What's NOT being talked about in the biofuels debate
By Chris Hagerbaumer of Portland, Oregon. Chris is the deputy director of the Oregon Environmental Council.
When Rudolf Diesel took his peanut oil-fired diesel engine to the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900, the future of energy could only have looked cloudy at best. Would he have seen the massive modern day appetite for energy and the hotly fueled debate over what should power our vehicles? Diesel’s invention quickly became the darling of the petroleum industry. But is that era coming to a close? Does plant power have a role to play in our energy future?
As the debate rages over the propriety of using food crops to make biofuels, a popular and contested opinion has emerged: scrap the whole affair. What hasn’t emerged is striking: the other alternatives to oil for our transportation needs aren’t so rosy. Oil from tar sands and coal-to-liquid fuels exact extremely high environmental and climate changing damage. Biofuels have their own impacts and become problematic when they’re demanded at the scale of our modern transportation fleet, but they do have a role to play. What is important to heed going forward is not whether to use biofuels, but how to produce them in the most sustainable manner. We must make sure only the smartest ones make it to the pump and the tank. Most importantly, we can’t think of biofuels as a silver bullet: we must focus on reducing our demand for fuel in tandem with developing low- and no-carbon vehicles and fuels.
As always, the devil is in the details when evaluating the best and worst biofuels feedstocks and production methods. What’s more, sustainable production isn’t just about a fuel’s impact on the environment. The whole enterprise of renewable fuels must be able to sustain itself, from consumer demand to prices paid to farmers and producers, from long-term government policies to new opportunities for scientists and researchers. Even the most conscientiously grown low-carbon biofuels don’t contribute much if they aren’t affordable and if they don’t yield new jobs and help shift the carbon balance away from fossil energy.
Fortunately, Oregon has begun to adopt smart policies that make biofuels an important contributor to all these needs – policies like a Renewable Fuel Standard that emphasizes local production of biofuels. Oregon’s next step should be a Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, which would require all providers of transportation fuels in Oregon to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuel mix, keeping industry focused on improving technology.
If we could send a time capsule back to Mr. Diesel, it might contain photographs of plug-in hybrid electric cars, a model of a fuel cell, and a diagram of a hydrogen atom. It should also contain a sample of an advanced modern biofuel, with an explanation of how we are moving beyond food crops to make fuel, giving him hope that his invention would sustain not only itself, but the people and planet for whom he created it.
Jan. 26, 2009
Posted in guest column.
More Recent Posts
Final pre-census estimate: Oregon's getting a sixth congressional seat
Polluted by Money - How corporate cash corrupted one of the greenest states in America
Our Democrat Representatives in Action - What's on your wish list?
connect with blueoregon
Jan 26, '09
We snatched up lots of German tech at the end of WWII. They had a very successful synthetic fuels program going, and I've always wondered what happened to all that research.
That and the 60 million reich marks spent on developing a nutritionally sound vegetarian dog food. Field propulsion is probably still under wraps.
Jan 26, '09
A substantial, revenue-neutral gas tax would be better that the Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS) in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Both could reduce not only greenhouse gas emissions but our funding of hostile petro-states and our sending our money abroad. But LCFS is second best.
First, I agree with the Oregon Environmental Council assessment of cap-and-trade in the transportation sector:
“The carbon price signal provided by cap-and-trade is unlikely to spur large-scale investments in new fuels technology because the price signal may not be high enough and the cross-sector trading that is likely to be allowed means that most reductions under cap-and-trade will come from stationary sources in the near term.” Yes, and it will take forever.
Second, as I understand LCFS, it functions like a cap-and-trade for the transportation sector:
“A LCFS requires all providers of transportation fuels to a specific market (in our case, Oregon) to meet, on average, a declining standard for GHG emissions, reducing the carbon intensity of their fuel mix by at least 10% by 2020…. "…A LCFS utilizes market-based mechanisms to allow providers to choose how they reduce emissions while responding to consumer demand. For example, providers may purchase and blend more low-carbon biodiesel into diesel products, purchase credits from electric utilities supplying low-carbon electrons to electric passenger vehicles, diversify into low-carbon hydrogen as a product and more, including new strategies yet to be developed.”
So LCFS sets a cap on transportation-related greenhouse gases and reduces that cap over time to reach its goal. The alternatives to gas will probably cost more so cost to the consumer will go up, just like a gas tax might do, or less rapidly, perhaps.
A gas tax, or a more general carbon tax, gives clearer price signals, can be implemented sooner, would be more transparent and better understood, and would be easier to make revenue-neutral by rebating it to the public (the increasing costs of LCFS would be harder to identify). And administering a LCFS could be a bureaucratic nightmare, opening opportunities for special interest manipulation.
So why not push for a substantial, revenue-neutral gas or carbon tax? Forget all the other subsidies. Let the market sort the alternatives, including biofuels, out.
Jan 26, '09
Dave, last week I had a chance to attend the Progressive Media Summitt - a gathering of lefty bloggers and lefty talk radio folks with a collection of Democratic U.S. Senators.
Informed by your earlier comments about gas taxes, I asked Senator Jeff Bingaman - the chairman of Energy - the following question (paraphrasing from memory): "Senator, in 1992, Ross Perot advocated for a 50-cent per-gallon gas tax - with 5-cent increments each year for a decade. He was right about that. We would have had substantially more pressure in the 1990s for fuel-efficient cars. Gas taxes are easy to implement, and create substantial incentives. Is there any discussion in the Senate about a higher gas tax - perhaps paired with a cut in payroll taxes so low-income people aren't hurt?"
His answer: "I've heard plenty of discussion about gas taxes, but I can tell you that among the people walking around here holding certificates of election, there is absolutely zero discussion. In 1993, we did raise the gas tax - by 4.3 cents. I was often asked, 'Why not 4.5 cents?' And the answer is, because at 4.5 cents, we didn't have the votes. An increase in the gas tax just isn't going to happen."
There was some follow-up discussion from another attendee about a variable gas tax that would have gas taxes going up when prices drop, and gas taxes going down when prices go up. But Senator Bingaman mostly shrugged and said that it just wasn't going to happen. The votes aren't there.
Perhaps we ought to start thinking about ways to create politically palatable gas taxes.
Jan 26, '09
@Zarathustra: That was a coal-to-liquids program (how the nazis made most of their liquid fuels) -- revived by the S. African regime during the economic boycotts over apartheid. CTL is the dirtiest possible way to make liquid fuels and would doom us to runaway climate chaos.
A little question-begging there, eh ... insist that you've already won the debate and that everyone should just move on to the topic you'd much prefer to discuss, which is how to do the least damage with agrofuels, rather than whether it makes sense to do any of that damage. Sorry, can't agree.
The right question is whether we should be subsidizing agrofuels at all. Take away the subsidy and the mandate to use agrofuels and then the sustainability questions about whether to scrap the whole affair can be answered by science rather than politics.
These subsidies are the issue. Without them, we'd not only have billions (and in Oregon, additional millions) to spend on things that actually work to reduce emissions, but we wouldn't be talking about mining the soil and converting millions of acres from food production to fuel.
A better idea, as suggested above, is fuel taxes. An even better idea is fuel taxes that increase as the carbon emissions from the fuel increase, based on total life-cycle carbon emission studies per unit of fuel.
This is as simple as I can put it: The answer for transportation fuels is not on the supply side. As you note, even if we used every acre in America to grow agrofuels, we wouldn't do spit considering the scale of the problem. So liquid fuel prices are going up, period, unless we simply give up on the idea of fighting climate change and we decide to just run over our kids' and grandkids' futures because we weren't willing to get out of the bucket seats.
There's something bizarre about environmentalists making the preservation of the automobile-dominated society a priority.
Jan 26, '09
The coal-to-liquids has been promoted quite heavily by folks like Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT). See this 60 Minutes story.
Fake George Seldes is right that it would be a huge carbon load into the atmosphere - which is why those that advocate it always preface it with "assuming we can find a way to sequester all that carbon..."
Jan 26, '09
You might want to search two blogs that are very instructive on all things related to energy: www.jeffvail.net and www.theoildrum.com
You can search either of them for discussions of biofuels and their place in the mix.
I, too, wonder about the WWII synthetic fuels research.
I also worry about the diversion of food to fuel.
For me, today's best technology is to power road vehicles with electricity because it can draw its power from a wide variety of sources. I also think that point-of-use solar and wind make sense since they avoid today's huge problems of distribution being at capacity. This is very important since it is almost impossible to permit a new fuel pipeline or a new high power transmission corridor. That means liquid fuels must be transported by road or rail, requiring further road fuel.
Jan 26, '09
I, too, wonder about the synthetic fuels the Germans were producing.
For me, the way to power road vehicles is with electricity. It can be produced by a wide variety of means and does not tie us to a single source.
I worry about biofuels when we talk about converting food to fuel. I worry about big solar and wind projects becuase of lack of distribution capacity. It is almost impossible to permit a new pipeline or high voltage transmission corridor and what we have is at capacity. If we build a huge wind farm in the mid-west, how will we get the power distributed?
My personal preference is point-of-use solar and wind. Homes and farms that power themselves can do so without the source of the power having to be sent through pipelines or in tankers on our highways or over an electric transmission gbrid that is both at capacity and vulnerable to outages.
For discussions of all things energy related, I highly recommend two blogs: www.jeffvail.net and www.theoildrum.com
Jan 26, '09
Senator Bingaman, IMHO, is one of the best senators in Congress. (I’m biased. I knew him a long time ago.) Thanks for asking him the question. He is probably right about the current politics of a gas tax. Americans love their cars and hate taxes, so it’s a hard sell.
But I do not think cap-and-trade nor the Low Carbon Fuel Standards promoted here by the Oregon Environmental Council will fare any better politically once some of the costs hit consumers.
So, yes, let’s search for a politically palatable gas tax. Let’s talk about the issues involved. Let’s hold legislative hearings. Let’s all get educated on the choices we face.
I prefer the gas tax over a more general carbon tax for political reasons: a gas tax has a national security argument (stopping funds from going to our enemies) and an economic development argument (bringing funds home we are sending abroad) that the more general carbon tax lacks. These are strong arguments that appeal to patriotism. The cutting greenhouse gases argument for a carbon tax has blow back from those who deny that global warming is happening. So I’d start with a gas tax.
I’d make it revenue neutral. That means all the taxes collected get rebated to citizen by some fairly equitable formula. It all about giving price incentives for change. Nationally, many support using the funds collected to reduce the payroll tax. At the state level, for examples, we could split it evenly among taxpayers, or those with a driver’s licence, or per registered vehicle. We could also do it county by county on one of those options to help balance the disproportionate tax payments that rural drivers would pay with a gas tax.
Jan 26, '09
I agree that a revenue neutral carbon tax or gas tax would be much more effective and economically friendly than a LCFS.
I'm sure Senator Bigaman, like most other people when they hear the words "carbon tax" or "gas tax" are thinking of a new tax that would be on top of everything else. Even if you say "revenue neutral" or "payroll tax cut" as part of it, that kind of goes in one ear and out the other and all that registers is that you are proposing a big new tax increase, when that isn't the case at all.
Even the CEO of Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax these day. We have an African American president, something most people thought was impossible just a couple years ago.
We have a new president and new congress, and so a new political reality. I don't think we have to settle for second best solutions like cap and trade and LCFS anymore. The goalposts are shifting and can be shifted. We should advocate for a revenue neutral carbon tax with 100% dividend of some sort. It might not happen right away this year, but within a year or two anything can happen.
Jan 26, '09
@ Dave: "We could also do it county by county on one of those options to help balance the disproportionate tax payments that rural drivers would pay with a gas tax."
I'm not necessarily disagreeing but the increased hit a gas tax would make on rural drivers is not a disproportionate one -- in fact, it would be a proportionate one, proportional to use.
There's arguments about whether that's a good idea, and the image of the rural poor is always used to argue against proportional taxes (the same way that agribusinesses always invoke the family farmer to argue against the estate tax), but reflexively assuming that rural people deserve a break is kind of strange. After all, if you reduce the effect on them enough, you've defeated the purpose of raising the tax in the first place by buffering precisely the people who use the most gas.
Think about it -- you never see people suggesting that we ought to give tax breaks to people who live in cities because of the higher rents or housing costs, even though housing represents a much bigger slice of the family budget than gas does. Maybe bigger distances to cover is simply part of the tradeoff. (Besides, the urban counties overwhelmingly subsidize rural roads and highways already -- so that has to be factored in as well.)
Jan 26, '09
George, You are, of course, right about the uses of the words "disproportionate" and "proportionate." They would pay gas taxes proportionate to their driving (or consumption of gas). I'm just guessing that the average rural resident drives more than an urban one. What might be a fair way to rebate gases taxes between rural and urban Oregon can, I think, be argued. But the incentive to reduce gas consumption, given the high price of gas with the gas tax, would be the same for each. Rural drivers may pay more to begin with, but they can save more by finding alternatives. What do you think is more politically palatable?
Jan 26, '09
What about algae based biofuel. It is in every magazine and one tv all the time now. It can be grown anywhere. Its yields are massive in comparison to food based biofuel. It is even being used at PGE Boardman to convert CO2 into oxygen. I saw something on TV last night about it being used to treat sewage as well. On top of all that, the waste byproduct is a protein rich food source for livestock. The only impediment right now is cost, $5/gal. to produce.
I only know what I read and see, anyone here have any comments...
Jan 26, '09
Hemp. Seed the High Desert with Hemp and we'll have all the oil!
Jan 26, '09
Ten Bears ("It shall be life".)
And fiber for paper, clothes, etc..
Jan 26, '09
If done right, investments in biofuels could help us break our oil addiction and reduce global warming pollutants. If done wrong, however, developing biofuels could become an unmitigated disaster. Overseas production of industrial-scale biofuels like palm oil has a carbon footprint up to ten times greater than ordinary gasoline, and expansion of palm oil plantations in rainforested areas has been called the single largest threat to biodiversity on the planet.
One way to ensure that disastrous biofuels like palm oil fuel are screened out would be to follow California's example and set a Low Carbon Fuel Standard at the national level. California's standard, established in 2007, regulates the carbon content of transportation fuels. At the national level, such a standard could ensure that biofuels only came on the market if their carbon content was equal to or less than that of conventional gasoline - and it would also screen out such highly polluting fuels as tar sands oil and liquefied coal. Until such a standard is established, I'm very skeptical about rushing forward to embrace biofuels; we could end up with a disaster that threatens both our climate and global biodiversity.
Jan 26, '09
@ Nick: Most of your comment is right on, but there's one question you raise:
Can you explain how or why you think adding cola to your rum would help you break an alcohol addiction? Because that's the same argument -- that, somehow, adding to the use of liquid fuels is the path to using less liquid fuels.
The devil in the details of the low-carbon fuel standard is that the agrofuels lobby is already calling for more Bush science.
In other words, they DON'T want a life-cycle carbon analysis (which is wildly unfavorable to agrofuels, because the huge carbon release caused by cropping land means that the popular fuels, ethanol and biodiesel, both start with about a 40-80 year backlog of excess carbon released compared to oil, and that leaves aside entirely the greenhouse effect of using nitrogen fertilizer, which causes nitrous oxide production, which is several hundred times more powerful as a heat trapping gas).
If there's anything that should give us cause to rejoice in an Obama administration, it's his repeated commitment to using the best science without letting it be politicized. If he sticks to that, the agrofuels subsidies will soon be gone, and we'll be back to where we should have been in the first place, in the R&D phase, trying to see if there's a way to use plants for fuels without (a) destroying the climate; (b) starving people; (c) driving even more species to extinction; (d) destroying the last few inches of soil remaining in America; and (e) at a reasonable energy profit.
Unless you're willing to sacrifice several of those criteria, there's no certainty that agrofuels can ever be used.
@mp97303: Algal biofuels do invite hopeful speculation and should be researched extensively, including with public money. There are a host of challenges though, many of which are the same ones that have hobbled the search for the chimera of "cellulosic ethanol" -- what is possible to do in a lab for $5-$10/gallon, a few gallons at a time, is a science fair project, not an energy strategy.
But since this is a Democratic political website, let's talk the political issue here, which is where to find the money for R&D on these fuels:
I know -- how about we stop subsidizing things we know don't work (all current agrofuels) and we take the money saved and spend it at universities and in research to see if there's a smarter way to spend the money.
Jan 26, '09
Jim Just down in Lane County has an outstanding piece on this "debate" today: http://is.gd/hmAg
Jan 27, '09
Here's another good take on the "biofuels debate"
"Boondoggles to the Rescue!" http://is.gd/hmHM
Jan 27, '09
Here's another thing not being talked about in the biofuels debate: the grievous cost of spending time trying to keep internal combustion going.
Jan 27, '09
George Anonymuncule Seldes: You've forgotten the greatest boondoggle of them all (a meta-boondoggle?): Keep electing the same morally challenged politicians from the same corporate-dominated parties, therebye guaranteeing continuing boondoggles until the rapture.
Jan 28, '09
Dave Porter suggests a revenue-neutral gas tax. Amen to that. I’d love to see the day when we increase taxes on things we want less of (like pollution) and reduce taxes on things we want more of (like employment). Regarding administration of a low-carbon fuel standard, California is taking the lead on developing the standard, including the protocols for measuring the life-cycle carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Other states/provinces are also moving to adopt a LCFS, including members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast. I believe I saw some arguments against subsidies for biofuels – I would merely ask that we consider these subsidies in the context of even greater subsidies for petroleum. The playing ground isn’t even. George argues that “the answer for transportation fuels is not on the supply side”. Note that I clearly stated, “we must focus on reducing our demand for fuel.” But I think it’s naïve to think that we can zero out our use of liquid fuel in the near-term. For the time period that we do need to use liquid fuels, let’s use the best possible. As one example of doing biofuels right, our home-grown SeQuential-Pacific biodiesel plant in Salem uses used cooking oil as its primary feedstock. The facility also uses regionally produced oil from seed crops like canola (canola is an excellent crop to plant in rotation with wheat as it breaks pest cycles). SeQuential partners with Oregon farms and businesses that share its values -- sustainability and homegrown energy. For example, SeQuential uses waste oil from the Kettle Foods potato chip plant in Salem and canola seed from farms like Madison Farms in Echo. Kettle Foods employs numerous sustainability features in its operations. Madison Farms does as well, practicing water reuse and sustainable agriculture methods. One interesting factoid related to the conversation about rural drivers driving more than urban drivers. An analysis done by OSU for Oregon’s mileage fee concept and road user fee pilot program found that while rural motorists may drive longer distances for some purposes, there is not more than a 10% differential between the overall rural driving compared with urban driving.
Jan 28, '09
@ Chris: As an official with a group avowedly concerned with the environment, I hope you will respond to some questions about your pro-agrofuels positions:
1) The amount of waste oil generated in Oregon is something on the order of a gallon per person. This story quotes SeQuential as saying that even if they could reclaim every drop of it, it would still be less than half their needs. So how can waste oil be their "primary" feedstock? http://is.gd/hzMK. It appears that cropped oilseeds are their primary feedstock, not waste oil.
2) Given, then, that cropped oil provides more than half of SeQuential's feedstock, does the fact that making agrofuels means diverting arable land and increasingly stressed water supplies from growing food for people to growing fuel for cars concern you? When global food prices increase because of cropland diversion to agrofuels, is the environmental benefit positive or negative?
3) What would "best" mean relative to fuels -- would you agree that a diesel fuel that results in substantially more greenhouse gas release than a petro diesel is not superior to that petro diesel.
Here's a nice concise summary of the issue:
Moreover, in the same post, a chart comparing the environmental impact of agrofuels (industrially cropped fuels) shows them to be significantly more harmful than petro diesel. http://is.gd/hzXI
Why would we want to subsidize an environmentally more harmful product rather than using that money to reduce demand for liquid fuels?
4) Why do you suggest that the alternative to subsidies for agrofuels is using zero liquid fuels? Does that seem like a straw man argument to you?
5) A study @ OSU (available here) summarized things this way:
Given that the only market for agrofuels is through mandates --- the government requiring people to use more harmful fuels --- why would we want to encourage these fuels when there are so many cheaper options for reducing environmental harm from cars and trucks?
Jan 28, '09
The missing link in the "available here" section above: http://is.gd/hA48
Jan 29, '09
Talk from the EU this week about a transatlantic cap and trade scheme to fight corruption in the market. Seems they are having a problem with large polluters "cleaning up"...on the bottom line. Not exactly what the regs intended. They are acknowledging that there are issues with the plan that only occur in closed systems and limited geographic areas and that the issue of whether those schemes work or not is confounded with the extent to which they are implemented.
So, cap and trade fans, you've got a major dance partner queuing up!
Jan 29, '09
I simply don’t see how George can infer that the oilseed crops being grown in Eastern Oregon for biodiesel production are “diverting arable land and increasingly stressed water supplies from growing food for people”. I gave the example of canola. Its strong taproot helps break up the soil, making it very useful as a rotational crop for wheat (this is not a conversion of fallow land, but rather a necessary rotation on already cropped land). If there were a shortage of canola for food purposes, no, it doesn’t make sense to convert the crop to fuel, but when there isn’t, it’s great that farmers have another market they can sell into.
It’s false logic to claim that because some biofuels production causes environmental problems, all biofuels production causes environmental problems. The point I’ll make once again is that it is possible to produce biofuels sustainably using sustainable regional feedstocks. The amount that can be produced is limited by a number of factors, but sustainably produced biofuels do have a role to play in reducing our dependence on oil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
I invite folks to read a couple of good posts by Climate Solutions that address both GHG and food/fuel issues. See Growing Sustainable Biofuels: Common Sense on Biofuels – Part 1 and Part 2.
Feb 2, '09
There is a diesel fuel in commercial development in Germany that goes back to the synthetic fuels developed during the second world war. It's trade name is Sundiesel. See http://www.choren.com/en/energy_for_all/sundiesel_sup_sup_/. It is regarded as a premium diesel fuel and in initial operantional tests done by US Dept of Energy there was a report of an increase in fuel economy. Less ambient pollution compared to petroleum diesel and their life cycle analysis shows a positive outcome for greenhouse gases. The process to make the fuel is not dissimilar to the coal-to-liquid technique (CTL) but this uses biomass as the feedstock (BTL). The primary requirement for the feestock is that it contains carbon, meets moisture content and granularity requirements. Crops, wood waste, municipal waste are all candidates. The estimated cost ot manufacture by the company is about $2.50 a gallon but the feedstock price for hog fuel in Europe is almost twice that in Oregon. Very cool, all in all. However the Oregon Dept. of Energy prefers cellulosic ethanol because the overall energy balance is more favorable.<h2>There is something to be said for diesel fueled engines, however because they are more efficient than gasoline and may prove to be more tolerant of a variety of types of fuel to power them. I guess my point is that there may be a variety of ways to provide liquid fuels for combustion powered engines. Several types of renewable, sustainable, whatever kinds of fuels may emerge and inhabit the marketplace at the same time. However that works out, I also don't believe that the respirable pollution, climate change impacts and all the other adverse results from the use of motor vehicles can be solved just by changing how the fuel is made, allowing us to continue on as we have.</h2>