Scuffles over biofuels policy

Roger Pielke, Jr., highlights a rift developing between farm state Democratic lawmakers and the Obama Administration’s EPA on biofuels policy.

The EPA seems to be following in the footsteps of the recent California Air Resources Board’s decision to model indirect land-use changes when estimating life-cycle carbon emissions stemming from biofuels production. The argument, in the CARB’s words, goes like this:

Land use change effects occur when the acreage of agricultural production is expanded to support increased biofuel production. Lands in both agricultural and non-agricultural uses may be converted to the cultivation of biofuel crops. Some land use change impacts are indirect or secondary. When biofuel crops are grown on acreage formerly devoted to food and livestock feed production, supplies of the affected food and feed commodities are reduced. These reduced supplies lead to increased prices, which, in turn, stimulate the conversion of non-agricultural lands to agricultural uses. The land conversions may occur both domestically and internationally as trading partners attempt to make up for reduced imports from the United States. The land use change will result in increased GHG emissions from the release of carbon sequestered in soils and land cover vegetation.

Though this rule might sound good, an impressive set of experts, (including my doctoral thesis advisor at MIT), saw right through it in a letter (copied here) they wrote to Governor Schwarzenegger as CARB’s decision loomed. The experts’ strongest argument, in my view is that “indirect” land use changes are not included in the life-cycle GHG emissions analyses of other products or processes, so why single out biofuels? For example, biofuels track crude oil in price because (to an extent) they are substitutable goods. Whether from Somali piracy or from OPEC production cutbacks, oil price increases thus also stimulate, through price-based mechanisms, the conversion of more non-agricultural land to biofuels cropland. Surely then the resultant increase in carbon emissions from this land-use change should be attributed to oil producers, right?

Well, that’s not how EPA or CARB seems to be doing it. I am a bit mystified here: most observers agree that GHG emissions abatements for corn ethanol are marginal, at best (and some critics even suggest they could be negative). Stacking the deck against corn ethanol hardly seems necessary when it’s not a strong GHG abater to begin with. In any case, it will be interesting to see how Democrats, will deal with this controversy developing in their ranks.

UPDATE: I added a title to this post.

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