The Food Versus Fuel Fight Is About Much More than Corn

, Senior scientist | January 2, 2013, 10:57 am EST
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Only a few years ago everyone was bullish on biofuels. It was that rarest of things: something that Al Gore and George Bush agreed on. Times have changed — and changed quickly.

This blog appeared as a guest blog on the Christian Science Monitor’s Energy Voices.

This post is part of a series on The Future of Biofuels.

This summer’s drought and the withering of a corn crop, which now dedicates its largest share to fuel rather than food, has thrown the limitations of corn ethanol into stark relief. Yet for all the negative impacts of corn ethanol — it was never a very clean or low carbon alternative to oil — it is now a deeply rooted part of our fuel supply. Yet rather than continuing to fight yesterday’s battles over corn ethanol, we should focus on another, more significant, decision over the future of U.S. biofuels production.

And this time, we should  nip it in the bud before it becomes as entrenched as corn ethanol.

When Congress set the course for biofuels policy in the heady days of bipartisan enthusiasm for clean energy back in 2007, it set aggressive, progressive targets under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): increasing corn ethanol from the previous 7.5 billion gallon mandate to a 15 billion gallon target, and adding 21 billion gallons more in mandates for advanced biofuels from both food crops and nonfood “cellulosic” sources that delivered greater environmental benefits than conventional biofuels by 2022. The first, corn ethanol-focused phase of the expansion is essentially complete, and the second phase, focused on advanced biofuels, is now starting in earnest.

But the commercialization of a cellulosic biofuel industry has proven to be tougher, and slower, than anticipated — partly a result of the terrible investment climate following the financial crisis. We’ve missed the production targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency for several years now.

Fortunately, the RFS contains considerable flexibility, giving the EPA the authority to adjust the mandates to respond to real-world conditions. The EPA has used this flexibility to annually scale back the mandates for cellulosic biofuels — something we expect they will do again in the next few weeks.

And it is here that we see the new fuel-from-food threat. The EPA has been increasing the mandates for fuels like biodiesel made from vegetable oil and sugarcane ethanol to make up for the missing cellulosic biofuels. But the available stocks of sugar and vegetable oil are not nearly enough to meet the growing mandates if cellulosic fuels don’t come on line.

If the EPA keeps substituting food-based fuels for the delayed cellulosic biofuel, we will see a huge expansion of biodiesel and sugarcane ethanol production that will lead to increased deforestation in the tropics and continued pressure on global food supplies.

Our research suggests there is enough nonfood feedstock in this country to meet the total 36 billion gallon biofuel target if we are patient enough to allow the cellulosic industry to develop. To prevent the associated problems to our environment, economy, and climate, the EPA should not increase mandates for food-based biofuels.

It’s tempting to think that the energy policy of 2007 is past its prime and we should forget the whole thing and just start over. But we should remember that the RFS is just one part of a multipronged strategy, along with fuel efficiency and electrification, to help cut our oil use and reduce global warming pollution.

Despite the obstacles to commercialization, the first cellulosic biofuel facilities are coming on line today.  In Florida a company called INEOS Bio is starting up an 8 million gallon-a-year facility, and other facilities are being built across the country. But even with healthy growth and a stronger climate for investment, a bold but realistic target for 2022 is closer to 3 billion gallons than the original 16 billion.

So we must be patient. And realistic.

Next generation biofuels, together with electric vehicles and other advanced technology are going to take longer than we want to deliver the big oil savings and emissions reductions that we need. But they are the vital long-term investments that can help us to cut our projected oil use in half in the next 20 years.

Learn more about the future of biofuels

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  • Jeff

    What we need is an energy innovation revolution, without concerns about ROI. Flux line generators, polarity pulse generators and mag lev vacuum spheres to harness “earths” energy potentials.

  • People are forgetting money over efficiency. Right now, money decides what ends up in the gas tank (howsoever filled) and what ends up on the table!

  • Universal Movement of Consciousness by Edson Udson (all rights reserved)
    A great movement for peace, love and freedom around of the world, but to obtain results and do solve problems as poverty, abuses and violence is necessary “union” and “good will” translated in a simple word…”love”. Respecting and preserving the nature or combating differences as racism, sexuality or culture and accepting any kind of love, no discriminating anyone in anywhere for anything. I believe it be possible…because love, respect and freedom are all of good.
    for worldwide children

  • Jim Nelson

    “nip it in the bud before it becomes as entrenched”

    Plant metaphors don’t mix well with soldier metaphors, Jeremy. Prose like this is a sure sign of a writer who isn’t thinking about (maybe isn’t even interested in) what he’s saying.

    That said, I consider crop biofuel cultivation an insane use of land. It worked OK when populations were a fraction of the size they are now and we didn’t know how to harvest free energy from sun, wind, and rain.

    An acre of soybean diesel will produce about 2700 kwh in one year, BEFORE deduction of the energy inputs for fertilizer and herbicide manufacture and application, cultivation, etc. and accounting for water use in irrigated environments. An acre of timber or other biomass crop produces energy amounts of the same order.

    The same acre will produce about 3600 kwh in one DAY if under PV cells at a conversion rate of 0.15 and 6 h of full sun. That is, more than the acre under soybean will produce in a year and with no annual expense except the amortization of the initial expensive manufacture and installation of the PV arrays. Why are we still talking about growing biofuels on agricultural land?

  • Another great post.
    I’d just like to point out, however, that CO2-free fuel has existed all along, and burns
    without the toxic emissions that kill so many people. Electric cars fine, if you have a green energy source and green batteries, but that’s not happening, on the contrary!
    I’m referring to the long overlooked NH3 fuel, which powered buses and cars a century ago, before oil was king. With new tech NH3 fuel would be cheaper than gasoline or diesel, and could be produced on the spot with just air water and electricity.. okay, again that electricity needs to be from a renewable source. You don’t need new engines, just a conversion kit!
    I’ve done a little blog about NH3 fuel, or ‘Green Gas’, until now NOBODY has come up with a reason why it is not the ANSWER to taking CO2 out of transport.
    PLEASE, Concerned Scientists, if you care about the planet, check it out HERE and make it part of your excellent campaign!
    all the best… Mike Gilliland BA H-Dip.

  • stan

    With the drought and population growth,we should not use good farm land for energy.
    A better plan would be to fast track new, safe nuclear energy, Terra Power and maybe Air Fuel Synthesis.
    “The most optimistic figure I’ve seen for replacing all our gasoline consumption with ethanol
    calculates that we would have to double our cultivated land in order
    to meet the demand. If that’s a best case scenario, then ethanol
    advocates must blanch when considering a study by the Worldwatch
    Institute indicating that to replace just 10% of transport fuel with
    biofuels in the United States would require 30% of its agricultural
    land.” Prescription for the Planet