New reports reinforce need to expand biofuel production

These two studies remind us of the importance of methodical and reliable investigation. Remember when there was much ado about the impact of ethanol on indirect land use change (ILUC)? This was the fear-inducing scenario propounded by a lawyer at Princeton University claiming that increased ethanol production in the U.S. was causing deforestation in places like Brazil. His article has been the basis of regulatory efforts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the source material for a variety of ethanol critics.

Now, lo and behold, comes research from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which shows that ethanol expansion in the U.S. simply isn’t resulting in the type of land use changes that were originally hypothesized. The initial results provide further evidence that America can continue to meet its global responsibilities to provide food and feed, while simultaneously providing a cleaner, domestic alternative to petroleum — all without needing to bring new lands into agricultural production.

At nearly the same time, we have the USGS pouring cold water on overly optimistic forecasts by oil producers and reinforcing the views of a growing group of Peak Oil analysts including those expressed in a landmark 2005 study (“Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management”) prepared for the Department of Energy.

Unable to rely on oil – foreign or domestic -- to provide liquid fuels for America’s transportation sector, these reports taken together provide more reinforcement for the need to expand America’s indigenous biofuel production.

Performed at the request of CARB in regard to California's low carbon fuel standard (LCFS), the Oak Ridge analysis examined real world data on land use, corn and ethanol production from 2001 to 2008. During this period it is important to point out that U.S. ethanol production more than quadrupled – from 1.8 billion gallons – 9 billion gallons. The researchers found that, “Empirical evidence does not support significant effects on U.S. commodity exports [and] other crops or cropland expansion in the U.S.”

Coinciding with the Department of Energy research, a paper published in Environmental Science & Technology and authored by Bruce Dale and other researchers at Michigan State University, found that significantly larger volumes of biofuels can be produced without incurring ILUC. “Using less than 30 percent of total U.S. cropland, pasture, and range, 400 billion liters (106 billion gallons) of ethanol can be produced annually without decreasing domestic food production or agricultural exports. This approach also reduces U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 670 Tg CO2-equivalent per year, or over 10 percent of total U.S. annual emissions, while increasing soil fertility and promoting biodiversity. Thus we can replace a large fraction of U.S. petroleum consumption without indirect land use change.”

Thus, with each new credible study on ILUC and other potential indirect GHG effects, the scientific community’s understanding of these extremely complex issues improves. Indeed, as Purdue Professor Wally Tyner (a leading figure in the field of ILUC) recently stated, “As with any issue, your first cut may not be the best, but when you get new data and new methods, you improve."

New and better data are telling us that oil is running out, that dependency on oil will be more precarious and expensive and that ethanol production in the U.S. is becoming both more efficient and environmentally positive.

Bob Dinneen is the president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the nation's ethanol producers.