Miners for a Fuel of Gold in San Francisco

By Joe Jobe | January 15, 2009
In 1849, after the discovery of gold in California, some 300,000 ¡§forty-niners¡¨ flooded the state. San Francisco became such a thriving boomtown that it led to California¡¦s admission as the 31st state the following year. One hundred sixty years later, some 3,000 or so ¡?•09ers are gathered back in San Francisco to prospect for energy. Under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, the biodiesel industry will meet for NBB¡¦s sixth annual conference to address the leading issues facing the biodiesel industry in the U.S. and worldwide. The number and significance of the challenges facing the industry has never been greater, and it will require the kind of leadership shown by Joe Montana as he led the 49ers to four Super Bowl championships. That is why the theme for this conference is ¡§Leading. Change. Now.¡¨

Currently, one of the most important issues to the industry is indirect land use change (ILUC). A number of well-intentioned environmental groups and some not so well-intentioned biofuels opponents are strongly advocating that all biofuels policy consider global ILUC of various biofuels for the stated purpose of quantifying real global carbon benefits. Unfortunately, it¡¦s also sometimes for the unstated purpose of eliminating biofuels from energy policy.

Trying to attribute global indirect carbon impacts to a given technology and policy is incredibly complicated, and accurate, generally accepted scientific principles do not exist. Trying to guess how the increased use of biodiesel in the U.S. might influence the planting decisions of farmers in Africa, and trying to quantify the impacts of those decisions given the infinite number of other government policies, weather impacts, currency valuations, etc., is currently impossible. This alarming fact is not stopping policymakers from embracing this concept. The numbers that are being generated by this questionable exercise are all over the map.

Even more alarming is that current efforts to measure carbon impacts of biofuels constitute a violation of a fundamental scientific principle: that statistical comparisons between two products must be based on the same boundary conditions and comparative criteria. This is as basic as apples and oranges. However, this elementary principle is being ignored today in biofuels-versus-petroleum fuels comparisons in order to make the case that continued reliance on petroleum is better than increased reliance on biofuels. This not-so-clever manipulation to intentionally rig the results in favor of petroleum is happening in two very significant ways: by calculating biofuels impacts based on a) incremental sources and b) indirect emissions (but making no such calculation for the comparative petroleum impacts).

Incremental source comparisons: Almost all of the ILUC analyses existing to date have compared the carbon dioxide emissions of future biofuels to the average carbon dioxide emissions of past petroleum fields, not the new sources of oil. Despite the fact that agriculture and biofuel technology continue to decrease their energy intensity, and petroleum extraction continues to increase its energy intensity, ILUC advocates insist that the opposite be assumed.

If the targeted 36 billion gallons of renewable biofuels did not go into the fuel pool, what is it going to be replaced with? It won¡¦t be replaced with the relatively cheap and easy petroleum lying around in known oil fields waiting to be depleted. These are the kind of oil fields that used to exist in places such as Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, where you dig a hole and black gold comes gushing out of the ground. No, these fields have mostly been used up, and the ones that remain are in places such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela.

The petroleum-forever crowd likes to point out that the U.S. gets a significant portion of its oil imports from Canada. Canada¡¦s oil reserves are made up in large part by non-conventional petroleum such as tar sands. Extracting the petroleum from these sources requires significantly increased energy and intense land use changes. Since it is this more expensive and energy-intensive petroleum that biofuels will be replacing, it should be the material that biofuels are measured against. There are currently 18 billion gallons of petroleum being extracted from tar sands annually, and a projected 50 billion gallons per year by 2020. According to the Natural Resources Canada¡¦s GHGenius life cycle model, this material results in 10 percent to 25 percent more life cycle carbon dioxide than petroleum, depending on the oil sand location and the method used to extract it. Since biofuels impacts are being calculated using future sources (without consideration to technological advances in agriculture and new feedstocks), the same methodology must be applied to petroleum.

Indirect Emissions: If the U.S. EPA and other policymakers insist on including indirect emissions in calculating life cycle carbon dioxide impacts, they must also consider indirect emissions in the comparative calculation for petroleum. In addition to a wide range of land use impacts for petroleum which are not being considered, there are carbon dioxide emissions associated with military activities that help to keep Persian Gulf oil flowing. Global indirect emissions must be considered for both, or neither, fuels if they are to be compared to each other. To do otherwise defies logic and violates fundamental scientific principles.

Like the pioneers who came to San Francisco in 1849, we find ourselves in new, uncharted territory. Carbon policy is fast becoming the future of energy policy, and the outcome of these detailed comparison methodologies will determine biodiesel¡¦s role in our future energy mix. As we gather in the Golden State for our annual conference, it is critical that we recommit to unity in order to combat the continued attacks on our industry. Regardless of who makes it to the Super Bowl this year, I¡¦m rooting for the San Francisco ¡?•09ers. ƒ¬

Thank you,

Joe Jobe
Chief Executive Officer
National Biodiesel Board
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