As someone who has been engaged in the development of biofuels for almost three decades, I was struck most last night in President Obama's State of the Union address by the big gaping hole he left in his list of clean energy technologies. I'm referring to the one where biofuels and bioenergy used to sit. The President talked wind, solar, batteries and even efficiency. But in his laundry list of technology frontiers that he refused to cede to China or Germany--nary a word about biomass.
Just an oversight in a packed one-hour speech? Unlikely: We all know that every single word of the State of the Union address is thoroughly vetted both inside and outside the government.
What, then, does this lacuna mean? My diagnosis is CDS--Chronic Disappointment Syndrome. After investing more than $1 billion in partnerships on advanced biofuels, the government has nothing to show. Yes, that might change (and I hope it does, soon). But the annual disappointment we have now come to expect as EPA revises downwards its targets for cellulosic ethanol in the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is a regular reminder of our failure to deliver.
Add to that disappointment our inability to address the genuine questions that continue to be raised about the ethics of burdening our food system with energy demands, and it comes as no surprise that biomass has lost its place at the table.
I believe biofuels and biomass are a crucial part of a sustainable energy future. But hype and dogma have clouded our vision. Let's change that. Now is the time for the biomass community to come together to develop a feasible and ethically sound vision for biomass energy that is fully integrated in a sound and sustainable vision for global agriculture.
The only thing worse than a passionate battle over the good, the bad and the ugly of biomass energy is silence and dismissal. That's what we got last night. We know there is a need for energy that can only be filled by biomass-derived fuels. We know that there are very real trade-offs and risks associated with burdening agriculture with yet one more demand. We need a bold and courageous approach to building a vision for biomass. So, let's reinvigorate the debate. I miss it already.
John Sheehan is science director for the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, a program of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.