The World Upside Down

By Robert Vierhout | September 23, 2010
As all EPM readers know there are several reasons governments promote biofuels. Depending on the location the argument may differ, but there is agreement everywhere that an important driver is a reduction in transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Within the EU, the environmental driver is certainly the most important, though it makes more sense to promote biofuels as an important and easy solution to reduce imports of crude oil. After all we are highly dependent on imports of fossil fuel at over 80 percent.

For a number of years now many people around the world have been, and still are, looking into the environmental performance of biofuels. A lot of misinformation, often presented as scientific evidence, has been cited trying to convince legislators and society that producing biofuels costs more energy than petrol or diesel. Now we are in the midst of another fantasy: the debate on the carbon intensity of biofuels as a result of the so-called indirect land use changes. The next battle almost certainly will be on the use of water resources.

In all these years of debate on the environmental performance of biofuels there has been relative silence around the question of how environmentally dangerous fossil fuels are. It is as if people simply accept that fossil fuels are bad for the environment and that not much can be done about it. Major oil spills as we have seen recently, or the fact that we rely more and more on non-conventional oil, do not lead to a perception that we need to make structural changes in our energy supply.

As we all know, the environmental performance of biofuels is judged in terms of its GHG emission savings compared to the emissions of fossil fuels. In the relevant European laws, the default value of fossil fuel emissions has been set at 83.8 grams CO2 equivalent per megajule. It is not entirely clear, though, how this emission was calculated—very likely the result of a sort of black box operation, as there is no methodology mentioned in the law nor reference made to a source.

Legislators realized that it was difficult to justify a very complex methodology for calculating emissions from biofuels whilst not having any methodology at all for fossil fuel. This omission was repaired in 2009 when an existing law on fuel specifications was amended to require fuel suppliers (both bio and fossil) to report life-cycle GHG emissions. By using actual average emissions from fossil fuels, a better comparator could then be established for biofuels.

Within the European Commission the unit responsible for transport and ozone in the Climate Action department has worked over a year on a methodology for calculating fossil fuel emissions. Recently, this unit circulated a proposal to other commission departments. I was flabbergasted when I saw the document. It proposes biofuel producers inform national authorities what kind of feedstock they use, where it is coming from and what energy source is used for processing the raw material and, in case of sugar beet use, new GHG emission savings have to be set depending on the energy source—a straight blow to biofuel producers that already need to provide lots of information to certify the fuel they produce under a different law.

It gets worse. For fossil fuel, the proposal provides two simple pathways with default (not actual) values for the emissions from crude to gasoline and crude to diesel, without specifying the crude source, which obviously will not result in higher emissions than that now in the law. The use of non-conventional oils is not factored in, as there are no emission data available. Overall, it is argued, actual values cannot be used as it is too difficult to obtain data. No wonder, if one knows that the oil industry was saying all the time that it is impossible to provide actual emission values and it would present an excessive administrative burden. Of course, the naïve civil servants have no reason to distrust the oil industry and would certainly not want to bring economic hardship upon them. Apparently the biofuel industry, in their view, is a mature and wealthy industry that would and could not object to more administrative burdens.

The proposed implementation rules are being blocked by other commission services for the time being. Like us, they believe that this is the world upside down.

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