FocusBiofuels may not be as green as industry claims – professor

24 April 2013 19:46  [Source: ICIS news]

Biofuels may not be as green as industry claimsCHICAGO (ICIS)--The biofuels industry and its supporters have made many “green claims” about their renewable products, but a US political science researcher said on Wednesday that biofuels are actually not as environmentally friendly as they are being promoted.

“I am really sceptical toward any notion or political organisations like the government choosing or designating some products as cleaner than others,” said Robert Paarlberg, public policy adjunct professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“My look at the agriculture sector tells me that governments are really not good at making these decisions, and they make public interest and resources at risk when they take on these tasks,” he said at the Bio International Convention.

Paarlberg said that some products and approaches, such as biofuels and organic farming, are actually worse for the environment than other alternatives.

Green claims have been made for both generations of biofuels, Paarlberg said.

First-generation biofuels derived from sugar, starch and oil have been said to be renewable and powered by solar and other natural resources.

“It’s a successful move away from carbon-intensive and energy-intensive fuel systems,” Paarlberg said.

Second-generation biofuels feedstocks, such as lignocellulose and other biomass, have been said to pose no competition with food and feed production.

“They don’t drive up the price of food or feed because they’re from agricultural plants that otherwise would go wasted,” Paarlberg said.

However, he said, the political realities are actually quite different from the green claims the biofuels industry is making.

First-generation biofuels in the US has always been heavily promoted by the ethanol industry and by agricultural producers, Paarlberg said, adding that they were not originally promoted for green purposes or for environmental protection.

“They were originally promoted as a way to boost price of agricultural commodities, and as a way to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

As for second-generation biofuels, promotion has been “even more conspicuous” on national security grounds, Paarlberg added.

There has been a lot of public support for biofuels, not only in the US but also worldwide, in an effort to push production, development and technology in the industry, Paarlberg said.

The US government was providing a $6bn (€5bn) tax credit every year for those who blended gasoline, he said.

Also, tariff-rate quotas on ethanol imports have also been implemented in countries such as Brazil in an effort to protect domestically produced products, he said.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which is a fuel volume mandate that was created in 2005 and finalised in 2010 to boost ethanol, biodiesel and other renewable resources.

“It’s a mandate,” Paarlberg said. “It’s a command for policy.”

The US government has also pushed for public research investments and military procurement of biofuels.

“The Obama administration has now said it wants at least half of the US Navy’s fleet to be biofuels-powered by the year 2020,” Paarlberg said.

“This is highly controversial at the moment because under budget sequestration, US military funding has been cut substantially, but you’re asking the US navy to spend $26/gal on biofuels rather than $4/gal on conventional fuels,” he said.

The US Navy has saluted this motion and said it will carry out those plans, Paarlberg added.

The US Farm Bill has a programme known as BioPreferred, which involves a voluntary label that indicated how much renewable content was in a product.

Paarlberg warned that using products that are “entirely or significantly bio-based” is not a guarantee of environmental protection.

Many air and water pollutants, diseases and fossil fuels are bio-based, while wind and solar are not, he said.

BioPreferred is a policy driven by “self-serving farm lobbies” that is “wasteful and harmful” as a procurement mandate, he added.

“With the one green procurement programme that the US has embraced, [BioPreferred], I’m deeply sceptical about the value this programme has for environmental protection,” Paarlberg said.

“I don’t doubt it has some value to the agricultural sector in the US, but I question the environmental claims,” he added.

The outcome of these efforts has been disappointing, and the consequences have been negative instead of positive, Paarlberg said.

“The price of corn has been sky-high since 2007 or 2008,” he said.

“Ethanol plants use a great deal of water, and ethanol from corn brings higher greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, according to a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Science,” he added.

With second-generational biofuels, it is not commercially viable to produce them in the US, Paarlberg said.

“Earlier this year, a federal appeals court threw out part of the RFS that had mandated use of woody crops and wastes as feedstock,” he said. “It makes no sense to mandate something that’s not commercially available.”

Paarlberg cautioned that some technologies and processes that are being promoted as green are not actually so.

The Bio International Convention runs through Thursday.

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By: Tracy Dang
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