Indirect land use policy debate heats up

By Kris Bevill | January 03, 2009
As part of the U.S. EPA's implementation of the renewable fuels standard as mandated by the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, the possibility of indirect land use change measurement could become reality, and numerous groups aren't hesitating to make their opinions on the matter known.

An example of indirect land use change would be the destruction of rainforests in order to clear more land for crop production to meet greater demand, in this instance a crop used in biofuels production. Opponents of such a policy argue that there are no agreed-upon methods to compute land changes as an indirect result of biofuels production and that premature inclusion of such changes in a federal policy will stunt the growth of a young industry. Proponents say that proper calculations of indirect land use changes will result in the use of only the best and most sustainable types of feedstocks.

On Oct. 23, Jim Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, submitted a letter to the EPA stating that the organization's 1,200 members support the measurement of direct emissions, but that indirect measurements would be premature. "If the proposed rule contains numerical results from flawed models published prior to the maturing of modeling tools, it could have a range of perverse effects, including discouraging and chilling investment and curbing U.S. production and use of all biofuels," Greenwood wrote.

Several scientists and biotechnology companies, including Ceres Inc. and Mendel Biotechnology Inc., also wrote to the EPA and said that the requirement to measure indirect land use changes is "currently impossible."

In contrast, a letter submitted by a coalition of environmental groups and scientists stated that indirect land use change is the "ripple effect" resulting from converting land from food production to fuel production. The group, consisting of the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, added that the inclusion of indirect changes would help determine the least environmentally detrimental feedstocks, thus strengthening the industry overall. "Properly done, accounting for indirect land use will improve the ability of investors and developers to distinguish promising approaches from dead ends," the letter stated.

The EPA testified before a senate subcommittee in early 2008 that it would need to push back the date for its final renewable fuels standard ruling from January 2009 until later in the year due to the complex issues being covered in the policy. At press time, no time line had been set.

The California Air Resources Board is also considering indirect land use change measurements as part of its Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Bruce Dale, a chemical engineering professor and associate director of the Office of Biobased Technologies at Michigan State University, spoke out against the CARB policy. "It makes American fuel producers responsible not only for their own actions … but for the actions of people literally on the other side of the world," he said, adding that a policy of that magnitude has never been imposed on any industry.