EPA biofuels rule: calculating the payback

The EPA released a report yesterday that proposes to change the rules of the biofuels game.  The report, titled “Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives: Changes to Renewable Fuel Standard Program,” examines the lifecycle of corn-for-ethanol practices and sets the “payback” period of carbon emissions for corn-for-ethanol fuel as 33 years. The payback period means that at first, corn-for-ethanol practices will be a net source of carbon into the atmosphere, as clearing farmland using fire and releasing carbon from soil create initial bursts of carbon release. Over time, however, the system will become self-sustaining and will become a net sink for carbon. Corn ethanol has been ranked as one of the lowest overall viable and sustainable forms of alternative fuels, and ecologists have shown that under our current system, almost all corn-based (both grain and cellulosic) cause environmental harm. Although environmentalists, including the National Resource Defense Council, have spoken up in favor of the EPA’s rule, the biofuels mandate still leaves a lot of wiggle room for revelation of corn ethanol’s true nature, especially under required production. For example, as posed by the Roger Pielke on the Prometheus blog, a question that remains is how long it will take to develop an even better biofuel standard than the current corn practices, which are not efficient. If this development time is less than 33 years, but the law mandates commitment to corn as a fuel source for at least 33 years, then the law will in effect create a net source of carbon.  As he puts it: “Does it make sense to incur very large increases in carbon dioxide emissions in the short-term under a promise of benefits to occur many decades into the future?” Read more about the issue on the Nature blog: The Great Beyond, at Reuters and, for the business side, the UK’s Guardian. EDIT: For a simple breakdown of the EPA’s scenarios and an interview with Tim Searchinger, a scientist who allegedly published the first paper showing that corn ethanol production increases greenhouse gas emissions, check out this Grist...

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For now, forget biofuels in reserves

Ethanol as the next generation of alternative fuels has stirred significant controversy. While some tout its lower-than-gasoline greenhouse-gas emissions and its usefulness in creating carbon sinks in its agricultural fields, many other ecologists call ethanol production the most inefficient of alternative fuel options. Even the most optimistic scenarios still show that using current technologies, it can take years – in some studies, up to 1,000 – to overcome ethanol’s accumulated carbon debt. If converting land to ethanol-producing agriculture is so harmful to the environment, should we simply leave that land alone instead? Writing in the March issue of Ecological Applications, a group of ecologists based at Duke University say that until technologies for producing ethanol from cellulosic materials improve drastically, leaving land in a conservation reserve program will produce fewer greenhouse gases on the whole than using the land for ethanol production. Current federal programs to increase ethanol production are investing in transforming conservation lands  to corn-for-ethanol agricultural production, a practice that the researchers found was the worst strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. “Until cellulosic ethanol production is feasible, or corn-ethanol technology improves, corn-ethanol subsidies are a poor investment economically and environmentally,” said author Rob Jackson of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The researchers found that cellulosic ethanol practices, including farming switchgrass, are a more eco-friendly biofuel production method than using corn, since cellulosic species often require little or no tilling. Tilling corn can release 30 to 50 percent of the carbon stored in the soil; mowing switchgrass, by contrast, can increase soil carbon content by 30 to 50 percent. Still, the researchers say that until cellulosic ethanol practices are commercially available, setting aside land for natural vegetation creates the best greenhouse gas benefits.  But once these practices are available, they write, “cellulosic ethanol in set-aside grasslands should provide the most efficient tool for greenhouse gas reduction of any scenario” they examined. Read the open-access paper here. Gervasio Piñeiro, Esteban G. Jobbágy, Justin Baker, Brian C. Murray, Robert B. Jackson (2009). Set-asides can be better climate investment than corn ethanol Ecological Applications, 19 (2), 277-282 DOI:...

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Policy news update: Budgets, climate, biofuels

With funding from the recent the stimulus bill beginning to trickle down to agencies and budgets for the next two fiscal years on the line, it’s all about the Benjamins these days in Washington. Here are some highlights from today’s issue of the ESA Policy News Update, written by ESA’s Policy Analyst, Piper Corp. 2009 Budget. The fiscal year 2009 omnibus spending bill passed the House in February and the Senate was preparing to vote on the bill this week. The $410 billion bill will provide funding for virtually all energy- and environment-related programs, which have been funded at 2008 levels under a continuing resolution set to expire today. If the bill does not pass, Congress would extend the continuing resolution until the end of FY 2009. As of this morning, the bill had stalled in the Senate. Republican lawmakers have criticized the bill’s spending levels. The bill contains two riders, or program modifications that are often attached to bills funding those programs. The Endangered Species Act (E.S.A.) rider would reinstate scientific review in the E.S.A. President Obama took the first steps toward undoing the Bush administration rule that limited scientific review of government projects on March 3. The Polar Bear rider could open the door to using the E.S.A. as a means to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. 2010 Budget. The $3.5 trillion budget draft provides increased funding over fiscal year 2008 levels for many environmental initiatives. NSF would receive $7 billion (a $950 million increase), and the administration has pledged to double funding for basic research over ten years. NOAA would receive $18.7 billion (a $1.5 billion increase), and the EPA would receive $10.5 billion (a $3.0 billion increase), including $19 million to establish an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change action in Congress. The House and the Senate are preparing to debate energy and climate change issues, but with different approaches. The Senate plans an energy debate within the next six weeks, followed by a climate debate this summer. The House, however, is likely to take up both issues in a single bill. Congress will likely pursue a carbon cap-and-trade system instead of a carbon tax, but many economists have advocated the latter option and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has remained open to either approach. Renewable energy. After being suspended by the White House, the rule to expand the national renewable fuels standard (RFS) is back under review, and a proposal could be out within the next month. The 2007 energy law called for increasing levels of renewable fuels in the US motor mix to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The target for cellulosic...

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Cleaner, better biofuels?

The promise of biofuels – fuel made from plant material – has taken a nosedive as scientists predict its generation could cause far more greenhouse gas emissions than it would make up for in preventing the use of fossil fuels.  But a Michigan State chemist has asserted in a paper in Environmental Science & Technology online that if sustainable management practices, such as no-till farming, are put to widespread use, then producing biofuels could take a fraction of the time to overcome its “carbon debt.” “”Sustainable management practices, such as no-till farming and planting cover crops, can reduce the time it takes for biofuels to overcome the carbon debt.” Bruce Dale (pictured) and his colleagues report that sustainable farming techniques, such as low- or no-till farming practices and planting cover crops, could reduce the time it takes for grassland conversion to overcome its carbon debt from the worst-case estimates of up to 1,000 years to as little as three years. It’s all a matter of assumptions, and each model of biofuel sustainability uses different ones. Dale assumes that the use of sustainable farming practices is “more than 50 percent and increasing,” which contradicts many other accounts (see the Science policy forum paper by Robertson et al., Oct. 2008).  Incentives for sustainable farming could, of course, increase the relative value of biofuels in the grand scheme of alternative...

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The battle of alternative fuels

With all the potential sources of alternative energy now being bandied about, how’s a green-minded citizen to really know which technologies to throw their support into? Energy sources from wind and solar to biofuels to “clean” fossil fuel technologies receive major attention in the news. Yet these views are often  propelled by the interests of industry stakeholders, and we also hear that real clean coal technology hasn’t even been developed yet, that increased corn-based ethanol production can mangle food webs and that fuel cells use fossil fuels to create their hydrogen stores. In response, a researcher in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford has taken on the Herculean task of assessing the viability of the major alternative fuel sources on today’s market.  Mark Jacobson collected information not only on the fuels’ potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also “their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability.” Jacobson weighted each type of fuel source with respect to the above 11 categories and calculated its ability to power three different types of electric or liquid-fueled cars. The big winners? Wind, solar and hydroelectric power. Wind-fueled battery-powered electric vehicles ranked first in seven out of 11 categories, including climate damage reduction. The losing combination was ethanol, both in grain and cellulosic form. These were ranked lowest with respect to climate, air pollution, land use, wildlife damage and chemical waste. EPA scientist Rick Haeuber has said that one of the issues scientists have with research informing policy decisions is that science is really only one part of the equation, and that many other factors play into a final policy decision.  This is an example of just such a rare venture within the scientific community: one that attempts to account for as many factors as possible, from a social, political and scientific standpoint. The field could benefit from more of these interdisciplinary studies. Read the rest of Jacobson’s paper in the journal Energy and Environmental...

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