Common Sense Header

The politics of biofuels: Let's be insightful not "inciteful"

Pardon me while I take a break from my effort to define the terms in my blog title. But I must take a moment to highlight a recent "inciteful" quote from California Air Resources Board (CARB) member Dr. Daniel Sperling regarding California's proposed Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). His quote appeared in a recent issue of the MIT Technology Review.

The LCFS is a ground breaking piece of policy that will force California to adopt fuels that have a lower carbon footprint than the current mix of petroleum based fuels. In the analysis done to date for CARB, corn ethanol and soy based biodiesel have taken a real beating in terms of their perceived carbon footprints. Of particular concern is the notion that diverting corn or soy production from food markets to fuel markets will cause new land to be cleared elsewhere around the world to make up for food production--what many insiders in the biofuels debate call the "indirect land use change" effect, or iLUC. The CO2 released by this land clearing could be much worse than the emissions of CO2 from burning petroleum. In later posts, I will spend much more time on this serious and controversial question. But, for now, I want to focus on a comment that Sperling made, which would seem to invite a major fight among current and would-be providers of low carbon biofuels. 

Though CARB has yet to report any  formal results of its own, Sperling argues (over-simplistically, in my opinion) that food based biofuels are "bad", while cellulose based fuels are "good" when looked at through the lens of land use change. He goes on to say that "The food-based interests have been very clever and effective at muddying the distinction and bamboozling those advanced cellulosic interests that have a lot to gain from including land use effects in a full life-cycle analysis." 

What's going on here? The author of the article writes that "Sperling says that he hopes that advanced biofuels developers, who have not played a large role in the [iLUC] debate so far, will recognize that their interests are in competition with those of the corn ethanol industry." He's itching for a fight between the two of them. This will only encourage more special interest "food fights" among stakeholders who may well have much more to gain by working with each other rather than against each other in their common goal to supply low carbon biofuels.

I'm not advocating for or against the legitimacy of including iLUC effects, nor am I trying to be an apologist for existing biofuels producers. I simply cannot stand by while policy makers help to draw battle lines among fuel producers in the name of gaining support for inclusion of indirect land use change effects in the LCFS. The fate of the LCFS and its provisions for indirect land use effects should not rest on whether one industry group or another serves to benefit from it. The responsible position for policy makers is to encourage the best science and analysis in support of policy that catalyzes low carbon fuel production for California and the US.

And a word of advice to those "advanced cellulosic developers" who may be tempted by Sperling's bait. Land use is a complex issue. Don't try to use land use change as a competitive weapon. It's a double-edged sword. There are a myriad of factors that will effect whether or not (or how much) biofuels expansion will cause land clearing. The advanced cellulosic biofuels developers appear to have no stake in the debate for now because of their claims that they will use only residues from farm fields or that they will only use "marginal" land that won't be used for agriculture. For a large scale industry based on cellulosic biofuels, this may not be true. Cellulosic biofuels producers could easily find themselves competing for primary agricultural land. Thus, all biofuels producers have a stake in understanding and influencing the future direction of global agricultural land use change. Sustainable use of land for food, feed, fiber and fuel is a problem that we must all work on together to solve. It is not a political football to be used by one side of the industry against another.

Let's keep the debate about low carbon fuels focused on real public benefits, and not special interest spats.


Welcome to the blogoshpere, John. You will add a lot to the debate of ILUC issues, but I'm afraid that this post doesn't help. You make a good point about food vs cellulosic being a simplistic division, and the need for science to lead the policy, but I know you know that politics can make or break the ability of science to lead. You know as well as anyone that the conventional biofuels industry has been in an all out lobbying war to try to legislate the science away.

Also the idea that advanced biofuels companies shouldn't try to take advantage of the competitive advantage they can have if they choose the right feedstocks is bad advice. ILUC can be avoided and that advanced biofuels companies have an easier time avoiding it. And you should be helping them figure out how to do so rather than implicitly joining the conventional biofuels industry in suggesting that everyone has got to hang together.


Many thanks for your comment. I have certainly not had the close contact (as in a "contact sport") that you have had in the political back and forth over the establishment of a renewable fuel standard. Given the bruising nature of the political process (particularly over the indirect land use debate), I understand your objections to my criticism of Daniel Sperling's attempt to rally the advanced cellulosic ethanol contingency into a battle against the "food based" fuel producers.

But that doesn't mean I accept your point entirely. As I tried to state in my original piece, I am not "taking sides." I certainly do not condone the guerilla tactics that have been used to derail the inclusion of indirect land use change in the RFS2. (A certain Congressman from Minnesota comes to mind.) If anything, my goal is de-escalate the level of confrontation in the debate. That is, perhaps, naive.

I agree with you that cellulosic biofuels producers should be taking advantage of their enhanced ability to reduce carbon emissions—whether it is due to direct or indirect land use change effects. What I object to is having the debate turn into (continue to be?) a food fight.

Let's continue the conversation.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by John Sheehan published on November 25, 2009 10:42 AM.

My debut as a blogger was the previous entry in this blog.

Turning the corner on gasoline: the good, the bad and the ugly (Part 1 "the good") is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.