The Search for Sustainable Solutions

Producing sustainable biofuels will require conservation tillage practices and much more.
By Susanne Retka Schill | March 09, 2009
Conservation tillage is a widely recognized and accepted practice that's included in many efforts to define sustainable biofuels. In fact, biodiesel producers won't be alarmed by many of the broad principles that are being proposed to define sustainability but, with all of the diverse groups involved, working out the details won't be easy. Biodiesel Magazine takes a closer look at three approaches to defining sustainability.

NBB's Sustainability Principles
The National Biodiesel Board's sustainability task force introduced its sustainability guideposts at the 2009 National Biodiesel Conference in San Francisco in early February (see sidebar below). Task force Chairman Emily Bockian Landsburg, in her remarks to conference attendees, encouraged biodiesel producers to conduct regular sustainability accounting. "There are important business reasons to do this sustainability accounting besides the ethical reasons," she said. "What are the externalities in the market? Are there conditions that are not impacting the market now, but in the future-be they regulations, supply and demand or public opinion? Seeing these issues keeps you on the cutting edge and keeps the industry ahead of the curve. It pays to do sustainability accounting."

The response to the NBB's sustainability principles at the conference was overwhelmingly positive, Bockian Landsburg says, and came from both small and large producers, farmers and distributors. "Most people are in this industry because they believe in the sustainability of the product," she says. "They're eager to set the record straight about the ways we're sustainable, and they're interested in future improvements." The NBB sustainability principles were intentionally built on the work done by others including the international Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels and the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, a U.S.-based nonprofit, Bockian Landsburg says. In turn, both of those groups built their principles on the work of others, engaging in a diverse dialogue among various stakeholders including producers, farmers, distributors, environmentalists, academics and government representatives. The biggest difference with the NBB's efforts, Bockian Landsburg says, is that while the RSB and SBA are laying the groundwork for certification systems, the NBB is not. She expects that the task force will further elaborate on the principles and share tips, recommendations and best practices for improving the industry's sustainability performance. She also expects the NBB task force to reach out to the environmental community. "Everybody in the industry can get more involved with national and local environmental groups, listen to what they say and share correct information about the biodiesel industry," she says.

RSB Version Zero
The NBB guideposts essentially parallel the internationally developed principles found in Version Zero written by the RSB. The NBB principles combine four of the RSB principles that address natural resources into one overarching principle. Published last fall, Version Zero lays out 12 principles for sustainability, followed by guidance statements that further describe the intent of the broad principle. The RSB solicited stakeholder comments through a series of outreach meetings this winter, including one held after the closing of the National Biodiesel Conference in San Francisco. The meetings indicated wide support for the principles, says RSB Americas Coordinator Matt Rudolf. Once that support was confirmed the discussion quickly moved to measuring compliance. Even in the consultation principle that would seem to be rather straightforward, Rudolf says, participants wondered how large biofuel producers would be distinguished from small ones. The question arose because the principle requires large proposed projects to conduct environmental and social impact assessments and suggests small projects may require assistance or modified assessment requirements.

For American producers, several of the RSB principles seemed obvious, such as following applicable laws or providing a safe working environment free from discrimination. Some principles appear to be aimed at developing countries, with requirements for no slave or child labor, and a call for no violations of land rights. Other principles illustrate a well thought out and balanced global perspective on tough issues such as food security. The RSB food security principle calls for producers to make full use of waste and residue feedstocks, to use degraded, marginal or underutilized land, and to seek yield improvements that maintain food supplies. The RSB suggests biofuel projects could plan to take the maximum food value from feedstocks and use the remainder for energy, to plan for intercropping of food and fuel crops or to offset food security impacts via other economic instruments.

Producers commenting on the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction principle considered the phrase "significantly reducing GHG emissions as compared to fossil fuels" meaningless, Rudolf says. The reaction to the principle guidance statement on GHG emissions gives clues as to how this contentious issue may play out as it was negotiated by a working group representing several view points. The principle calls for a methodology to be developed that is not susceptible to subjective assumptions or manipulation. It says the fossil fuel reference shall be global, based on international projections of fossil fuel mixes. It also calls for continuous reduction in GHG emissions from biofuel production over time, and the development of an incentive mechanism to promote those biofuels with significantly higher reductions over others. To read the principles and guidance statements in their entirety, and offer comments online, follow the links to Version Zero at

Once the comment period is closed, the RSB expects to publish Version One in June and move toward implementation. Key indicators for each of the principles will be written for use in certification systems. In anticipation of implementing the global sustainability standards, the RSB made changes to its governance structure in January. Its open membership will be organized into 11 chambers representing stakeholder groups including farmers, biofuel producers, biofuel distributors, the financial community, rights-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), environmental NGOs, rural development and food security organizations, climate change organizations, trade unions, indigenous small-holder farmer organizations, and an 11th chamber combining governments, certifiers and consultants into one group. Each chamber will elect two members to a standards board that will be a decision-making body based on consensus.

SBA Baseline Practices
The SBA is moving toward certifying sustainable biodiesel under its protocols by 2010 and published its "Baseline Practices for Sustainable Biodiesel" in December. In February, SBA announced that Organic Valley would be the first to test the principles in a pilot program involving the cooperative's distribution system and farmer members.

Closely resembling the NBB and RSB principles, the SBA document provides a more complete outline of what one certification scheme will look like. The SBA principles incorporate environmental goals that address GHG emissions, energy conservation, soil, water and air resources, biodiversity conservation, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), agrochemicals and next-generation feedstocks. Social principles cover food security concerns, local communities and workers, and local consumption. Those overarching principles are then separately applied to feedstock and biodiesel production.

The SBA system reflects the organization's roots in the community-based, small-scale biodiesel movement that has long championed sustainability with many values that parallel the organic agriculture movement. SBA's executive director, Jeff Plowman, says the group is pleased with the response they've received from the industry, adding that some had problems with the SBA stance on GMOs. "SBA baseline practices are intended to be feedstock neutral but not technology neutral," he says. "It's important to ensure that new feedstock choices and next-generation technologies are safe and noninvasive before commercialization." Plowman adds that the SBA's work targets biodiesel and is limited to the United States.

Many of the farming practices outlined in the feedstock section are well-known conservation practices widely used in American agriculture, but the SBA takes a cautious approach to GMOs under the document's ecosystem and biodiversity section where it says sustainable biodiesel feedstock producers shall "avoid using genetically engineered crops unless proven safe by independent third-party certification." The baseline practices ask that GMO use be reported and documented, and measures be taken to prevent the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. Similarly, pesticides are not banned as they are in organic standards, but the SBA sustainability practices do call for minimizing pesticide use. The document also calls for using the highest biodiesel blend practical or available in all diesel equipment on the farm where bio-diesel feedstocks are produced.

The document's second section applies broad sustainability principles to biodiesel production. In addition to meeting the appropriate air permits, the baseline practices call for evaluating and controlling fugitive emissions especially regarding methanol. Sustainable biodiesel producers are expected to eliminate waste where possible and handle wastes in an environmentally responsible manner. It recommends sustainable biodiesel plants support other industries that are locally owned and environmentally responsible, using locally produced feedstock. The baseline practices also call for sustainable biodiesel producers to document quality control and meet or exceed ASTM standards.

Opportunity Not Threat
An underlying assumption of the frameworks profiled here is that the certification systems for sustainability will be voluntary and the market will reward biofuel production that complies. Doug Hooper, chief executive officer of biodiesel distributor Canadian Bioenergy Corp., suggests that those who are developing sustainability criteria look to the forestry and construction industries for examples of successful sustainability standards. There are several groups certifying sustainable logging practices for the forestry industry. In the construction industry, the U.S. Green Building Council developed a suite of standards for a green building rating system known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). It took a long time to develop both of these initiatives into a fully articulated system, Hooper says. The collaborative effort of industry, regulators, environmentalists and academics successfully developed a set of peer-reviewed sustainability metrics against which products can be measured. Accomplishing that for biodiesel and ethanol will give the industries a means to deliver on their promise to consumers, he says. "There's a big opportunity in this discussion to confirm and affirm that biofuels are sustainable," he adds. "Will that have value? If you look at the forestry and construction industries, you can say yes."

As chairman of the sustainability committee of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, Hooper is closely watching the development of sustainability standards. CRFS and the Canadian government launched efforts this winter in preparation for implementing the Canadian renewable fuels standard next year. "My sense is that in the next couple of years there will be an emerging consensus," he says. "The process is important-to be inclusive and open with input from academics, farm communities, ag processors, biofuels processors, distributors, environmentalists and government." Hooper's company, Canadian Bioenergy, participated in the environmental and GHG working groups of the RSB. He expects GHG measurements to be initially based on the life-cycle analysis (LCA) for biofuels involving direct attributes. The LCA for biofuels plants is already fairly well modeled, he says, while there are still improvements needed in the data to fully develop the agricultural LCA.

The indirect, or consequential, impact of biofuels on GHG reduction is a different story. In the past year, environmentalists have attacked biofuels on the basis that the growth in demand for biofuel crops in the U.S. is increasing the conversion of land to crops in other countries. They contend that GHG emissions from those indirect land conversions need to be assessed to U.S. biofuels. "It's horrendously complex to model," Hooper says. "There is far more impact from the European and U.S. trade policies or petroleum prices or trade barriers than can be attributed to biofuels, but how do you measure that?" Hooper also questions efforts to set a biofuels standard that starts at a 50 percent reduction in GHG emissions when compared with fossil fuels. "It makes no sense," he says. "If we're trying to solve the carbon question, we should accept 5 percent better. Better is better. Set 50 percent as a goal, yes, but not as the bar where you pass or fail."

Susanne Retka Schill is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 738-4922.
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