It’s time to move past ethanol

There is a moment in Bill Jaeger’s latest biofuels paper when his scholarly posture crumples a bit and he seems to want to shout loud enough for policymakers in Washington, D.C., to hear him all the way from Corvallis, Oregon.

After meticulously detailing the role various forms of biofuel might (or might not) play in “achieving significant reductions in fossil fuel input use and greenhouse gas emissions as compared to alternatives,” Jaeger brings down the hammer.

”In fact,” he writes, “all of (the) biofuels mandates combined, if achieved, would have the same effect on total U.S. fossil fuel use as a $0.25/gallon gas tax increase, but at an estimated total social cost of $67 billion versus $6 billion with a gas tax.” 


Jaeger is an economist at Oregon State University. He has long, silvery hair, and when we met over coffee he was wearing jeans and a blue fleece vest and unless I was imagining things, there was an earring in one lobe.

His tree-hugger-professor appearance, combined with a thoughtful countenance, belies the important role he is playing – or ought to be playing – in moving the U.S. away from spending scant public resources on biofuels. Call him the biofuels slayer.
 Well, OK, he isn’t alone in his pursuit. He is, rather, a big voice in the new scientific consensus questioning the aggressive pursuit of plant-based transportation fuels as an answer to climate change.

For a long time, the argument against biofuels support was made mostly by conservative commentators, laissez-faire types who chafed at what they saw as wasteful government meddling in the unfettered operation of markets (never mind that government has always meddled in markets, especially energy markets). 

Meanwhile, the other side of the argument was represented by environmentalists – people who looked like Bill Jaeger, if you’ll pardon the stereotype. They provided the moral suasion that, combined with the Capitol Hill muscle of big agricultural interests and corn-state politicians, led the U.S. to embark on an aggressive campaign to back biofuels.

That campaign’s first really big victory came with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 [PDF], which instituted a renewable fuels standard (RFS) that required refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuel into gasoline sold in the U.S., peaking at 7.5 billion gallons by this year. 

An even bigger win followed: The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 [PDF] extended and enlarged the RFS, mandating 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, broken down as 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 5 billion gallons of non-cellulosic advanced biofuels, including at least 1 billion gallons of biodiesel.

But while the politicians were plunging forward with biofuels, science was beginning to chip away at their rationale. Various strands of emerging doubt about U.S. biofuels policy were pulled together in a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report to Congress. 

It noted the role of emissions generated by fossil fuel combustion during the process of manufacturing and transporting biofuel.

It cited the possibility that converting land to agriculture, as would be required in expanding biofuels production to the levels the law requires, “may disrupt any future potential for storing carbon in biomass and soil.” 

Ultimately, the independent assessment said, “RFS may be an ineffective policy for reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions because the effect of biofuels on greenhouse-gas emissions depends on how biofuels are produced and what land-use and land-cover changes occur in the process.”

Then there is the not-so-small matter of reality not meshing with hope when it comes to cellulosic ethanol. Despite support for the sector – which continued in 2011 with loan guarantees for new plants in Iowa and in Kansas – cellulosic ethanol has so far been a huge bust. 

The EPA’s recently released mandates under the RFS call for a mere 8.65 million gallons to be blended into gasoline in 2012, a drop in the bucket compared to the 500 million gallons originally planned for. And even at that, refiners are complaining that the tiny target is unrealistically large.

Is it time to throw in the towel on biofuels? I think so, with an allowance for the military to continue its pursuit, since the armed forces can make a case for having strategic and security interests in developing biofuels sources, and for modest investment in research that might bring true breakthroughs.

“The more you look at it,” Jaeger told me, “the more it’s clear there is something fundamentally amiss about trying to grow stuff to make a liquid that can then be a fuel. If you think about it, it’s a very convoluted way to use solar energy, where instead of photovoltaics, you’re relying on photosynthesis and a lot of other inputs. It just doesn’t pencil out.”

Biofuels advocates have often responded to such criticism by noting that despite its shortcomings, biofuels are useful because unlike solar or wind, they are fuels that can go in our cars and help us meet our transportation needs. 

But in truth, we don’t need them to go in our cars. We don’t need cars that run on them. We need to move past that entire paradigm. Let’s go electric. Then we can embrace a full range of renewable energy sources – real solar, and wind, and whatever else proves itself worthy – not a woefully ineffectual one.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling