Science articles rekindle biofuels contention

By Marc Hequet | February 05, 2008
Web exclusive posted Feb. 18, 2008, at 4:45 p.m. CST

Scientific debate has mounted following two studies suggesting that biofuels hasten global warming, and nevertheless at least one ethanol industry executive has called on his peers to watch and respect ongoing research.

Meanwhile, a researcher in one of the controversial studies reminded EPM that science is always a work in progress. "The analysis is still being conducted and is still very much in flux," said Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota researcher whose Science article, "Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt", suggests that converting land for biofuels worsens global warming. "We don't have the whole answer now. We have another piece of the answer."

Instead of becoming defensive, Rahul Iyer, executive vice president of Primafuel Inc. in Long Beach, Calif., is urging others in the business to take the science seriously as more results unfold. He isn't satisfied with the research results any more than other industry critics. "Biofuels are barely a blip on the radar when it comes to the overall energy mix," he said. "Let's broaden the discussion, and let's understand what the real baseline is. If the science is applied soundly and realistically to unpack these issues, I think we'll really start to learn pretty quickly that there is a smart way to [produce] biofuels."

Sharp debate ensued when publication of two Science magazine articles posted online in early February made world headlines. Researchers argued that first-generation biofuels—corn-based ethanol, in particular—worsened global warming, in part by replacing natural lands worldwide with row crops.

Two U.S. DOE researchers have critiqued one of the studies, "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change" by Tim Searchinger of Princeton University and others. Michael Wang of Argonne National Laboratories and Zia Haq with the DOE's Office of Biomass wrote to Science, "It is not clear what land use changes could occur globally as a result of U.S. corn ethanol production." The letter was also posted on the Argonne National Laboratories Web site. The DOE researchers' own analysis is that corn-based ethanol in the United States leads to moderate decreases in greenhouse-gas-emissions reductions.

The Renewable Fuels Association has also weighed in on the Science article. The RFA called the land-use study "simplistic" and noted that it "excludes the consequences of continuing petroleum dependence."

The Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance said the Science studies "usefully estimate how much carbon will be released when new land is brought into crop production," but the researchers' claims that ethanol increases greenhouse gas emissions "are not supported, and may be contradicted, by their own data."

Sacramento, Calif.-based Pacific Ethanol Inc. said the studies "fail to account for ongoing improvements in agricultural yields and technology improvements in biofuel production," and don't take into consideration "upstream environmental impacts of oil extraction."

However, Iyer cautioned his peers to pay attention to what these and other studies have to offer, as policymakers do. "[If producers reject all scientific criticism of biofuels], I'm afraid it's a losing battle," Iyer said. "I don't think it's a long-term strategy that will work."