Questions about biofuels, for the record

As I wrote about here, two months ago, I testified about biofuels before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Its standard practice for committee members to send follow up questions "for the record." Below are the eight follow up questions I was asked and my responses. They're good questions, and I hope my answers are helpful.

1) At all times, we should be mindful of the nations more vulnerable citizens who struggle with any fundamental resource that escalates in price. As exemplified by recent riots in Mexico over the rising cost of flour tortillas, are you at all concerned about rising food costs as more crops and farmland is dedicated to feedstock for fuels rather than food?

I certainly believe that as one of the wealthiest societies on earth, we have a moral obligation to try to help ensure that everyone has access to a sufficient and nutritious diet. I do not believe, however, that recent increases in food prices were primarily or even significantly caused by increasing demand for food crops to produce biofuels. High energy prices combined with distortive domestic and international agricultural policies are much more likely suspects. (The often referred to “Mexican tortilla riots” are good evidence of this. Press reports, such as this and this, suggest that it was actually a relatively peaceful protest over food prices cause by Mexico shift from monopoly protection of white corn producers to more market oriented pricing. Did US demand for corn play a role? Maybe, but it is clear that Mexican agricultural policy was the larger driver.)

Nevertheless, it is critical to closely monitor the competition for arable land between food, feed, and fuel crops both near-term and long-term for two reasons. First, it is certainly possible for this competition to combine with agricultural, biofuels, and trade policies to cause local or even regional food shortages and high food prices. This potential will grow if we do not find more and better ways to integrate biomass production into food and feed production and also increasingly move our biomass production onto degraded and fallow land.

Second, the competition for arable land is also important because shifting arable land from food and feed to fuel puts increased pressure for the conversion of natural ecosystems to active agricultural production. Natural ecosystems are generally rich in biodiversity and above and below ground carbon, and conversion will generally lead to the loss of both the biodiversity and the carbon. The carbon that would be released from many landscapes is equal to many years worth of avoided petroleum combustion. Thus if fuel feedstock production displaces food and feed and thus indirectly causes conversion of these ecosystems, the greenhouse gas benefits of the biofuels produced would be largely or entirely negated.

Both the food vs fuel concern and the global warming pollution concern point to the importance preserving the definition and standards for lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions reductions that are in the historic energy bill signed by the President this week. If rigorously implemented drawing on the best science, these will do more than any other provision to encourage the most efficient use of land for the biofuels produced to meet the renewable fuel standard.

2) One of the key roles of the federal government is to assist with research and development. What R&D programs have you found particularly helpful in developing and improving biofuels?

I don’t have firsthand experience with any government R&D programs, but believe that the Biomass Research and Development Act as amended in the 2005 Energy Policy Act provides the best overall structured approach to biofuels R&D. The Biomass R&D Act required DOE and USDA to work together and target R&D through merit based RFPs to four different areas of R&D at three different levels. The areas targeted are crops, conversion, co-products, and environmental analysis and the levels of R&D targeted are demonstrations, applied innovations, and fundamental science.

While the DOE has significantly increased its funding of biofuels R&D, the vast majority of this funding is not going through the Biomass R&D Act structure, which seems like a lost opportunity to ensure breadth and balance.

3) With forest fires raging in California and releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, would you support a policy that allows us to better manage forests by harvesting wood waste that could be used for biofuel production?

Forest fires are a natural part of the carbon cycle and harvesting wood from our public lands to make biofuels is not good climate policy. There is little to no empirical evidence documenting the efficacy of thinning at reducing the extent or severity of fire, thus its effectiveness at addressing community fire risk is speculative at best. In contrast, ample evidence exists on how best to protect homes and communities from forest fires--whatever the cause. These proven methods, known as “firewise”, involve clearing flammable material from the immediate radius of the home and making sure important safety measures are followed, like installing fireproof roofing. For more information on "firewise" and the importance of increased federal investment in community fire protection, please see NRDC's recent report "Safe at Home: Making the Federal Fire Safety Budget Work for Communities", which presents findings of a pilot study documenting a CA community's fire preparedness level and provides specific recommendations. Moreover, while limited thinning in the immediate vicinity of homes and businesses can help reduce fire risk, from a fuels production perspective forest thinnings this will never produce enough biomass to produce any significant amount of biofuels. Existing programs that use this material for heat and power schools and other public spaces presents a much more efficient use of this woody material.

4) Do you believe that ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions?

Whether ethanol reduces or increases greenhouse gas emissions relative to gasoline depends entirely on how it is produced. Different production pathways in use today from cropping practice through refining practice almost certainly do both—some reducing and some increasing—and future pathways have the same potential. That is why it’s so important that we stop treating all gallons of biofuels as if they are the same and start targeting our incentives and mandates to those gallons that produce the most benefits.

5) It sounds to me like you think that biofuels create more problems than they are worth. In a fiscally constrained environment, do you think there are better R&D uses for investment – for example carbon capture and storage – instead of creating fuels that might otherwise put a stress on the environment?

Biofuels are quite possibly the most complicated renewable source of energy to “get right” from a broad sustainability perspective, but they are also almost certainly needed to meet the levels of greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Biofuels are almost certainly needed and needed in annual quantities at least ten times greater than we’re using them today. We will also almost certainly need carbon capture and storage. In the end, we simply cannot afford to not be investing in both of these technologies.

6) On page 8 of your written statement you say, “Current federal biofuels policies, from the RFS to the various tax credits, simply reward volume and are based on the assumption that more is better.  Moving forward, it is critical that these policies mature to a “better is better” approach and start to reward good performance.”  By requiring an increased RFS in the energy bill currently under consideration, do you agree that we are still leaning toward a “more is better” approach?

The historic energy policy act signed by the President this week takes the first significant step towards “better is better” biofuels policy by requiring a level of performance from all biofuels that are used the meet the renewable fuel standard. The lifecycle greenhouse gas reduction standards in the act are the first GHG standards signed into law ever and for the first time require biofuels to provide clear climate benefits. This is not enough, however. The RFS is still a volume requirement and while it established minimum standards, we need a policy that encourages the best performance. Ultimately, we need a low-carbon fuel standard. This approach requires a level of performance (a reduction in the average GHG intensity of transportation fuel sold) and thus provides the greatest reward those gallons that provide the most benefits.

7) The Boston based Clean Air Task Force has asserted in a recent report that Europe’s 2003 biofuels directive lead to unexpected increases in GHG emissions, tropical deforestation and biodiversity loss.  What is your response to that assessment?

Increased greenhouse gas emissions and an increased rate of biodiversity loss are certainly a possible outcome of biofuels done wrong. As I mentioned in my response to the first question, if crops for biofuels compete for arable land, they contribute directly and indirectly to the economic pressure to convert natural ecosystems to managed agriculture. Tropical rainforest are among the most biologically and carbon rich lands in the world, and they are under intense pressure from agriculture. Fortunately, there are ways to integrate biomass production into food and feed production and ways to grow biomass on degraded and fallow lands that may actually increase carbon sequestration on these lands. The key is the policy drivers.

The energy act recently signed includes a definition of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions that includes land-use changes, standards that require all biofuels to provide various levels of GHG reductions, and safeguards for various sensitive lands. If carefully implemented, these provisions should minimize the economic pressures for land-conversion caused by the RFS and create a market for feedstocks produced on degraded and fallows lands and cultivated with carbon-smart practices.

8) On page 12 of your testimony, you say “So while it’s much harder to know where things stand, we know that a lot of investor dollars are being bet on near-term commercialization.  The research is being driven by venture capitalists and private investors.”  That being said – why does the federal government really need to get involved in the market other than ensuring that environmental standards are met?

No. Much of the private sector investment has been induced by the existing and expected market for biofuels, which the state and federal government is critical in creating. There is simply too much capitol inertia in the petroleum fuel market to expect it to adopt low-carbon fuels at a rate sufficient to avoid catastrophic climate change.