Common Sense Header

Recently in Politics of Biofuels Category

About ten years ago, I proposed doing a study for the US Department of Energy to determine the sustainability of producing ethanol from corn stover. One DOE staffer, whose opinions I respect a great deal, immediately squelched the idea of having DOE take on sustainability. It was, in his mind, a buzz saw. Only a fool would deliberately try to address such a controversial concept. In the end, he felt, we would invoke the wrath of those who saw sustainability as the rallying cry of anti-industry environmentalists, while simultaneously disappointing those environmentalists whose views on sustainable development could not be satisfactorily addressed by DOE. It would be, in short, a lose-lose proposition for the Department. 

We did, in the end, prevail in keeping sustainable development as a key focus of the study. But I completely understand the reticence to engage in the political charged dialogue over sustainability. It has a long and controversial history.

While we think of sustainable development as a contemporary concept attributable to our more environmentally sensitive modern society, it is a notion that has a long--and unfortunately--negative history.

In my opinion, the origins of sustainability can be found in the writings of the 19th century writer, the Reverend Thomas Malthus--well. at least the doom and gloom side of sustainability. Malthus wrote, in his infamous (both now and then) treatise entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, about the inevitable clash between the limits of natural resources and what the modern day Malthusian E. O. Wilson called "heedless population growth."

Sustainability Definition Scrooge.jpg

Malthus--wrong in many of the details, but right at least in identifying a limit to the capacity of our planet--was the first of many to run into the buzz saw of sustainability.  He offered a very simple, if stark, hypothesis based on two assumptions: 1) the planet has a limit in its capacity to support a given population; 2) the population will grow exponentially without regard to that capacity. When population exceeds the planet's capacity--according to his hypothesis--Mother Nature will step in makes things right. The tools of choice for correcting the over-reaching population? death, disease, war and famine. 

Sustainability Definition Malthus Exponential.jpg
This grim perspective didn't win him any popularity contests. It did win him the ridicule of Charles Dickens, whose character "Scrooge" was known at the time to have been an obvious attack of Malthus. Today, the Malthusian label is used to disparage and downplay anyone raising warnings about environmental consequences of our society, as when the Wall Street Journal named Al Gore "Senator Malthus" after Gore published his book Earth in the Balance.  (With Nobel Prize in hand, one has to wonder whether Gore had the last laugh.)

Malthus didn't count on technology improvements and a fossil energy fueled fertilizer industry that spurred dramatic improvements in agriculture. Nor did he count on the ability of societies to voluntarily adjust their population growth rates, particularly as they grow in economic well-being. But does that mean his notions are simply quaint and naive? I don't think so. The question of our planet's carrying capacity is at the core of our understanding of what it means to be  sustainable.

It's unfortunate that the stage for the debate about sustainability has been set in such dire terms. The ghost of Malthus has loomed large over the environmental movement, starting with Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the early work on Limits to Growth at MIT in the 1970s and continuing today with Lester Brown and the large number of environmental NGOs that have proliferated in the past two decades. 

Views on sustainable development now seem to fall into two camps. On one side, there are free marketeers and economists who believe that profit driven innovation will always find an answer to our resource needs. On the other are folks like David Pimentel, who have concluded that we are already well past the carrying capacity of the planet.  And biofuels is caught in the middle. If you are a market optimist, you see biofuels as a waste. If you are a resource pessimist, you see biofuels as a fool's gold for energy that will only aggravate the burdens on our planet. Neither view has it right.


Berlin Wall.jpg
In my last post, I started a series entitled "Turning the corner on gasoline: the good, the bad and the ugly." In it, I pointed out the "good" news in the changes in our attitudes (that is, policies) on energy. DOE's projections show us truly turning the corner on gasoline consumption. But a closer look at the details of our renewable energy policy suggests some serious bumps in the road ahead. The biggest one is the looming "ethanol blend wall" (see my chart below). Here, then, is "Part 2: the bad."

In conventional gasoline powered vehicles, EPA determined a long time ago that ethanol can be added to their fuel tanks up to a limit of 10% by volume without any deleterious emissions or performance impacts. For these vehicles (the vast majority of cars on the road today), this sets a limit on how much ethanol can be sold in the fuel market.
Painting ourselves into a corner.jpg
The purple shaded area in the chart shows the 10% limit for US ethanol usage over time. Until 2005, when the first renewable fuel standard (and the anticipation leading up to it) spurred ethanol production and use, it seemed like we were a long way from having ethanol production come any where close to the ethanol blend limit. With RFS2 we are now on a collision course with that blend wall. In just three years' time, the RFS2 target of 14.8 billion gallons per year will slightly exceed the total amount of ethanol that can be blended for use in conventional gasoline. As Jeff Broin (CEO of Poet, a South Dakota based ethanol company) put it in a recent New York Times article, "The market is full." To add insult to injury, RFS2 essentially encouraged the ethanol industry to fill the available blend market capacity with existing technology rather than using this limited space in the market to introduce innovative cellulosic ethanol technology, which by all accounts will enhance the ethanol industry's ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It didn't have to happen this way. We have painted ourselves into this corner with policies that have not addressed the whole supply chain from fuel to vehicle. For more than a decade, we have had policies that encouraged automakers to make flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs). But the fuel grade ethanol supply was too small. Now we are promoting policies to increase the amount of fuel. But with no fueling stations and an inadequate distribution system, there is no way to get that fuel to the consumer.

Thumbnail image for 07133 E85 pump.jpg
There is another route for further US market penetration of ethanol--the so-called flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) market. These are cars that can use any mixture of gasoline and ethanol containing up to 85% ethanol by volume (a fuel mixture known as E85).  EIA estimates that in 2007 there were approximately 7.1 million FFVs on the road. At 15,000 miles per year per vehicle and 25 miles per gallon, these vehicles could theoretically soak up another 3.6 million gallons of ethanol. Unfortunately, only about 360 thousand of these vehicles actually use E85. Why? Price is one issue. But, the fundamental roadblock to fueling up with E85 is that consumers can't buy the fuel. E85 fueling stations are too few and far between.

So, now industry and some government folks are looking for a quick way around the wall. They want to tweak the blend limit to allow more ethanol into conventional gasoline. This seems to me like a potentially short sighted fix to a longer term set of problems. I, like EPA, am currently undecided on this issue.

The benefit of bumping the blend limit to 15% is obvious. It buys us time. The targets for RFS2 would continue to be met for six or seven years (until around 2017) without having to make any difficult infrastructure changes (see my chart, where ethanol volume crosses the gray shaded arean for a 15% ethanol blend). Furthermore, it would provide some needed space in the near term market for cellulosic ethanol to come in. 

On the other hand, I can't help but think that it is a path to continued procrastination. For over a decade, we have avoided relatively simple opportunities to open up the market to ethanol as an alternative fuel and not just a blend. Brazil has made these choices. Fueling stations and vehicles in Brazil now handle any fuel mix from straight gasoline to "neat" ethanol. Consumers there can choose the fuel they want to put in their tanks based on price.

And allowing higher blends of ethanol in conventional gasoline is not without its risks and complications. Older vehicles and simple two stroke engines may not deal well with the change at all. In EPA's letter announcing their decision to delay any changes to the ethanol blend limit, they talked about weighing options for new "fuel labeling" presumably to warn owners of pre-2001 vehicles about the risk of using the new legal higher blend. This sounds like a recipe for real problems. And problems at the consumer level are the last thing the ethanol manufacturers, the automakers and the regulators need at this point. Ethanol has come out of the dark days when automakers and others blamed it for all sorts of engine problems. Let's not go back there.

Finally, I hate to think of all the engineering, scientific and other resources being squandered on the question of how or whether to tweak the level of ethanol in conventional gasoline. We are spending time and money trying to understand a question that, in the long run, does nothing to make a big dent in our energy problem.

The blend wall problem is a classic example of how Congress over-prescribes answers for energy in ways that focus more on satisfying a myriad of interests rather than the longer term public interest. 


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.

  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 Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Politics of Biofuels category.

General is the previous category.

Sustainabiliity is the next category.

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