Sustainability Speaker Series: Bio-fuels: Market Promise, Governance Challenge

Kevin Fingerman is a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Berkeley in the Energy & Resources Group, and the Vice-Chair and Steering Board Member at Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels.  Hear clips from Fingerman’s presentation on biofuels and life-cycle assessments (LCAs) below, or listen to the entire talk.

– Recorded Wednesday October 5th, 2011

Listen to the entire presentation here, or selected cuts below.

US ethanol production
is largely due to the incentives the government has put into place to try to expand this industry. Those incentives are in place because the belief is that biofuels are good for energy security – I think that’s pretty true – I would say for the most part expanding biofuels is good for domestic energy security. So if that’s your belief, good on you.

Also the belief they’re an environmentally good thing. Which is questionable, not to say that it’s not true, to say it’s not always true. Especially when it comes to the question of climate.

The third reason people are incentivizing/subsidizing biofuels is the assumption that they’re god for rural livelihoods, which also is sometimes the case and sometimes not the case.

So those are the big three, usually the talk revolves around climate and energy security.

People ask me this question, right, are biofuels the future, is this going to keep going? And I don’t know whether biofuels are the future, I would point more towards electrification if you asked me where do I see the transportation infrastructure in 30 years. But I do think that biofuels are a big deal, and I think they’re here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and I think they’re really here to stay for certain applications like aviation and shipping. Airplanes need liquid fuels and unless there’s a major leap in battery technology in the next 50 years they’re going to need liquid fuels, or at least it’s probably going to be more cheap to fuel them with liquid fuels. So I would say liquid fuels aren’t going anywhere and biofuels are going to be an increasing part of the mix for the foreseeable future.

One of the assertions that biofuels are sold on – ask any environmentalist five ten years ago and they’ll say biofuels are good from a climate perspective. And the reason is you’re growing crops, and in doing so you’re taking CO2 out of atmosphere mashing it together with some photons and you’re refining it into say ethanol with corn. The corn plant sequesters that that carbon dioxide into sugar, burn ethanol in your car, goes out the tailpipe of your car and it’s a closed loop …

So there’s this assumption there’s a net 0 green house gas emission. A great concept if it weren’t for the stuff that goes on in turning a biofuel from a crop – the cultivation of that  crop and then turning that into a fuel and emitting it. So people started to ask how do we make policies that get at this? This is not to say that biofuels are worse than petroleum, you just can’t assume the greenhouse gas emissions when you’re burning biofuel are zero.

So, life cycle assessment looks at all the GHG inputs to this process. When you’re doing your cultivation there’s fuel in your tractor, pesticides, seed that goes into it, petroleum fuel all over this world. Going into transport of various sorts, going into cultivation, inputs at that refinery. If I can burn jatropha cake and not use the coal power on the grid, I can knock off GHG at that certain fuel.

If anyone’s interested in this type of LCA you should check out the GREET model out of Argonne national laboratory sort of the state of the art for LCA, graphic user interface, anything they’re interested in knowing about the lifecycle of transportation fuels.

There are three results from this. One is more intensification. Soy is suddenly more valuable, pays to plant, put in irrigation and so on. Another is demand reduction. People are going to feed less soy to cows, more expensive, people lat less meat, probably a good thing anyway, but there’s the ancillary story that this demand reduction doesn’t have to4 be cows, we’re talking about an increase in the price of commodity crops. So this could be demand reduction for food. And this is the food vs fuel concept people bandy about.

And it has been sort of unfairly attributed to biofuels. Because at the same time – we’re talking Tortilla Riots in Mexico, you probably remember seeing this in the news. This was during the financial crash, everything was up in arms, and biofuels were just in the middle of the massive rhetoric shift that we’ve seen over the last five years. You ask someone 5 years ago – the average MIIS student 5 years ago, and they’ll say biofuels, I heard that’s a good thing. You ask the average MIIS student today they’ll say – biofuels I think it’s a bad thing. I think that’s probably the narrative that’s happened over the last five years.

And when that happened, when we saw these huge price increases in commodities – some of it attributable to biofuels, true. Some of it probably attributable to the fact that petroleum was at $140 a barrel at the same exact time, and there’s a lot of petroleum in every ton of corn or wheat or what have you. Some of it has to do with the fact that there was crazy amounts of speculation, inaccurately low expectations for crops in Australia and other places that drove prices through the roof, so people have done economic modeling on how much is this attributable to biofuels, the answer is somewhere on the order of about 15% or so of that spike in commodity cost.

But to get back to the point here – some of the result is demand reduction, some is extensification that is expansion in total cultivated area. Someone somewhere because this took a ton of corn ethanol is going to take a sliver of rainforest and burn it down to plant something. And it’s attributable to the fact that that that ton of corn is no longer going into coca cola it’s going into ethanol. So the argument is shouldn’t we be attributing this smoke coming off of this deforestation to that ethanol. Isn’t this part of the life cycle – if we’re going to do a comprehensive life cycle assessment isn’t this part of the lifecycle of that biofuel, and shouldn’t we be attributing it and tacking on some extra grams per megajoule…

There’s no such thing as not including Indirect Land Use Change. By not assigning a number you’re implicitly assigning a number and the number’s zero. And we know the number’s not zero. By not counting it you’re calling it zero, and that’s not any more defensible than calling it 10 or 20. But it gets to be – I’ve gotten into really interesting debates with people in the biofuel industry who say if you’re going to assign me the blame me for indirect effects add another 40 grams per megajoules to my fuel why don’t you go see the petroleum industry and do a lifecycle assessment of the Iraq war and attribute that – the GHG – who is in the business of trying to carbon foot print the Iraq war? It’s a pretty awesome paper if you write it please send it to me.

But – here’s the carbon footprint of the Iraq war – even if I could know that and count all the steel we made into tanks and sent to Iraq, petroleum we put in those tanks, power jets etc. So I’ll say 50 percent of the Iraq War was attributed to us protecting our petroleum interests – or 40 percent or 90 percent – it’s a completely arbitrary assertion – what percent of that greenhouse emissions should be attributed to how much fuel?

And it’s pretty standard fare to do this economic analysis. So it can be done and it can’t be done precisely but it can be done with knowable uncertainty – but these guys are saying if you’re going to attribute the indirect affects of us you should attribute the indirect affects of petroleum consumption which is – war – to protect petroleum. And the point is not to add that to the petroleum industry, the point is it’s almost impossible to add it to the petroleum industry in a rigorous fasion, and if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be able to do it to us because it’s equivalent…. Don’t know if I agree but it’s an interesting rhetorical.


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