the question "Is Corn Ethanol a Low-Carbon Fuel?" and does a good job of highlighting the importance of this issue.

They pull together a range of emissions from different corn ethanol production processes absent land-use consideration. Here's their chart:

Then they present arguments for two strikingly different land-use credits. They argue that if the corn is grown on land that was in soybeans before it should get a credit of an additional 1.5 kg CO2eq per gallon or an additional reduction compared to gasoline of about 13%. However, if the corn is grown on land that was formally in the Conservation Reserve Program, the ethanol should get a penalty of about 5.3 kg, which would make any corn ethanol process in their analysis a net emitter of global warming pollution.

Now even the National Corn Grower Association support preserving CRP land, but the question in my mind is will our policies keep up with the market. As Babcock et al. point out in their article:

...[E]xpansion of U.S. corn production for ethanol will reduce U.S. soybean production. But world soybean demand will be unaffected. The result is an increase in world soybean prices and a signal for other countries to expand production..... If this overseas production were to involve conversion of substantial amounts of idle land that would otherwise never be brought into production, then U.S. corn ethanol likely would not be able to lay claim to the title of low-carbon fuel.

I realize I'm a broken record on this issue, but the fact of the matter is that biofuels can be done responsible and irresponsibly and what we get from the market will depend on the rules and incentives we create through our policies. Just in case there are any reporters lurking out there, I'll just repeat here what I said back in late September:

My dream article would explain why it is that there are such polarized opinions about what role biofuels could play in a sustainable way (contrast the title of this Wired article with the one from the May/June 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs: "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor") and then explain that the technologies are necessary but not sufficient to determine which view will prevail. The article would conclude by pointing out that we have a choice here and laying the responsibility for the success or failure of getting biofuels right at the feet of our leader and all of us in choosing them.