How Green is My Ethanol?

As Industry Booms, New Report Offers Environmental Rating System for Biofuels, Provides Important Guidance to State and Federal Policymakers
SAN FRANCISCO (April 17, 2007) – As the market for ethanol booms, there is growing concern that not all biofuels are created equal when it comes to environmental performance. In fact, whether the impact is positive or negative can vary greatly depending on how the fuel is made. To help investors, policymakers and consumers understand the differences, a new report commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and released today by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley offers a comprehensive ratings system for assessing whether a biofuel is truly green.
Guidelines in the report, “Creating Markets for Green Biofuels: Measuring and Improving Environmental Performance,”could help stem potential backlash against the ethanol industry’s explosive growth.
“There is a gold rush mentality around ethanol today,” said Nathanael Greene, senior energy analyst at NRDC. “But there’s more than money at stake. Also on the line is whether the biofuels technologies that emerge actually meet our environmental and energy security needs. This system is intended to help producers, consumers and government officials make sure that biofuels are doing more good than harm.”
On average a gallon of ethanol produced by the corn-based industry in the U.S. today reduces global warming pollution by 18 percent for every gallon of gasoline displaced. And newer technologies will allow for ethanol production that cuts emissions by more than 80 percent. On the other end of the spectrum are inefficient, environmentally unfriendly production practices such as cutting down rainforests for biomass or burning coal to power ethanol plants that could potentially increase global warming pollution.
“We are at a crossroads,” said Greene. “The choices we make today in biofuels technology will determine whether ethanol is an environmental solution, or just a new kind of problem.”
In recent months, 23 bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill that all need some way to measure environmental performance of biofuels. However, as it stands now, there is no evaluation process to ensure that increased ethanol production will actually reduce global warming pollution.
“Congress and state governments alike need to start paying attention to how we make our biofuels so that we bring to market our best technologies and practices that will produce more biofuels out of every acre with less environmental impact,” Greene explained. “Without standards that guide the market toward the environmental improvements we need, we will get whatever is quickest and dirtiest.”
This report identifies global warming pollution as a key environmental impact that must be measured to identify “green” biofuels, and also identifies the key impacts associated with land, water, and air. The report discusses the opportunities and challenges involved in measuring each impact for each batch of biofuels produced and proposes three different models for combining these measures into a green biofuels index. Finally the report makes recommendations on how such an index could be used to guide policy and the steps to follow to actually implement such an index.
According to the report, the green biofuels index should be developed through a cooperative effort by environmental, regulatory, and agricultural agencies, along with members of local, state or national government.