The WSJ tries to use biofuels fear factor to urge climate inaction

Recently, I posted a video and a narrative explanation about a critical accounting error that threatens to turn climate legislation into a big incentive for deforestation. Put as simply as possible, the House climate bill and the Boxer-Kerry Senate bill both assume that burning most biomass is exactly carbon neutral, meaning that it doesn’t result in an increase or decrease in atmospheric levels of global warming pollution. Burning biomass to replace coal or natural gas or oil can be good for the climate or bad for it depending on the source of biomass, but it will almost never be exactly neutral, and the climate bill can’t encourage better bioenergy if we refuse to count the emissions. In fact, a climate bill that assumes all biomass has no emissions won’t be able to achieve its goals.

In a recent editorial the Wall Street Journal got right the basic idea that this loophole is a big deal but then jumped to the wrong conclusion, suggesting that rather than fix this biomass loophole we should just be afraid of the future. As a friend of mine put it, it’s like we’re tied to the tracks with the coal powered steam engine of climate change barreling towards us. The loophole will make it harder for us to get off the tracks, most people are focused on how to make getting off the tracks as profitable as possible, but the WSJ would just have us throw up our hands in despair. But, hey, 50% right is pretty good for the WSJ editorial board.

Sadly, the idea that we shouldn’t fully and scientifically account for the pros and cons of biofuels has become a theme for the industry as of late. As part of another one of the infamous last minute deals in the House climate bill, the corn ethanol industry lobbied successfully for a provision that would prohibit EPA from fully accounting for land-use change emissions from biofuels when implementing the RFS. As mentioned earlier, the industry has also been attacking the definition of renewable biomass, expanding that to the point where it doesn’t provide any meaningful protections. And in parallel with all of this, the industry has been lobbying to force EPA to approve the use of blends of ethanol and gasoline with more than 10%  ethanol even though the health and safety testing of such blends hasn’t been completed.

The driving force behind all of this? The corn ethanol industry’s plan to increase their market from 15 billion gallons to around 25 billion. The corn growers are already planning to production and just trying to knock down the barriers one at a time. This from Philip Brasher’s blog:

It’s too early, the growers said, to know when they’ll ask Congress to raise the 15-billion-gallon mandate.

“Basically we’re trying to take care of those hurdles one at a time,” [Darrin] Ihnen [president of the National Corn Growers Association]  said.

The specter of gutted biofuels policies opening the door to lots more corn ethanol is worthy of the WSJ fears, but we are not helpless victims here. I wrote on Thursday about a proposal to reform the biofuels tax credits to pay for performance rather than the current norm, which just pays for volume. But to make this change, we have to start actually measuring the real performance of biofuels. That’s the bottom line here: we can’t get biofuels right if we don’t start counting it right.