The ecological arguments around the use of biofuels to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of transport and power production become increasingly complex, almost on a day by day basis. Despite the uncertainty over direct and indirect land use assessment and accounting, the embedded fossil fuels in their production and a host of other factors, I still believe that well produced biofuels have a role to play in reducing the carbon footprint when compared to their fossil derived counterparts.
The one-sided application of life cycle analysis (LCA) to bioenergy when compared to fossil fuels, food production and other uses of biomaterials is something for another, future entry. However, there are some regimes genuinely trying to do develop clean(er) biofuels. One is the EU and the other, until the other day, has been the State of California.
The Californian Air Resources Board (CARB) had proposed similar measures to those under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) which would only allow the use of biofuel fuels with a particular GHG footprint. The big problem was that, under the accounting method used by CARB, most wet mill ethanol made from US-grown corn did not meet the unitary targets.
Not surprisingly, US biofuel producers were up in arms, while Brazilian cane fuel suppliers loved the idea (at least until they began to struggle with current demand) as their fuel met the GHG target.
Now a judge has ruled that California cannot implement its planned low carbon fuels rule as it ‘violates the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause by discriminating against crude oil and biofuels producers located outside California.’ [See the Washington Post]
Not surprisingly, CARB is appealing the ruling, but the case highlights one of the fundamental environmental issues for the US biofuel industry. The RFA has provided a useful overview of the case, but it highlights that the US continues to back ethanol production for reasons of fuel security rather than environmental concerns. Coal-fired biofuel plants sprang up across the Midwest in the naughties and there was no appetite for reducing emissions.
In fact I was working with a client who had a novel technology to revolutionize the distilling process, reducing waste, generating clean energy for the fuel production process and creating valuable co-products rather than the oversupplied commodity which is DDGS. After presenting the technology at one of the biggest biofuel conferences in the US, a representative of the client told me: “They just don’t get it.”
Well, CARB at least did get it. “The LCFS is an evenhanded standard that encourages the use of cleaner low carbon fuels by regulating fuel-providers in California,” said Stanley Young, CARB spokesman in an email to Telvent DTN . “It does not discriminate against any fuels on the basis of geography.”
For more on the current state of the US bioethanol market, see Enagri’s BioenergyWeekly.