Perception vs Reality: The Eight Most Common Biofuels Myths
The EU and the United States are preparing for what appears to be an extended debate on the merits and structure of biofuels mandates. Especially in the US, where the Renewable Fuel Standard is coming under blistering attack from the coalition of oil, food and environmental groups that successfully sold the myth of "food vs fuel".
Attacks from the usual opponents are generally in the form of statements that sound vaguely scientific, or fact-based. Often with a scientist in tow. Beware. Not every person in the business of meat or breakfast cereal production has your (consumer) interests at heart.
Now, that doesn’t mean that every biofuels technology or “wonder feedstock” that comes down the pikeway is a winner. There’s hype and distortion on both sides of the equation — as we looked at in articles like “Jatropha, the Blunder Crop”, or the debacle at Range Fuels.
But today, let’s look at the myths you’ll be hearing a lot more about over the next 12 months from forces wishing to dismantle the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Myth #1. Meeting biofuels mandates would cause the US to radically lower food production, causing worldwide price increases as well as food riots around the world.
Reality. The Billion Ton Study from the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been issued twice now, (most recently, in the Son of Billion Ton update, here) and conclusively has demonstrated that the US can produce as much as three times the biofuels targets set under the Renewable Fuel Standard, without disturbing current food production. Even by the most conservative estimates, there are 500 million tons of available biomass (additional, that is, beyond that used for food), enough to easily achieve the RFS2 goals.
You may have seen a study from University of Montana post-doc Kolby Smith and colleagues, published in the ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology, that advocated doubt on the outcomes of the Billion Ton Study.
Here at the Digest, we think it is absurd for the ACS to seriously assert, as it has — and moreover, hyped the assertion in podcast form and press releases — that that it could take 325 million acres of prime US cropland to grow 36 billion gallons of biofuels. That’s 110 gallons per acre, less than a quarter of what the U.S. will achieve with corn this year, and a fraction of the consensus yields for advanced biofuels.
On food production, take this year’s corn harvest forecast from the USDA as an example. Typically, public concerns over “food vs fuel” in the US turns on the use of corn for ethanol production. According to the USDA, the US is expected to supply 900 million additional bushels of corn this years for animal feed, 200 million bushels for additional exports, and still add 900 million bushels to its year-end corn stocks — all this, while, maintaining their deliveries to the US ethanol producers.
Why do opponents of focus on this point? Classic misdirection. The truth is that rising energy prices push up crop prices. The best way to control food costs is to control energy costs — and changing the energy mix is the best way to do that.
As anyone knows when you start to think about it, a crop is not a food until you apply some energy to it. For example, there is just 8 cents worth of corn in a box of corn flakes that will run you almost $4 at the store. There’s actually more fossil fuel than corn in the cost of that product — milling, cooking, drying packaging, transport, and so on.
Even in developing countries that do not generally buy a lot of packaged foods, there is all that energy consumed in growing crops, and processing crops into grains, shipping, and then cooking too. Fertilizer, diesel for tractors and trucks, energy to run grain mills, and so on.
It’s easier for companies in fossil energy to misdirect your attention through a PR blitz than to get hammered in Congress and in the court of public opinion over energy prices, when they are properly linked to food prices. But they are linked: don’t be fooled.
Myth #2. Biofuels cause higher carbon emissions, instead of lowering them.