Food vs. Fuel in 2013

Source: By MATTHEW L. WALD, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Workers harvesting sugar cane in Sertãozinho, Brazil, for use in ethanol production.

Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesWorkers harvesting sugar cane in Sertãozinho, Brazil, for use in ethanol production.

In coming days, the Environmental Protection Agency’s to-do list will include setting a standard for the amount of advanced biofuels that refiners will be required to blend into gasoline and diesel supplies in 2013. The question is tricky because production in one category, cellulosic fuel from nonfood sources like corn cobs, stalks, wood chips and garbage, has not met the target set by Congress. The E.P.A. has the authority to adjust the quotas as needed, but the issue is complicated.

The quotas were laid out in 2007 when Congress established a renewable fuel standard. Under its targets, production of cellulosic fuel was supposed to hit one billion gallons next year, up from 500 million in 2012, 250 million in 2011 and 100 million in 2010. But so far output is near zero because no one seems to have hit on a commercially successful recipe.

So far the E.P.A. has had little choice but to repeatedly waive nearly all of the cellulosic requirement, but this has led to bitter complaints from the refiners, who say they are still required to use small quantities of a fuel that does not exist or face fines.

Even as the agency waived most of the cellulosic requirement, it kept intact a larger 2.75 billion-gallon quota for “advanced” biofuels in general, which includes cellulosic, ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane and biodiesel made mostly from soybeans. Production of biodiesel or sugar-cane ethanol is favored because each process emits relatively little carbon dioxide, the predominant greenhouse gas, meaning it has an advantage on the global warming front.

Keeping the quota for advanced fuels intact was more or less O.K. when the agency waived smaller cellulosic mandates, said Jeremy I. Martin, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program. But it’s going to be a problem if the agency waives a one billion gallon requirement for 2013, he warned.

If the overall 2.75 billion quota for advanced fuels is not reduced, the biodiesel and the sugar-cane ethanol will have to make up the difference. And if that happens, Mr. Martin argues, the quota will start putting more pressure on food supplies.

Various other industrial users of food, especially companies that raise chickens, turkeys, hogs and beef, have meanwhile been trying to get the mandate for corn ethanol reduced, but the E.P.A. has declined to do so. The biofuel industry has been pushing hard to maintain the quotas, with waivers for cellulosic fuels as needed, year by year.

A new industry report catalogs a growing number of efforts to produce cellulosic biofuels, albeit commercially unsuccessful ones. “All in all, the post-election environment in Washington seems to promise continuation of stable policy support for advanced biofuels commercialization and the robust growth of the industry,” Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology industry Organization said in a letter to supporters this month.

Mr. Martin’s theory is that E.P.A. should stay the course. “We’re going to have to accept that the cellulosic fuels are late,” he said, but it would be better to delay the quotas than to eliminate them. “Going in the right direction a little more slowly is better than going in the wrong direction,” he said.