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Biofuels Issue Indirect Land Use Change Under Review

June 15, 2009

In May, a bipartisan group of Representatives introduced HR 2409, the Renewable Fuel Standard Improvement Act, which would eliminate the current requirement established in the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 for the EPA to evaluate biofuels on their indirect land use change impact.  As the EISA currently stands, the EPA must evaluate and score biofuels according to their life cycle carbon impact which would include indirect land use change.  Indirect land use change (ILUC) is a relatively new concept that has become the center of academic debate and legislative contention.  ILUC refers to the global pressure placed upon the agricultural and forest lands of other nations to provide the world’s food supply as U.S. farmers would potentially shift from food to biofuel production.  The basic assumption is the world needs a set amount of food to feed the roughly 6 billion people.  If U.S. farmers take farmland out of food production in order to grow biofuels, then other areas will have to either intensify their growing methods, which would mean more fossil fuel use, or destroy old-growth forests to create new cropland.  Both processes would potentially release considerable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, potentially negating any carbon reductions achieved through the use of biofuels in the U.S.

Unfortunately, there currently does not exist any tool to measure, verify, or justify the ILUC theory.  Measuring and verifying, let alone showing a direct relationship, between the growth of a biofuel crop on one U.S. acre of farmland and the destruction of one acre of rain forest in another part of the world, are quite difficult tasks.  The nature of a global marketplace, with its easy transactions and literally millions of market participants all facing unique forces, precludes any simple verification and measurement of indirect land use change.  And, as a number of U.S. commodity groups have pointed out, the recent past has not fit the theory.  The boom experienced in the U.S. corn-ethanol industry in the last decade has not resulted in increased deforestation in countries such as Brazil.  Over the last decade deforestation in Brazil and other countries has actually decreased despite the rapid increase in U.S. corn ethanol.

Recently, California passed an indirect land use change component to its Low Carbon Fuel Standard that calls for a 10 percent carbon reduction in the overall fuel supply in California with higher subsequent standards.  This effort has been guided by the desire to ensure any biofuels policy does not simply shift carbon emissions to other regions.  Yet, this effort has hit a major stumbling block in that measuring or determining ILUC cannot effectively occur.  Any analysis involves considerable assumptions.  This is particularly troubling considering that any ILUC measurement or standard will in all likeliness provide the base for establishing ILUC standards at the Federal level.  The potential to get ILUC wrong is what concerns many commodity groups, renewable energy producers and the 42 Representatives who signed onto the Renewable Fuels Standard Improvement Act.  An overly-harsh ILUC score could wrongly send a burgeoning biofuel industry either to the graveyard or back to the drawing board; delaying its development for years or even indefinitely.  That is a considerable consequence of having a wrong assumption.  Moreover, it would be a great travesty in preventing otherwise effective solutions to our clean energy and self-sufficiency needs.  Similarly, delaying some biofuels industries simply perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels. 

It will take a number of years in scientific and socio-economic studies to accurately determine the indirect land use change impact of biofuels crops.  In that time, advancements in biofuels technologies have the potential to drastically improve processing efficiencies and total productivity while reducing carbon content and overall land demand.  Whether or not an indirect land use change requirement on biofuels will help push toward those ends is still up for debate.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Vincent Orlando permalink
    June 23, 2009 8:40 pm

    I agree. Scientists can barely agree on a direct carbon cost to biofuel production, let alone an ILUC score. Few other alternative energy sources are burdened with this sort of requirement. Overcoming the entrenched infrastructure and economies of scale of current fossil fuels is difficult enough. If land use truly does shift as a result of biofuels, it will be revealed in the data.

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