Untangling Our Food and Fuel Systems

Feb 22nd, 2013 | By Aubrey Yee

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency made important decisions about how much advanced biofuel crude oil refiners will be required to blend into their gasoline supplies for 2013. While this may seem like a simple mandate based on reaching long-term clean energy goals, in reality it is a decision fraught with complexity and potentially wide ranging effects on America’s food supply.

Despite a federal court ruling that determined the EPA must lower certain targets for biofuel blending, the EPA went ahead and released 2013 targets of 14 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel, up from 8.65 million gallons in 2012.

The main reason for all the debate - there are no commercial scale cellulosic biofuel refineries in operation, yet. Biofuel from cellulosic nonfood sources, such as corn cobs, stalks, wood chips and garbage, has not developed to the point of wide-scale commercial manufacture despite millions of dollars of research and development by many large firms.

Back in 2007, Congress established a renewable fuel standard, which set targets for cellulosic biofuel that would have production at one billion gallons in 2013. To date, the actual output remains near zero as no one has found a way to produce advanced cellulosic biofuels on a commercial scale.

The recent opening of DuPont’s cellulosic biofuel refinery is being hailed as a major accomplishment. But they only expect to produce 30 million gallons of fuel per year, perhaps enough to satisfy the EPA’s target, but far shy of Congress’ one billion gallon goal. And the refinery will not be ready to open its doors until mid-2014, if they stay on schedule.

The American Petroleum Institute argues that the EPA’s targets for cellulosic biofuel production are still too lofty, citing the fact that only 21,000 gallons were produced in 2012. The biofuels industry points to projects like DuPont’s and others to show that production is getting up to speed quickly.

In order to meet the mandates in the meantime, refiners have been allowed to use corn ethanol in their blends as the EPA has been repeatedly pushed to waive the cellulosic requirement. But corn ethanol relies on an important food source, corn, for production. As a result corn prices have risen, with livestock farmers and many industrial food manufacturers, who rely on corn derivatives, feeling a major pinch and overall food prices rising as a result.

The tug of war comes from industrial food producers on the one side pushing the EPA to reduce the mandate for corn ethanol, and the biofuel industry on the other side pushing to maintain the cellulosic mandates with yearly waivers until they can get their production up to speed.

Jeremy I. Martin of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program argues that the EPA should stay the course and not reduce cellulosic mandates. He recently told the New York Times that, “We’re going to have to accept that the cellulosic fuels are late. Going in the right direction a little more slowly is better than going in the wrong direction.”

Sustainable America is working to help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Biofuels are one important way to achieve this goal, and we need to increase the production of advanced biofuels in order to reduce the pressure on food supplies which are already stretched thin by the ongoing drought of 2012 and other extreme weather events that seem to occur with increasing frequency. The existing EPA mandates, while not perfect, still can act as an important carrot to keep the biofuel industry pushing towards better technology and commercial scale production.

Tagged: food prices, sustainability, biofuels, food vs fuel, advanced biofuels, biofuel, sustainable transportation, corn ethanol, drought 2012, cellulosic biofuel, fuel, advanced biofuel, renewable fuel, Alt Fuels

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