Indirect Land Use and Y2K

By Joe Jobe | June 09, 2009
Remember a decade ago when everyone went out and bought up all the bottled water, ammunition, spam, and portable generators and then waited anxiously on New Year's Eve for all the satellites and airplanes to fall out of the sky? Businesses paid consultants millions of dollars to protect them from this technological boogie man. It wasn't a total hoax.

It was an unsupported hypothesis that turned into alarmist hysteria.

So too is the unsupported projection about indirect land use consequences of U.S. biofuels. It seems simple enough. Increased use of crops for fuel will increase those crop prices and bring more land into production of those crops somewhere else. The problem with that simple assumption is that it is invalidated by this simple fact: agricultural practices have continuously gotten more efficient over time, growing more and more crops on less land. Adjusted for inflation, ag commodity prices are as low as they were during the Great Depression.

The fact that well-funded entities have been financing elaborate campaigns to attack biofuels for the past year has made it lucrative for individual "experts" to make alarmist claims against biofuels. A cottage industry of self-proclaimed instant agricultural policy experts has recently emerged. Most of these ag experts have never set foot on a farm, let alone, worked in any capacity in modern agriculture. As indirect land use change for biofuels becomes a hotter topic, more of these attention-seeking "experts" are crawling out of the woodwork to weigh in on the subject.

The biodiesel industry is not the least bit afraid of real science. We are committed to scientific research and to following where it leads. What we are concerned about is speculation and opinion being presented as science. This phenomenon has sadly become increasingly common and makes up a significant amount of the fairly limited body of work on indirect land use change for biofuels, and most of the commentary on indirect emissions impacts as they pertain to biodiesel specifically.

We know that biodiesel is the only commercially available advanced biofuel. Even when challenged by guesswork wrapped in official looking words and cover pages, biodiesel repeatedly proves itself as a superior fuel source.

The chart shows that, while U.S. biodiesel production has grown between 2004 and 2008, there has been a marked decrease in soybean production in Brazil during that same time.

For example, when a recent study criticized biofuels and water use, the facts behind biodiesel set it apart from other alternative fuels. Biodiesel is the most diverse fuel in the world, produced from a wide variety of regionally available fats and oils. Approximately half of the available U.S. raw material is currently soybeans, which are grown for their 80 percent protein meal. Crops are not irrigated or planted solely to produce biodiesel. Conversion of co-products and byproducts uses very little water.

It is clear why biodiesel rises above other biofuels when you consider that the entire U.S. biodiesel industry used less processing water in 2008 than it takes to irrigate two Sun Belt golf courses annually. Further, a joint U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy "cradle to grave" analysis of biodiesel's production found it reduces wastewater by 79 percent and reduces hazardous waste production by 96 percent compared to petroleum diesel.

Another example is the EPA's draft interpretation of indirect land use in its proposed Renewable Fuel Standard rule. It relies on flawed assumptions in estimating biodiesel's greenhouse gas emission profile. One of the models that the EPA used looked at satellite imagery of land use change in Brazil and calculated the amount of new soybean acres that came into production. The EPA estimated the amount of carbon and indirect carbon that resulted in that new production, extrapolated those amounts cumulatively through 2022, and applied all of that carbon retroactively to US biodiesel. The problem is that there was very little U.S. biodiesel produced during that period, so it is impossible that U.S. biodiesel was the driver for any of that carbon. On the other hand, from 2004 to 2008, when U.S. biodiesel production increased from 25 MMgy to 690 MMgy, the number of soybean acres in Brazil actually decreased. If U.S. biodiesel production drove Brazilian land use decisions, the opposite would have been true.

Clearly, biodiesel's measurable strengths stand up to ill-formed theories. But, as was the case with the Y2K hysteria, facts, data, and common sense give way to sensationalism. Without knowing the real facts about biodiesel's benefits, decision makers will be crippled with invalid conclusions, false assumptions or even propaganda. It is imperative you - biodiesel industry leaders - act now to ensure the facts about biodiesel are positioned to make a case for the alternative fuel in long-term policy decisions.

The EPA is accepting comments on the proposed RFS2 rule through most of July. Contact the NBB 's Washington, D.C., office or visit the NBB Member's Only Web site for tools to help you champion biodiesel. Please join me and the NBB staff in D.C. to ensure that Americans and American leaders know the basics: biodiesel is an advanced biofuel - a fuel of the future, here today.

Joe Jobe
Chief Executive Officer
National Biodiesel Board
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