The Bottom Line on Biofuels

by | Mar 30, 2011

The world has had several recent reminders how potential environmental impacts of energy production can become reality. We are nearing the one-year anniversary of the largest oil spill the petroleum industry has ever experienced, the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. More immediately, the world is monitoring the unfolding of a partial meltdown of a nuclear facility in Japan. Responsible regulatory agencies will no doubt review these incidents to improve safety and try to prevent future accidents in these sectors of the energy industry.

Notably, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently circulated a draft report on the potential environmental and resource conservation impacts of biofuels. While on one hand this draft report reaffirms that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) will help the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions, on the other hand it focuses primarily on the possible negative impacts of increased biofuel production. We believe the final report, when released, instead should try to provide comprehensive guidance for sustainable, environmentally beneficial biofuel production.

The RFS came into being in 2005 as part of the Clean Air Act’s regulation of transportation fuels. Congress mandated increasing use of renewable biofuels to mitigate the environmental impacts of petroleum fuels and additives in the transportation sector. As domestic biofuel production quickly ramped up to meet this initial standard Congress expanded it, seeking to reduce by at least 20 percent U.S. over-reliance on imported petroleum and associated greenhouse gas emissions. The 2007 changes to the RFS mandated a doubling of conventional biofuel production and an acceleration of the development and commercialization of advanced biofuels, while attempting to ensure that future biofuel production would definitively achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Production and use of biofuels under the RFS will achieve a 138-million metric ton reduction in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 2022, compared to a 2005 baseline of emissions from petroleum transportation fuels, according to the EPA. Further, biotech tools for producing biofuels can reduce emission of other pollutants from petroleum, such as carbon monoxide and benzene, as EPA has noted elsewhere. The draft report, however, does not compare use of biofuels with the worsening emissions profile of petroleum fuels, as the oil industry increases production from more marginal sources such as Canadian oil sands.

Biofuel production also creates new incentive for research and development to increase agricultural production while improving stewardship of farmland. Biofuels have created a new, stable and growing market for agriculture, which in turn has stabilized the decline of U.S. farmland and provided economic returns to farmers. U.S. farmers have been able to increase yields for corn through increased use of biotech seeds, which also enables conservation practices such as reduced tillage of land. The same biotech tools are being developed to increase the yields of advanced biofuel crops, such as switchgrass, miscanthus, algae, and purpose-grown woody biomass.

Biotech processes for advanced biofuels are also being deployed for production of biobased products, renewable chemicals, and specialty ingredients. Biotechnology offers the potential for more efficient production methods, reducing the number of processing steps and byproducts, when compared to traditional thermochemical routes. This efficiency reduces the costs of production and is the essence of innovation. Because these biobased products are cost-competitive with petroleum-based products, they can help to make integrated biorefining of biofuels more profitable and displace all the products made from a barrel of oil. Executives from across the biotechnology industry will gather in Toronto the second week of May for the 8th annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing to discuss technology innovation and commercial milestones.

Production and increased use of biofuels and biobased products in substitution for fossil fuels achieves important national and international objectives. Biofuels are incredibly important for the transportation sector, especially for air travel and shipping.  Electric vehicles may continue to be put into use, but airplanes and ships can’t currently run on batteries. All countries deploying biotechnology for biofuels and biobased products can reduce dependence on imported petroleum, create new markets for sustainably grown crops, improve land utilization, and help avoid environmentally devastating oil spills, create new green jobs and, not least, reduce concentrations of GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

Potential negative impacts from production of biofuels can indeed be mitigated by good practices fostered within the industry and the agricultural community. The EPA’s final report on biofuels and the environment should inform, not impede, the realization of potential benefits and positive impacts of biofuels use. Congress and the Obama administration should keep this as the policy bottom line.

Brent Erickson is Executive Vice President of Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Industrial & Environmental section.

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