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Bias Against Biofuels

July 25, 2009
By: Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
 
 

Not much gets corn grower Bob Dickey riled up, but the theory of indirect land use change makes his blood boil.

The theory predicts that using bio-fuels made from U.S. corn and soybeans causes a farmer halfway around the world to make a land use decision to plow virgin land to replace feed. It also suggests that any carbon emissions resulting from this land use change should be ascribed to biofuels.

"The idea that global land use changes are tied to a specific industry, like ethanol, is ridiculous,” says Dickey, who farms near Laurel, Neb., and is current president of the National Corn Growers Association.

Environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, don't think the concept of indirect land use is ridiculous. While there are ongoing debates about the modeling behind indirect land use change, these groups believe the science and economic analysis to date suggests that significant indirect emissions are associated with biofuels.

If the theory was just environmental rhetoric, it wouldn't be such a big deal, Dickey says. But it's not rhetoric anymore; it's the basis for new policy.

This spring, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, California enacted a first-of-its kind law to lower the carbon content of transportation fuels. The regulation is referred to as the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and it assigns a penalty to biofuels based on carbon emissions believed to be created by indirect land use.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also wants to include the indirect land use change theory in its proposed rule for implementing the Renewable Fuels Standard-2 (RFS-2), creating a nationwide carbon penalty for biofuels compared with gasoline. "U.S. biofuels are being penalized for market behaviors and land use decisions around the globe, over which we have no control,” explains Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Flawed theory? The biggest problem with the indirect land use change theory right now is that there is no scientific consensus on its validity. Research on the effects of biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions is relatively young, with most studies appearing just in the past two or three years.

The reality is that land use decisions are enormously complicated and involve many factors that have nothing to do with renewable fuels, including changes in currency, monetary policy, export needs, productivity gains and weather, says Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, an organization made up of ethanol producers.

"Meanwhile, EPA has failed to examine the indirect effects of petroleum and gives gasoline an unfair advantage,” Buis adds.

Jeff Broin, CEO of Poet, says he finds fault with the very concept of indirect land use change because it stems from a lack of understanding of ethanol and agriculture.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Summer 2009
RELATED TOPICS: Policy, Biofuels

 
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