Biofuel Pullback Urged To Relieve Food Pressure

Biofuels made from nonfood feedstocks, after years of failing to emerge at anticipated levels, are beginning to trickle into the market. But because the amounts are likely to remain disappointingly small, the Union of Concerned Scientists is urging that federal regulators back off on the overall biofuel mandate in order to relieve pressure on food prices and supplies.

The U.S. renewable fuel standard is set to grow from 15.2 billion gallons of biofuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The presumption when the timetable was written in 2007 was that cellulosic biofuels – those made from nonfood plant matter like switchgrass and corn stover – would make up the vast majority of the new supplies.

concerned scientists

image via Union of Concerned Scientists

That hasn’t happened. As the UCS noted:

When created in 2007, the RFS contained a 2013 goal of one billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol. While the industry is rapidly commercializing — two commercial cellulosic biofuel facilities are starting up, and others are under construction – it is happening slower than anticipated due to the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in a revised goal of 14 million gallons that reflects current production capacity.

The UCS, like many analysts, doesn’t expect the industry to come anywhere near its 16 billion gallon target by 2022 – the Energy Information Adminstration last year put the projected shortfall at a whopping 13 billion gallons.

Production of biofuels from nonfood feedstocks, in billions of gallons, is expected to fall well short of what the U.S. renewable fuel standard calls for (image via Union of Concerned Scientists)

Production of biofuels from nonfood feedstocks, in billions of gallons (image via Union of Concerned Scientists)

That, says the UCS, leaves the Environmental Protection Agency with a crucial decision: keep the overall target at 36 billion gallons, using food-based “advanced” biofuels – such as biodiesel made from soy and ethanol made from sugarcane – to cover the non-food feedstock shortfall; or adjust the overall advanced mandate by the amount of the cellulosic shortfall. That would likely result in 15 million gallons of mostly corn ethanol, 5 billion gallons of advanced  (“primarily sugarcane ethanol and vegetable oil biodiesel,” UCS said), and then as much cellulosic biofuel as the industry manages to turn out.

There are fans of sugarcane ethanol out there, who cite its “energy balance” (the energy input/output ratio) advantage over corn ethanol, and the U.S. could import more such ethanol from Brazil. That, however, would likely prompt Brazil to import more corn ethanol from the United States to meet its own domestic demand. So the result would be more pressure on U.S. corn supplies.

“The RFS was designed to promote renewable fuels that don’t compete with food supplies,” Jeremy Martin, senior scientist with UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program, said in a statement. “We can’t afford additional strains on our food supplies, especially when the drought is expected to continue through 2013.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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