Biofuels Get a Second Look

Last week the Obama administration announced a plan to ramp up the nation's production and use of corn-based ethanol, even as studies out of Europe show the life-cycle of biofuels yields a carbon footprint not significantly lower than gasoline's.

The United States' renewable standard requires alternative fuels to produce 20 percent less carbon emissions than gasoline (compared with Europe's 35 percent standard.) But this measurement gets tricky when the entire process of clearing land for crops, growing the crops and producing the fuel is taken into account. Burning biofuels may be less carbon intensive than gasoline, but the production process may cancel out this benefit.

The Obama administration is "selling" its biofuel idea as more of a jobs and economy plan than a climate action plan. Production of corn ethanol on U.S. soil, projected by the new plan to triple in the next twelve years, will add millions of American jobs and release us from our dependence on foreign oil. But environmentalists and climate scientists are saying a new dependence on corn-based ethanol will only add new problems. The administration is basing its assessments of ethanol's success on unprovable future projections of increased crop yields and production efficiency.

The Daily Climate quotes Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an Overbrook grantee: "It seems a little far-fetched at first glance. You can kind of talk yourself into it, but in any case they make a lot of assumptions on what yield will look like, what the markets will look like."

But the administration is pushing forward with biofuels anyway, eliciting criticism that the EPA has caved in to the farm lobby.

At the same time, The New York Times reported yesterday that the European Commission may soon retract its original pro-biofuel stance. Looking at Indirect Land Use Change, (the impact of adding cropland, clearing natural vegetation and tilling carbon-rich soil), the benefits of biofuels over gasoline are difficult to reconcile.