Thu Jul 13th, 2006 at 08:43:16 AM EST
In Part One, I suggested that there was a spin battle going on around market shares for liquid fuels that power cars and trucks, between the agri-business and the oil-business lobbies, with the automobile industry happy to back agri-business so as to pick up a cheap Green 'n' Clean™ label and go on with the same practice as before.
I suggested that, although Peak Oil was not necessarily widely understood, the notion that we would not have oil for ever, and that its price was going to rise, had now penetrated mass consciousness. And that there was consequently a jockeying for position to place alternatives, while the petroleum industry had no intention of giving an inch.
I'm not basing this on insider knowledge, but on the recent rise in the media of spectacularly opposing views, some presenting biofuels as an Eldorado, others presenting them as a no-starter: Biofuels could be a huge waste of taxpayer money (and denying Peak Oil to boot: The FT's Martin Wolf does not believe in peak oil). The smackdown from the Financial Times seems all the more significant at a time when the European Commission is (apparently in some haste) preparing a review of its 2003 Biofuels Directive.
***Back from front page
What are biofuels?
For the purposes of this discussion, biofuels are liquid fuels produced from biomass, and, in particular, biodiesel and bioethanol.
Biodiesel, for use with diesel engines, is made from oil-bearing seeds. Soybeans are used in the US; in the EU, rapeseed (aka canola) and sunflowerseed. Palm oil, grown in Malaysia and Indonesia, gives a higher yield. Recycled cooking oil may also be a source.
Straight vegetable oil may be used directly in some older diesel engines (a fact that is generally hidden under technobabble in official communications); some degree of refining is necessary in other cases. I don't propose to go into the different present and possible future declensions of the product, and will simply call it "biodiesel".
Ethanol is simply the alcohol some of us are accustomed to consume in moderate quantities and some of us... (Well, let's not go there, shall we?). As a fuel, it is distilled from maize (corn) in the US, from maize, wheat, and sugar beet in the EU, and from sugar cane in Brazil (there again, the tropical crop beats the temperate-zone crops).
Ethanol is used as an additive to petrol (gasoline). Ordinary petrol engines can run on E10, that is, a 10% mix of ethanol with 90% petrol. Flex-fuel cars can run on E85 (85% ethanol). Ethanol works, but its energy density is 66% that of petrol: in other words, you need 1.5 litres of ethanol to equal 1 litre of petrol.
These fuels are also divided into first and second generation - meaning, what can be put on stream industrially now and in the near future, and what is still more or less experimental. First-generation biofuels are made from the food crops listed above. Second-generation biofuels may be derived from algae, or forestry by-products, or grass cuttings from permanent grassland - in other words, non-food crops not taking up the better arable land.
At the moment, the push and pull is really about first-generation biofuels. The industrial processes needed are simple and well-understood, and the agri-industry is looking for public support to grow their market share.
Are first-generation biofuels a Good Thing? Are they as green as advertised? Do they represent a practical - practicable - alternative to petro-fuels?
Criticism is brought to bear under three headings:
· sustainability (agricultural methods)
· energy balance (input compared to output)
· land use (how much will be left for food?)
The EC Communication A EU Strategy For Biofuels says this:
It is essential that appropriate minimum environmental standards apply to feedstock production for biofuels, adapted to local conditions in the EU and third countries. In particular, some concerns have been raised over the use of set-aside land because of the potential impact on biodiversity and soil, and over the growing of biofuels in environmentally vulnerable areas. Addressing these concerns requires attention to where energy crops would fit within rotations generally, the avoidance of negative effects on biodiversity, water pollution, soil degradation, and the disruption of habitats and species in areas of high nature value. Sustainability criteria for EU production should, however, not be limited to energy crops, but should cover all agricultural land, as required by cross-compliance rules established under the 2003 CAP reform.
Without going into details, let's just note the lack of ambition and well, energy, of this ritual admonition. Oh, we should be careful not to grow feedstock crops in the middle of a nature reserve, and well, energy crops should just be as sustainable as any other crops. Right, which at the moment, in industrial agriculture, means not sustainable.
And that's just talk: in practice, farmers are under pressure to produce yields and they don't follow any rules that don't have teeth. Investing in new agri-business that will lock farmers yet more tightly into an integrated industrial process is most unlikely to encourage sustainable agricultural methods.
A Local Example
France grows about one-third of EU-25 grain maize, and one-third of French grain maize is grown on 600,000 ha in the two southwestern regions of Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrénées. This is industrial, high-energy-input monoculture that has been carried out on the same land for decades. Maize provides the soil with some kind of cover for only four months of the year, and even then there are 80 cm of weedkilled, bare soil between rows. Soil erosion is considerable, and run-off during storms not only carries off topsoil, it contributes to the flooding that has become common in Europe over the past fifteen years or so. Irrigation is intensively practised, with enormous wastage, abuse of the aquifer and river system, and water pollution by fertiliser and pesticides.
This needs to change, but locally it is becoming part of common thinking that "tomorrow's fuels" will be produced here. If anything, maize monoculture for ethanol is likely to become less sustainable, not more. Bringing "set-aside" land into the mix (fields that have been left fallow, with CAP subsidies, for years now) may pose biodiversity problems. It may also cause yet more destruction of remaining hedges, banks, and ditches as these "set-aside" fields (often small and not easily mechanisable) are regrouped into larger fields for machinery and irrigation reasons. It would also undoubtedly operate as a back door for GM maize. Currently public opinion is against GM crops entering into human foodstuffs. But if it's only to put in your car, why worry? And once GM maize is out there, there will be cross-pollination with non-GM maize, and it will be there to stay.
Two researchers who have worked on this aspect are David Pimentel of Cornell and Tad Patzek of Berkeley. Their conclusions are that first-generation biofuels present a very poor, indeed disqualifying, energy input : energy output ratio. See, for example, Patzek Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle (pdf), where he presents, pp. 7-20, an extremely detailed breakdown of energy inputs into maize-cultivation per hectare, and an analysis, pp 22-25, of energy inputs into ethanol production. From the abstract:
First, I demonstrate that more fossil energy is used to produce ethanol from corn than the ethanol's calorific value. <snip> In 2004, ethanol production from corn will generate 11 million tonnes of incremental CO2, over and above the amount of CO2 generated by burning gasoline with 115% of the calorific value of this ethanol.
I'm not qualified to judge Patzek and Pimentel's work. They are decried by biofuel advocates as (diversely) nuclear or oil industry shills. It is said that their energy reckonings are ridiculously detailed, including the energy needed for a farm hand to drive to work or the energy sunk into the production of the nuts and bolts in the farm machinery. (see discussion here.)
There's another critique, that says that it doesn't matter if the fossil fuel energy sunk into producing the biofuel is greater than the energy the biofuel can make available:
ethanol is a liquid fuel that has qualities that make it useful in the existing transportation infrastructure. Since the natural gas and coal used to produce ethanol do not have this quality, it can be practical to lose energy in the process of converting these fuels into ethanol. Second, even crude petroleum must be refined into usable liquids.
From Worldwatch Institute Biofuels For Transportation (pdf) (does anyone know anything about the Worldwatch Institute?)
In other words, what it's all about is producing liquid fuels to run cars and trucks and planes, whatever the environmental cost? Is that acceptable?
How much land do we need to dedicate to producing liquid fuels instead of food? The biofuel optimists either ignore the problem (the usual technological progress will solve it, you'll see), or, like the European Environmental Agency, in a (big pdf!!) report, How much bioenergy can Europe produce without harming the environment?, in a single, multi-assumption, complex and unconvincing scenario, conclude that arable land will get freed up, pretty much, by Market Forces™.
Others say biofuels would eat up a huge amount of arable land. DeAnander made some calculations in this diary. The FT backs her up with this graph concerning the EU:
This (FT, not De!) may have the oil lobby somewhere behind it, but is it false?
Here are a couple of EU examples that may help answer the question. The first shows exaggeration on the other side:
In a BBC article, a biofuels company, Green Spirit Fuels, says:
One hectare of wheat produces about 29,000 miles of motoring, enough to take a car around the equator and still have 4,000 miles of fuel left
Wheat yields about 2,500 litres/hectare of ethanol which, in energy content, equals 2500 x 66%, or 1,650 litres equivalent petrol (gasoline).
29,000 miles (46,400 km) with 1,650 litres (363 imperial gallons, or 436 US gallons) in the tank, works out at
· 3.5 l/100 km
· 80 mpg (UK)
· 66.5 mpg (US)
Either they're counting on an experimental low-consumption car, or they're bumping up the amount of ethanol provided by a hectare of wheat. Or I got the numbers wrong, please check them.
(From Worldwatch Institute report linked above).
Total grain maize production of the EU-25 is roughly 50 M tonnes, grown on 6-6.5 M ha. A hectare of maize provides about 3,100 l ethanol (from 8 tonnes grain dry matter approx, which gives us about 380 l/t ethanol.) If all the maize in the EU were made into ethanol, we'd get
50 M x 380 = 19,000 M litres
Mixed at 10% with 90% petrol, that would give 190, 000 M litres of E10.
The total petrol consumption of the EU-25 is given by Eurostat (for 2002) as
5, 242, 160 terajoules
Taking the energy content of a litre of petrol at 32 megajoules, we get approx.
164, 000 M litres of petrol consumed in the EU-25.
So the entire maize crop of the EU would more than cover the "needs" in E10, but not by all that much. 86% of it would have to go to making ethanol, leaving less than 14% for food.
Of course, they're not proposing to make ethanol with maize alone (there'd be some sugar beet at a higher yield, see chart above, and a lot of wheat at a lower yield), but it gives a ballpark idea of what would be needed just for a 10% contribution from ethanol.
I think these back-of-envelope calculations tend to support the sceptical position on biofuel land use. In other words, the FT isn't wrong, certainly not enough to be accused of publishing even misleading information.
The EU Consultation
The Transport and Energy Commission is bringing forward a review of its 2003 Biofuels Directive, and has set out its review agenda in the Communication An EU Strategy For Biofuels.
The Commission will
• bring forward a report in 2006 with a view to a possible revision of the Biofuels Directive.
This report will inter alia address the issues of setting national targets for the market share
of biofuels, using biofuel obligations and ensuring sustainable production
Why bring forward the report? Perhaps because of this:
The 2005 target share of 2% biofuels was not achieved. With the objectives set by the Member States, the share of biofuels would have attained, at most, only 1.4%. The
Commission has launched infringement proceedings in seven cases where Member States
adopted low targets without due justification.
Also possibly this:
The Communication proposes setting-up a specific ad hoc group to consider biomass and biofuel opportunities within national rural development programmes, as well as recommending that renewable and alternative energy sources are an important objective for cohesion policy. The European Commission and the Member States will need to work in partnership to assess how these limited EU funds can be used cost-effectively to make a genuine difference as part of a wider climate change strategy. These funds should not simply be used as indirect subsidies. This work should happen as a priority to be relevant, as the programming schedule for these funds indicates programmes should be effective from 1st January 2007.
From a response to the Communication by WWF, WWF & the EU Biofuels Communication (pdf). (emphasis mine).
In other words, if the Commission wants to get rural development funds channeled into biofuel support (by subsidising industrial plant in rural areas for the transformation of crops to ethanol or biodiesel, presumably), there are steps that need to be taken quickly. It should be noted that the other type of EU funding for biofuel support that is mooted is a transfer of CAP subsidies, broadly speaking, from export to energy. These would be subsidies to farmers, as incentives to grow energy crops.
The US is also subsidising corn-for-ethanol production. Both the US and the EU are under pressure at the WTO, in the Doha Round, to reduce subsidised exports of agricultural surpluses. The EU is already supposed to be reforming the CAP sugar regime (based on sugar beet, an ethanol feedstock) in that direction. So why not redirect the subsidy stream away from exports and satisfy some criticism at the WTO? (Yet another reason for haste in reviewing the Biofuels Directive?)
The supply of feedstocks is crucial to the success of the biofuel strategy. Some of the provisions of the Common Agricultural Policy will therefore be reviewed and adapted if necessary. The expected increase in the world trade in biofuels will also contribute to stability of supply in the EU and other parts of the world.
From An EU Strategy For Biofuels.
Some random remarks:
IF it's a way for the EU to stick a quick patch on the CAP while keeping farms and agri-business happy, it is probably the kind of short-sighted pork-distribution that is the enemy of good policy.
IF it's subsidising (and attracting public and private investment for) distilleries that will transform the same crops as were grown before in unsustainable conditions – maize, wheat, sugar beet – that will do nothing to encourage farmers to quit the same unsustainable practices.
IF it's encouraging farmers to go in for local co-operative oil-mills to transform their own oilseed crops into fuel for their tractors and machines, that would at least have the virtue of beginning to reduce fossil energy inputs into agriculture.
IF meeting obligatory targets means, in fact, importing large volumes of sugar-cane ethanol from Brazil, or palm-oil from Indonesia/Malaysia, that will further encourage the destruction of rainforest and the application of unsustainable agricultural models in emerging agricultural countries.
IF it means offering car manufacturors a green 'n' clean image for free, while they continue to lag behind on their self-set targets re GHG emission reduction, and show no signs of changing market strategy (still speed-sport-power) in favour of lower-consumption models, then it is a scandalous misappropriation of public funds.
IF, despite the unconvincing outlook for first-generation biofuels, the argument is that it is necessary to invest public funds in those fuels in order to pave the way for better second-generation biofuels, then a clear path needs to be shown that leads from one to the other – given that neither the agricultural (type of crop and localisation) nor the industrial (type of plant) implications are the same.
(More remarks to come, if anyone's out there).