In pitting biofuels against the environment, only clear winner is oil

Source: By Jessie Stolark, The Hill • Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A quiet revolution is taking place across the fruited plain. The total amount of U.S. land under production by American farmers is down– not just over the last 50 or 100 years, but also over the last decade according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite that trend, the production of crops for food, feedstock, and bioenergy continues to rise. Yet a misleading campaign waged by the oil industry has many believing renewable bioenergy is leading to a massive destruction of wild prairies as farmers put more land under the plow.

Given the tremendous threat posed by climate change, it is vital that we set the record straight and unite behind solutions like renewable biofuels, including ethanol, that have been proven to reduce greenhouse emissions in the near- and long-term.

What the oil industry fails to mention is that, between 1980 and 2011, the amount of land needed to grow a bushel of corn shrank by 30 percent, the need for irrigation fell by 53 percent, and energy consumption dropped by 44 percent. Produced alongside each gallon of biofuels are co-products, including high-protein animal feed and corn oil. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are using more energy- and water-intensive ways to extract oil from tar sands and deep rock by pumping millions of gallons of fresh water, sand and chemicals to “frack” the rock. Midwestern farmland is also being purchased to strip the land for “frack sand,” which destroys prime agricultural acres — for good.

From a climate perspective, there is simply no question that biofuels maintain a clear advantage over oil. The best available science shows that biofuels hold enormous potential to immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Analysis from the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has shown that average lifecycle emissions from corn-based ethanol are 34 percent lower than those of gasoline, even when taking potential land use changes into account. Some argue that we should be doubling down on vehicle electrification instead, but it’s not an either or proposition. Liquid fuels will be needed for a while yet — for the existing stock of cars, as well as for trucking, shipping and aviation. These fuels should be low-carbon and sourced from renewable sources: the best option is bioenergy feedstocks.

Looking into the future, according to the Department of Energy’s recent 2016 Billion Ton Report, most bioenergy feedstocks will come from inedible plant material such as agricultural residues and from energy crops such as perennial grasses, short-rotation trees, and algae. Biofuels derived from these sources can yield emission reductions of 90 percent or more when compared to gasoline. Recent research has shown that energy crops can also help reduce erosion and runoff, as well as store additional carbon in the soils.

But the development of these advanced fuels and feedstocks depends on the continued expansion of the broader biofuels supply chain, as well as the research and development efforts of current biofuel producers. A pull-back on the policies that support their development would be devastating.

Oil’s latest argument against biofuels is over land use. One recent study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds that land is being converted to biomass crop production at alarming rates, and places the blame squarely on biofuel policies. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago raised questions on these findings, stating that there was “no indication that this type of transition has occurred on a large scale.” When examining drivers of land use change, dietary shifts and other demands, including loss of farmland to urban development, must also be weighed.

It is true that biofuels production has grown tremendously while acreage devoted to conservation programs for farmland has dropped precipitously. However, this is not due to biofuels production, but instead to a dramatic drop in federal support for conservation programs. For example, acreage eligible for the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fell from 37 million acres in 2007, to 24 million acres in 2016.  Lack of acres does not translate to lack of farmer interest; in the most recent CRP enrollment period, demand for the program outstripped availability by 1.4 million acres.

In the next year, Congress will likely debate the 2018 Farm Bill, and strong support for conservation programs should be prioritized alongside continued support for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which ensures increased production of low-carbon biofuels from a variety of sustainable feedstock sources. Already, the RFS has been an effective tool in spurring the development of biofuels sourced from crop wastes.

Through the ingenuity of American farmers and researchers, biofuels and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand—but only with strong Congressional support for sustainable biofuels production, not capitulation to the oil industry.

Jessie Stolark is policy associate for the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI)