In crucial vote, E.U. backs limit on food-based crops for fuel

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2013

European lawmakers today voted to limit conventional biofuels to 6 percent of the European Union’s transportation fuel by 2020 amid concerns that the growth of crops for fuels is diverting resources away from food production.

The European Parliament voted 356-327 in favor of the cap, sending the proposal into negotiations with leaders of E.U. member states.

The Parliament also voted to require that 2.5 percent of the bloc’s transportation fuel come from advanced biofuels by 2020 but backed off from requiring that indirect land-use changes be factored into greenhouse gas calculations until that point. Today’s proposal also includes a provision that sets a 7.5 percent binding target for the share of ethanol in petroleum-based gasoline.

“I welcome the Parliament vote in favor of correct accounting of greenhouse gas emissions including indirect land-use change and in favor of a reasonable cap on first-generation biofuels. This is an important signal that support should be focused on advanced biofuels from 2020,” said lead Member of Parliament (MEP) Corinne Lepage of France.

Ethanol currently accounts for 19.9 percent of the biofuel consumed in Europe, while biodiesel makes up most of the rest. According to the EurObserv’ER barometer, which releases an annual European biofuels report, overall biofuel consumption within the European Union grew 2.9 percent between 2011 and 2012 and last year accounted for 4.7 percent of E.U. transportation fuel.

Current E.U. policy requires that 10 percent of the European Union’s transportation fuel come from renewable energy sources, and the vote today signals that the bloc will likely have to increase its focus on electric vehicles in order to reach that goal.

Both renewable fuels groups and environmentalists were closely watching the outcome of today’s vote, which comes as the ethanol industry worldwide is facing increased pressure over what critics say is a higher-than-expected contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and world hunger.

But reaction to the vote was mixed.

Oxfam said the European Parliament had caved to the pressure of biofuels lobbyists by approving the amended 6 percent cap, rather than the 5.5 percent cap that was originally approved by the Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.

“In their efforts to appease the biofuels industry and agricultural lobbyists, MEPs have failed in their duty to represent the best interests of their electorate and the one in eight people going to bed hungry each night,” said Marc Olivier Herman, Oxfam’s E.U. biofuels expert. “As a result, millions will continue to be susceptible to volatile food prices, deforestation and land-grabbing.”

Greenpeace E.U. called the vote “incoherent” and the result of “horse trading.”

“The Parliament wants the E.U. to drive on both sides of the road: to recognize that biofuels made from food crops are destructive to the environment, but to continue supporting them politically and financially,” Greenpeace E.U. forest policy Director Sebastien Risso said.

According to Biofuels International, a biofuels trade publication, the head of the European Renewable Fuels Association said he was disappointed with the cap and the plan to account for indirect land-use change emissions after 2020.

“At a time when we need to boost our economy, it is difficult to see why MEPs agree to curtail jobs and investment in a sector that helps Europe to grow the production of clean and sustainable fuels,” Rob Vierhout said.

On this side of the Atlantic, U.S. ethanol groups said they were not concerned that the decision would influence the debates over the renewable fuel standard, the U.S. policy that requires 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply each year by 2022.

The standard is under fire in Congress, where several lawmakers have proposed to either reform or repeal it on concerns that it forces refiners to blend more ethanol into gasoline than is technically feasible in today’s infrastructure. Environmentalists and livestock groups also have raised the same concerns over food prices and greenhouse gas emissions.

“As much as we’re paying attention to what’s going on in Europe, what’s going to be driving the discussions here in our Congress is what the American people have to say to their elected representatives about this policy,” said Michael Frohlich, a spokesman for the ethanol grade group Growth Energy.

Growth Energy members have been meeting with members of Congress over the past several days, and Frohlich said the response from lawmakers has been mostly positive.

Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, noted that the European decision would still allow for growth in conventional biofuels and boost advanced fuels. He applauded the decision on indirect land-use change.

“The conclusion is that the science is not yet evolved, and there is no consensus around that,” he said.

The European decision could come into the most play during international negotiations, where biofuels occasionally come up in forums like the Group of 20, said Katie Campbell, a senior policy analyst for ActionAid USA, a group that opposes the renewable fuel standard.

ActionAid last year released a report finding that U.S. biofuels policies have contributed to hunger worldwide (E&ENews PM, Oct. 10, 2012).

“We’ve been pushing for a long time that this is clearly an issue, that [U.S. lawmakers] need to be taking less of a domestic view towards this but an international view,” Campbell said.