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Biofuels: Political Yes, Scientific No

by afew Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 03:21:53 AM EST

Bullish talk yesterday in Slovenia from German Environment minister Sigmar Gabriel:

ENN: EU can hit biofuels goal without conflicts: Germany

BRDO, Slovenia (Reuters) - The European Union can achieve its 2020 target to get 10 percent of all transport fuel from biofuels without adding to soaring food prices and harming rainforests, Germany's environment minister said on Saturday.

"We can meet the 10 percent target through biofuel production in the European Union (and imports of) raw materials, which do not lead to a conflict with food or rainforests," Sigmar Gabriel told reporters on the fringes of a meeting of EU environment ministers in Slovenia.

Apparently Sigmar Gabriel has a line on mysterious "imports of raw materials" that would not concern oil-palm or sugarcane plantations on cleared rainforest land. Even supposing such materials exist and could be marketed, transported, and brought online, the fact that this is, yet again, reliance on mining the outside world to provide energy to keep cars and trucks running -- the periphery feeding the core -- escapes an environment minister. The fact that the price of such materials would necessarily follow the oil price curve, and that imports are no solution to Europe's energy dependence, also escapes him. Never mind, he's bullish all the same.

Not so the European Environment Agency.


ENVIRONMENT: Scientists Ask EU to Drop Biofuel Targets

BRUSSELS, Apr 12 (IPS) - Scientists tasked with advising the European Union's policy-makers have called for a target on promoting the greater use of biofuels to be dropped.

As part of a battery of measures officially aimed at addressing climate change, the EU's governments agreed in 2006 that 10 percent of the bloc's transport needs should derive from agricultural crops by 2020.

In a new paper, the European Environment Agency's scientific committee describes the goal as "overambitious" and recommends it should be suspended until a comprehensive study on the pros and cons of biofuels is completed.

According to the paper, meeting the 10 percent objective will necessitate large-scale import of biofuels from outside the EU. With the growing production of biofuels such as palm oil already accelerating deforestation in poor countries, the scientists argue that it will be difficult to monitor whether crops destined for use in European vehicles are being cultivated in an ecologically sustainable manner.

They also suggest that the production and use of biofuels may not lead to major cuts in the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main substance triggering global warming, when compared to conventional petrol or diesel. They express concern that an upsurge in biofuel production will put increasing pressure on water, soil, flora and fauna. And they query if the EU's target is realistic, given that a previous one -- set in 2003 -- of ensuring that biofuels comprise 2 percent of transport fuels by 2005 was not attained.

The EEA's conclusions are summarised on its site:

Suspend 10 percent biofuels target, says EEA's scientific advisory body - Highlights --

* Biofuel production based on first generation technologies does not optimally use biomass resources with regard to fossil energy saving and to greenhouse gas reduction. Technologies for direct heat and electricity generation should be preferred because they are more economically competitive and more environmentally effective than biofuel production for vehicles.

* Biomass utilisation implies combustion of very valuable and finite resources from our living environment. These resources ought to be preserved wherever possible. Therefore biomass utilisation must necessarily go hand in hand with energy efficiency improvements. This is not yet the case for the majority of applications in the automotive and residential sectors.

* The EEA has estimated the amount of available arable land for bioenergy production without harming the environment in the EU (EEA Report No 7/2006). In the view of the EEA Scientific Committee the land required to meet the 10% target exceeds this available land area even if a considerable contribution of second generation fuels is assumed. The consequences of the intensification of biofuel production are thus increasing pressures on soil, water and biodiversity.

* The 10 % target will require large amounts of additional imports of biofuels. The accelerated destruction of rain forests due to increasing biofuel production can already be witnessed in some developing countries. Sustainable production outside Europe is difficult to achieve and to monitor.

The EEA seems largely to agree with our own conclusions two years ago regarding land use (see also, more recently, Luis de Souza's diary and mine). But note the clause I have bolded in the EEA summary: their calculations include the potential contribution of second-generation (cellulosic) biofuels, which are not produced from food crops. And their recommendation is clear:

The overambitious 10 % biofuel target is an experiment, whose unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control. Therefore the Scientific Committee recommends suspending the 10 % goal; carrying out a new, comprehensive scientific study on the environmental risks and benefits of biofuels; and setting a new and more moderate long-term target, if sustainability cannot be guaranteed.

The EEA is the second scientific body to question the EU's biofuels target this year:

ENVIRONMENT: Scientists Ask EU to Drop Biofuel Targets

In January, a leaked paper from scientists in the European Commission's Joint Research Centre said that the costs of reaching the goal will "almost certainly outweigh the benefits." The JRC called into question the EU's decision to focus its target on transport, contending that it would be more efficient to use agricultural resources for generating electricity than as biofuels.

Personally, I think agricultural resources should be used for food; but the dash to pump liquid fuels into motor vehicles by transforming biomass is beginning to look more and more desperate.  

[editor's note, by Migeru] This article is part of the Biofuels series.

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It's worth noting the enthusiasm and energy the political establishment have put into maintaining the status quo regarding fuel use compared with their more sluggish efforts at promoting energy saving, reducing fuel use, promoting green energy.

Equally, whilst preventing concerns about energy security, they are happy to hype concerns about terorrist security. Basically it's always a right-wing frame, authoritarianism and frustrating the DFHs.

Which is why nuclear will always get preferential treatment. After all, if it really made any sense private industry would pay for it, but it won't. However, it's a specifically anti-DFH pro-authoritarian energy model. For a politician that's a no-brainer combination.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 06:11:12 AM EST
A devil's advocate might argue that biofuels is quite the opposite of nuclear in your frame. OK, it's not DFH exactly, but it's decentralised, can concern small local development projects, has no essential military connections, etc.

Why politicians back it is mostly a matter of pork for the farm/agro-industry lobby.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 10:21:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Also because, being a near drop-in substitute for fossil fuels, it exempts them from the responsibility of having to think about enrgy and transport policy.

We have a in intelligentsia that doesn't believe in policy, just market provision.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 10:30:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... advocating would point out that that model of decentralised, focused on small local development projects, at a scale and with a technology that is not focused on providing a fuelstock for the military industrial complex ... that is precisely the model that is being avoided in the EU approach.

That is, the right 2.5% to 5% biofuel contribution to the mix can leverage its contribution, by eliminating transport tasks ... and it is precisely the right 2.5% to 5% contribution that is being swamped by subsidy to capital intensive, energy intensive, low EROI biofuel production.

The greenwashing of fossil fuels and tropical plantation agriculture with "biofuels" is, in other words, the enemy of starting on developing a renewable, sustainable biofuel component of the next energy economy.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 12:34:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, that would be the same devil's advocate. Or his brother ;)
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 03:24:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A devil's advocate might argue that biofuels is quite the opposite of nuclear in your frame.

What the EU seems to want to be on the road to pursuing is something under the name of biofuels that is as close to nuclear in the frame referred to as it is physically possible to be.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 05:59:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As I half-joked in the Salon today, Sigmar Gabriel may be correct when he says
"We can meet the 10 percent target through biofuel production in the European Union (and imports of) raw materials, which do not lead to a conflict with food or rainforests,"
As long as the EU reduces its liquid fuel demand by 5% per year from now to 2020.

In 2006 we concluded (and told the Commission) that the then-current target of 5.75% market share for biofuels was barely attainable with first generation biofuels. Then they decided to raise the target to 10%. Oh, well. They can stick to 10% market share as long as the total drops below 60% of present levels.

As afew pointed out in reply to my quip, even that level of domestic biofuel production would probably require unsustainable monocultures.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 07:35:20 AM EST
I'm confused about the "even if a considerable contribution of second generation fuels is assumed." The biodiesel-from-algae enthusiasts claim that space is not a problem, only cost... For example, http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html
by asdf on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 08:44:43 AM EST
Since we don't have access to their full report, I'm assuming they are talking about cellulosic ethanol from forestry by-products, coppiced wood plantations, and grasslands.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 10:06:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Reports you want???

Here's a summary of the state of the art in the U.S. as of about a decade ago, stalled because its cost was about twice that of $20 per barrel oil...

http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/pdfs/biodiesel_from_algae.pdf

by asdf on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 01:05:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm surprised market forces haven't got it up and running, with oil at five times that price!

I simply meant to try to explain what I think is behind the phrase I bolded: that the EEA is referring to cellulosic ethanol produced from land that is not prime arable, but takes up land surface all the same. Without reading their latest report, I can't be sure whether they considered algae or not. Since they're calculating land surface, it doesn't seem logical that they should. Though I can well understand there might be a contrary logic to that...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 03:34:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... there are lab bench through to pilot plant implementations of a range of possible 2nd generation technologies. Both for production of biodiesel and low-heat, higher EROI production of cellulosic ethanol, 3rd generation biotic techniques would seem to be required before retaining 10% to 20% of current liquid fuel uses, in the form of biofuels, seems like it can come into the frame.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 12:38:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My take on this problem comes from my exposure to the building business.  Folks get a quote and once they get over the "sticker shock" they begin to figure out how to do things on the cheap.  This is especially true if they have ANY investment in the way things are.

When it comes to energy, investments in infrastructure are matched by institutional investments.  For example, our local utility has two nuclear power plants.  As a result, they have folks with nuclear educations and expertise sprinkled throughout the management structure (coal also applies here.)

Now let us assume that wind is cost competitive and the equipment is as reliable as anything else the power company buys.  You still don't have any internal advocates for wind in the middle and upper levels of management.  You don't have a staff that understands the unique problems of supplying a grid with an intermittent source of power. etc.  And to convert someone on the inside to wind, you must first have the sort of personality who buys a sailboat before they would consider a motorboat.

Then if they have financed a nuke with 40 year bonds, they don't want to replace it before it has been paid for and then they want to run it for as long as possible because now it is so profitable.

The key to unblocking such an institutional logjam is to reintroduce an economics that brags about how much new infrastructure investment is taking place, and that this sort of economics is inherently superior to the slum landlord mentality that now rules our economic discourse.  So in fact, the LARGEST impediment to a sustainable society is CULTURAL--the glorification of the economic model of the slumlord.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 03:27:16 PM EST
OK, then let's say the hidebound thinking here is: we want recognisable liquid fuels in recognisable pumps that drivers will come back to to fill up the tank so they can use the new highways everyone knows we need.

Still and all, biofuels is something relatively new. It doesn't correspond to nuclear or coal in the career-long habits of mind of people in management or political structures. If it really was identified with hippies it probably wouldn't get much traction. That it does, I think, is due to the very considerable leverage, in the US and the EU, of the farm/agro-industry people. Who can see how, out of the hidebound thinking above, to guarantee themselves long-term comfortable subsidy streams.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 03:54:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you just answered the question I was meaning to ask which is what exactly is the policy goal of the EU, and what kind of advice are they seeking from their scientific advisors?

Because, at least in the decision theory, the way it works is that the politicians figure out a set of goals and then they ask the advisors how to attain those goals, and the advisors come back with a couple of alternatives and the corresponding tradeoffs. But in this case the whole thing looks very strange. The goal (10% biofuels) sounds more like a policy choice to achieve some unspecified goal, and it is not clear what question was asked of the scientific advisors.

But, of course, if the real policy goal here is the completely ass-backwards

we want recognisable liquid fuels in recognisable pumps that drivers will come back to to fill up the tank so they can use the new highways everyone knows we need.
then there's no hope of a sensible policy dialogue.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 04:36:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not so sure that such a goal is unreasonable. Americans are pretty aware now of the general concept of "flex-fuel" (ethanol E85) fuel, although the vast majority don't make use of it. The politicians are supporting the wrong sort of biofuel production method with huge subsidies, but that could change. IF, and it's a big IF, some other technology could product liquid fuels that are suitable for the current transportation infrastructure, then that approach might be better than trying to completely reconstruct the infrastructure (or, stop traveling so much--which is really the best solution).

For densely populated areas, and high traffic routes across less populated regions, train travel is perfectly suitable, and we need lots more of it. But for the travel conditions in much or most of the U.S., it's going to be really, really tough to provide adequate rail coverage.

Example: I want to go to Salida to Bongo Billy's for Sunday brunch. A nice little 100 mile, two hour scenic automobile trip for a sunny April day. Gas cost in new Ford F-150 at 13 MPG and $5 per gallon: $75. (Gas cost in my little Honda: $13.)

In train terms, even if there were still a train from Colorado Springs to Pueblo, and then from Pueblo to Salida, first you would have to deal with the schedule (the route goes up the scenic Royal Gorge, which means it is SLOW)--and then the ticket cost. Two people, 200 miles round trip: $???

It's a matter of, as Mr. Bush says, not changing the 'merkan way of life.

by asdf on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 07:06:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This strikes me as arguing whether dedicated transport corridors can reach deep into the core of the Auto-Over-All set of transport tasks in one tremendous leap.

But that is not how rail reached the position that it originally did of providing "all but last mile" transport for the vast majority of the destinations of the vast majority of Americans.

First, dedicated transport corridors are developed where they are in the strongest position in the current marketplace, especially if we start whittling away at the massive subsidies to cars and level the playing field a bit.

Then those corridors attract differential development of retail and consumer service businesses, because the dedicated transport corridor provides a differential advantage in foot traffic that does not have to be provided with parking space.

How many years down the track is it before its taken for granted that Bongo Billy's is going to be located within easy walking distance of the rail or light rail or Aerobus station?

However long it is, we know that it does not hinge on the patronage of people living 100 miles away. Wherever they are in Salinas is close to the same thing for people driving in from 100 miles away. The location decision will hinge on whether Bongo Billy's can raise their local repeat business by 5% or even more fill in what used to be fairly dead time with people who happen to be changing at that station anyway.

So the example of the decision faced by someone making a one-off Sunday day trip is not an example of a business location driver.

And in general, since the dedicated transport corridors are both more energy and more capital efficient, on a full cost basis, as social institutions they do not have to be as greedy in terms of trying to monopolize all transport tasks in sight as the automotive transport system has to be.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 11:51:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
asdf:
Example: I want to go to Salida to Bongo Billy's for Sunday brunch. A nice little 100 mile, two hour scenic automobile trip for a sunny April day. Gas cost in new Ford F-150 at 13 MPG and $5 per gallon: $75. (Gas cost in my little Honda: $13.)
No European would consider a 160 Km, $150 gas, trip for "Sunday brunch". At least I hope not.

Why does it have to be government policy to make such insanity possible?

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 02:27:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Who the Hell would drive 160 km just for the Hell of it? That's something you do maybe once a quarter, when you vistit those remote relatives.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 09:09:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Who the Hell would drive 160 km just for the Hell of it?

Americans. That's how they enjoy their freedom.

Snark aside, I have to say that driving in the vast expanses of the North American continent is a very nice experience. It's just that I just wouldn't do it "to go to Sunday brunch". But driving along the Pacific Coast Highway or through the Mojave Desert between LA and the Grand Canyon, just to name a couple of long drives I've been on is quite pleasant. But it's not a day trip, at least not in my mind.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 09:16:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, that's a bit much for even my country relatives. Though they'll do round trips to get a drink that I'd consider completely insane.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 09:12:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
How long do ceebs and TBG say they have to drive to get to the nearest supermarket?

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 09:17:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
in kilometres, it's about 95 round trip to the nearest tescos or marks and spencers,  4km too far for me to order over the internet and save by getting them to deliver

160 if I want Sainsburys.

There is a smallish co-op on a 8 km round trip, but its range is limited.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 09:34:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... on the internet and get it delivered to the co-op.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 12:41:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Delivery here tends to be a bit unreliable.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 01:57:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I only said its what you need ... I think you'll find that its only sometimes that you get what you need.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 03:29:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I want to go to Salida to Bongo Billy's for Sunday brunch. A nice little 100 mile, two hour scenic automobile trip for a sunny April day.

Yep, now we're talking about real problems. I'm still racking my brains for an answer to this one ;)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 05:20:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Worth a trip!

by asdf on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 09:48:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Biofuels are just another example of doing things on the cheap.  If we could replace petroleum with biofuels, we could still use the same--or very similar infrastructure we have--pipelines, fuel stations, etc. and the vehicles can be cheaply converted.  In fact, the newest cars can run on anything from 100% down to 15% petroleum since the only change in the car consists of different instructions to the fuel delivery system.  HIPPIES can make a diesel engine run on used fry grease.

Long range, our ONLY choice is convert all ground-based transportation to run on electricity.  THIS isn't easy.  THIS isn't cheap.

But what I cannot understand is why so MANY people believe that we can just back and fill, and patch things together with baling wire.  There is NO virtue to being thrifty if it means the roof is falling in.  So politicians dither about "saving" bucks on the systems necessary for survival because they believe themselves responsible citizens.  And the people who actually could build the new systems sit without decent work, doing crystal meth, and fighting with the spouse.

Come the revolution, I want to see the heads of the defenders of the slumlord mentality on a few pikes somewhere.  This sort of thinking is sick.  So now we have biofuels and food riots.  What will it take to discredit these fools???

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 05:08:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
techno:
But what I cannot understand is why so MANY people believe that we can just back and fill, and patch things together with baling wire.  There is NO virtue to being thrifty if it means the roof is falling in.  So politicians dither about "saving" bucks on the systems necessary for survival because they believe themselves responsible citizens.  And the people who actually could build the new systems sit without decent work, doing crystal meth, and fighting with the spouse.
Amen!
Thus we are so sensible, have schooled ourselves to so close a semblant of prudent financiers, taking careful thought before we add to the 'financial' burdens of posterity by building them houses to live in, that we have no such easy escape from the sufferings of unemployment. We have to accept them as inevitable results of applying to the conduct of the State the maxims which are best calculated to 'enrich' an individual by enabling him to pile up claims to enjoyment which he does not intend to exercise at any definite time. — J M Keynes in The General Theory


When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 05:13:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks Mig

You just made my day.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 11:43:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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