Biofuels: When the Quest for 'Perfect' Becomes the Enemy of the Good

Risk is a word closely associated with the agriculture industry ‑ and rightfully so. Farming and ranching are some of the most risk-prevalent callings on the planet, given the vagaries of weather, markets, soil conditions, technology and dozens of other factors involved in the production of food, feed, fiber and fuel. The slightest setback in any one of these factors – often beyond the control of the grower – could mean the loss of a crop instead of achieving the margin needed to do it again the next year.

But risk – the possibility of harm or even loss ‑ is a necessary dynamic in an ag producer’s world because, simply put, to not put oneself at risk could lead to worse consequences. It’s not too much of a simplification to say that if a farmer does not plant his crop and address the risks that come with that, there is no food.

So, of all the functions that go into an agricultural producer’s job description – agronomist, meteorologist, labor manager, engineer, even psychologist, among so many others – one of the most critical is that of risk manager.

Risk is a word that comes to mind when the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which outlines what the panel estimates is the level of impact changing conditions are having on humans and ecosystems. While there are a few passing references to biofuels in the 1,552-page document, one of 19 technical reports detailing the scientific basis for the points made in the panel’s report devotes a few pages to the potential risk of biofuel production contributing to climate change.

The IPCC has long recognized the role biofuels can play in mitigating climate change. But the release of the report has also generated in some circles some long-standing – if not long-addressed ‑ concerns about the unbridled production of biofuels and their feedstocks without regard for the consequences to ecosystems and biodiversity.

What virtually all risk-minded growers of corn for ethanol, or soybeans for biodiesel or switchgrass for cellulosic biofuels would tell those scientists who are looking at the conditions that are warming our planet and creating extreme weather events: Today’s biofuels  are NOT your father’s biofuels!

What we know and what has been well demonstrated over the past decade is the fact that the magnitude ‑ and even the likelihood – of environmental damage resulting from the development of feedstocks for biofuels is being rapidly minimized by farmers better engaged in stewardship, improved farming practices and better equipment, all while advances in conversion technologies and conservation systems are being adopted across the value chain.

And here’s some proof: researchers at the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in 2013 a lifecycle analysis (from farm to fuel tank) that found corn ethanol produced between 2008 and 2012 reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an average of 34 percent compared to gasoline. And that’s after factoring in what they presume to be emissions from so-called indirect land use change, a concept still subject to considerable doubt among many scientists.

Biodiesel made from soybeans is designated by EPA as an “advanced” biofuel because it produces at least 50 percent fewer GHGs than oil-based diesel. And the biofuels industry is set to begin production this year of commercial-scale supplies of cellulosic ethanol, which is made from crop residues and non-food crops, and can reduce GHGs by 85 percent.

Producers today are putting out biofuels more efficiently, using less energy and water, all while offering significant environment benefits by reducing high-carbon, climate-changing emissions from our transportation fuels. Virtually all of the climate change risk associated with bioenergy is driven by increased need for raw agricultural feedstocks. The United States, however, is fortunate to hold vast amounts of biomass feedstocks that can be sustainably produced and used to deliver high-value, near-term climate change solutions, including avoided emissions via biofuel production, carbon sequestration services through photosynthesis, and conversion of agricultural emissions to clean forms of energy.

No one understands the perils posed by changing climate conditions more than American farmers, who are facing virtually unprecedented levels of extreme weather – extensive drought, widespread flooding, wildfires and tornadoes. They understand the need to adjust to these often treacherous conditions. Producers are availing themselves of tools – including 25x’25’s Agriculture and Forestry in a Changing Climate: Adaptation Recommendations – that are enabling the U.S. agriculture and forestry sectors to meet the challenges posed by increasingly variable and unpredictable weather. Their own battle with changing conditions gives growers the awareness of what’s needed to address those conditions with their own production.

25x’25 calls on all renewable stakeholders to vigorously support the development of today’s biofuels to not only address climate change and improve our environment, but also help boost our economy and enhance our national energy security. Like all agricultural endeavors, there are risks, but now is no time to focus so much on what some think should be a “perfect” solution to meeting our energy needs at the cost of producing a good – and improving ‑ solution.

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