Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stress-Testing Biofuels: How the Game Was Rigged

From TIME Magazine:
Last week, while the financial world was obsessing over stress tests for fragile banks, the environmental and agricultural worlds were watching the results of the Obama Administration's stress tests for renewable fuels. An outgrowth of the 2007 energy bill, the tests were supposed to document whether corn ethanol and other biofuels designed to replace fossil fuels would accelerate or alleviate global warming overall. But like the much-criticized bank checkups, these stress tests don't seem particularly stressful.

The draft conclusions announced by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson were that cellulosic ethanol and other next-generation renewables will dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions over their entire life cycle, but that in some scenarios, corn ethanol (as well as lesser-used soy biodiesel) can produce even more emissions than gasoline. Some environmentalists and journalists have portrayed this as a courageous rebuke to the powerful agro-fuels lobby, while some advocates for farmers have complained that the stress tests were too tough. At a hearing after the announcement, House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, accused the EPA of attacking corn and soybean farmers. "You're going to kill off the biofuels industry before it even gets started," Peterson said. "You are in bed with the oil industry!" (View 10 next-generation green technologies.)

It's hard to see how. Earlier studies exposed corn ethanol as a carbon catastrophe; the EPA had to use extremely generous assumptions to produce scenarios in which it's even remotely attractive as a fuel alternative. In any case, the heavily subsidized corn-ethanol industries won't really be penalized for promoting deforestation and accelerating global warming; Congress exempted its existing plants from any consequences in the 2007 law requiring the stress tests. At her May 5 news conference with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Jackson suggested this was a good thing, because corn ethanol is an "important bridge" to better biofuels....MORE