Is the Tide Changing?

By Robert Vierhout | October 06, 2008
For the European Union biofuels industry, and most likely the American industry, 2007 and the first half of 2008 will be remembered as the nadir of its history. We were blamed for more things than a sensible mind could think of.

The U.K. newspaper I read, the Financial Times, was one of the first newspapers that started reporting and commenting almost daily on how bad biofuels were for society. It was as if they invented biofuel bashing.

Remarkably, at press time, the Financial Times has not written a single word, negatively or positively, on biofuels since July. It is as if biofuels no longer exist. The paper didn't even cover the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report published in mid-July that heavily criticized the United States and the EU for their biofuel policies. When that happens I'm left wondering if something has changed their stance on biofuels? I could think of a number of reasons that might explain this change.

Perhaps it's the holiday season. Why bother publishing anything if politicians and biofuels detractors are on annual leave? A more cynical explanation could be that after more than 12 months of hammering into people's minds that biofuels are bad, they consider the mission accomplished.

Or could the real reason be the much quicker-than-expected adjustment of agricultural crop prices and the higher yield in almost every region of the world? Could it be that biofuels aren't the true drivers for the inflated food prices the paper had claimed? They prefer to remain silent instead of admitting that they have been wrong in their analysis.

Two other reasons explain this ubiquitous silence. The first was presented in early July. Renewable Fuel Agency Professor Ed Gallagher and his team's eagerly awaited review on the indirect effects of biofuels, which was requested by the U.K. government, was published. The report concluded that, by definition, biofuels are not bad. They have a role to play in the energy mix, but only if produced in a sustainable way.

Gallagher's report concluded that the U.K. government should not question the EU target of 10 percent biofuels by 2020 nor abandon its biofuel policy. However, it should adjust its medium-term target. As expected, the U.K. government shared Gallagher's view. The U.K. government's debate on biofuels policy and its values has come to an end.

The second reason appeared immediately thereafter: BP announced they will construct a wheat-to-ethanol plant in northeast England. The investment is worth $400 million. Since that announcement the U.K. newspapers likely concluded that criticizing biofuels any longer would neither lead to change in government policy nor be appreciated by one of the British industry's crown jewels.

Does this reaction provide a similar picture for the rest of Europe? I must admit that it is beyond my abilities to make any firm statements on all of Europe, but I do notice a similar silence in Brussels-based media and other papers I read. Biofuels might well no longer be the hobbyhorse of the media.

It's too early to tell if the media has turned the corner on biofuels coverage. The final decision on the EU biofuels policy hasn't been made. The media might try another shot at it before the law is adopted later this year. In any case, this period of silence provides time to prepare for another round of anti-biofuels coverage.

Robert Vierhout is the secretary-general of eBIO, the European Bioethanol Fuel Association. Reach him at