Green Budget shows how we can invest in bioenergy done right

The environmental community released its annual Green Budget yesterday, laying out our vision for how smart investments in clean energy can drive America’s economic recovery. My colleague Cai Steger posted a great recap of the Department of Energy’s section and other NRDC energy policy experts will provide, over the next few days, more detailed analysis of different aspects of the budget under the Switchboard tag “greenbudget,” so please stay tuned.

My contribution can be found in the Biomass and Biorefinery Systems R&D Program. This section promotes targeted investments in the development and deployment of clean, next generation biofuels and biopower production systems, all for just a fraction of the $6 billion taxpayers spend every year subsidizing the mature, mainstream corn ethanol industry with the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit or “VEETC”.

As we discussed here, it’s critical for the U.S. to move quickly away from first generation biofuels like corn ethanol to the next generation of cleaner advanced biofuels—those that deliver real environmental performance with less impact on global food and feed prices. It’s equally critical that biomass power is done right, with rigorous safeguards to guide markets towards truly low-carbon biomass,  ensuring that our forests aren’t turned to fuel.

Government incentive programs for biofuels have, to date, primarily subsidized ethanol made from corn. These outlays continue despite the fact that today’s corn ethanol has failed to deliver promised climate benefits and worsens the environmental impacts of intensive corn production on soils, water, and forests. Mounting evidence suggests that the rapid expansion of corn ethanol production has also contributed to soaring food prices, with devastating consequences for the world’s poorest and hungriest.

By subsidizing the best and worst gallons of ethanol, our biofuels incentives have come at the expense of developing new and cleaner biofuels, such as those made from perennial grasses grown on marginal or once degraded lands, winter cover crops grown on exposed cropland, and sustainably managed forests that provide a wide range of critical ecosystem services.

This is not the smart energy policy we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, enhance our national security, create jobs, and curb global warming pollution.

In 2007, Congress took an important step to encourage a transition toward the next generation of biofuels. It passed the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), which requires that the volume of renewable fuel blended into our gasoline increase from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Of these 36 billion gallons, 21 billion are to come from “advanced” biofuels—those delivering at least a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from a 2005 baseline—including 16 billion gallons from biomass plant materials, a.k.a. cellulose.

Achieving these targets will significantly displace use of fossil fuels from foreign sources, according to the Department of Energy, resulting in 770 million fewer barrels of imported oil, $60 billion in consumer savings, and a 200 million metric tons reduction in CO2 emissions, all by 2030.

Farmers will need to shift to growing biomass for energy, while maximizing environmental co-benefits, minimizing food competition, and avoiding the direct or indirect loss of valuable forestland and grasslands, to achieve these volume mandates. The DOE’s Biomass and Biorefinery Systems R&D Program would support these shifts.

Recognizing that the supply of truly sustainable biomass is limited, we will also need to allocate what we are able to produce to its highest value end use. The Green Budget, addressing this reality, properly recommends that the program focus on developing bioenergy for applications where few other sustainable alternatives exist, such as aviation fuels.

Ending wasteful ethanol subsidies is the first step in getting biofuels right. The Green Budget offers an example of the types of bioenergy programs we must support instead.