Biofuels Are Essential to Protecting the Environment and Maintaining the Economy

Posted on July 9th, 2012

Biofuels are the only alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to enjoy the benefits to society and economic activity associated with liquid fuels. Our standard of living is supported by energy consumption. All the advances of modern society, including home heating, lighting, and clean drinking water, owe their development to the use of fossil fuels. Education, medicine, communications, civil rights, human rights, and equal rights have all advanced due, in part, to our ability to harness the energy stored in fossil fuels. But fossil fuels are a finite resource, and we must find alternative energy sources to sustain society.

The most precious form of fossil energy is liquid fuel that can be used for transportation and mobile uses. Liquid fuel is the densest, safest, most economical way to store energy for mobile uses. That’s why liquid fuel is essential to food production and food distribution. Liquid fuels are necessary to every aspect of commerce and public safety. Liquid fuels power farm tractors, construction machines, ships, trains, trucks, and emergency generators. Liquid fuels build hospitals and deliver fresh produce. Liquid fuels propel fire trucks, the armed forces, and the Red Cross.

The bad news is, even before we run out of fossil fuels, burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum will choke our atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Coal, natural gas, and petroleum all result from the planet’s geologic processes to permanently store carbon in the crust of the Earth. This process that made Earth inhabitable took hundreds of millions of years. Since the industrial revolution, humans have been extracting and burning fossil fuels at a rate much faster than they can be reabsorbed by the Earth. Every year, we add billions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere. This carbon comes from fossil fuels, and is resulting in threats to our climate, wildlife, food production, our homes, and our way of life.

Biofuels can be used to displace fossil fuels for mobile and stationary sources of liquid energy. Biofuels capture solar energy and store it in natural oils or sugars. Biofuels are made from plants that capture carbon from the air as they grow. This carbon is deposited in the plant stems, leaves, roots, and the oil or sugar used for energy. None of the carbon in biofuels comes from permanent underground reserves. This is why biofuel provides a necessary alternative to fossil fuels. Biofuels offer us the opportunity to power our tractors, trucks, buses, trains, ships, generators, and planes without adding carbon to the atmosphere from permanent underground stores.

Producing biofuels does require some energy. The science of lifecycle analysis has improved to comprehensively measure the net amount of energy used to produce biofuels relative to the useful energy gained. Biodiesel is one of the most efficient liquid fuels to produce, and it happened to be made from natural plant oils and animal fats. The University of Idaho and the USDA have published numerous studies proving that for every unit of energy used to grow a crop like soybeans and process it into biodiesel, five–and-a-half units of usable energy are produced. This ratio continues to increase as production methods become more efficient and use more renewable energy. Someday, renewable resources will provide all the energy for producing biofuels. Today, we are still reliant on fossil fuels to power the production of biofuels. Biofuels provide a necessary means to extend our limited supply of petroleum and produce five times more liquid fuel with no additional greenhouse gas emissions. Lifecycle analysis conducted by institutions, like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory quantify the amount of fossil fuel burned in the process of producing biofuels. USDOE and other government agencies confirm that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 85 percent compared to petroleum diesel. The GHG reduction is not 100 percent, because of the fossil fuel used to produce the biodiesel.

No emission or part of the production process is overlooked by lifecycle analysis. The USEPA has gone a step farther to quantify emission from indirect land use change. The national Renewable Fuel Standard requires that biofuels are produced only from wastes, recycled products, or from existing agricultural land. The federal law strictly prohibits the conversion of forests or natural grasslands for the purpose of producing renewable fuel. It also requires imported biofuels to certify that they came from existing crops and no emissions were generated from land use change.

The theory of indirect land use change uses computer models to predict future expansion of agriculture in other countries and predicts the emissions that may occur from such land use change. These indirect predictions are not for producing biofuels, but for producing timber, livestock, or grains for food and fiber. The indirect emissions do not come from permanent underground stores of carbon, but come from temporary changes in carbon storage between plants, shallow soils, and the atmosphere. These emissions of biogenic carbon can be reversed in a period of years or decades. This reversal is millions of times faster than the relatively irreversible emissions of fossil fuels. Indirect emission cannot be measured or proven by conventional scientific methods. Indirect emissions are a penalty applied against biofuels to ensure that biofuels policies are conservative and provide guaranteed benefits relative to petroleum fuels. Even after applying these conservative penalties, the USEPA has concluded that biodiesel is an Advanced Biofuel with unsurpassed environmental benefits.

Biodiesel provides undeniable GHG benefits relative to petroleum. These benefits come primarily because biodiesel gives us a product to use in place of petroleum. In order to reduce the threat of climate change, we must find ways to reduce the amount of fossil carbon we extract from the Earth’s crust and spew into the air. Biodiesel provides liquid fuel without taking carbon out of the ground.

Most feedstocks used to produce biodiesel today come from existing agricultural products, and wastes. Research is underway to find new crops, such as pennycress or algae that may unlock economical and carbon-reducing pathways to producing even more renewable fuel. Today, biodiesel is produced from byproducts such as recycled cooking grease, and animal fats from beef, swine, and poultry processing. Biodiesel is increasingly being produced from inedible vegetable oil removed for the byproducts of corn ethanol production. Soybean oil also remains an important biodiesel feedstock. Soybeans are grown to satisfy demand for protein, primarily for livestock feed. Soybeans are crushed to separate oil from the protein meal that is fed to livestock. By providing an important market for the underutilized oil, biodiesel helps reduce the price of protein meal for livestock and and ensures uninterrupted supplies of protein for human consumption.

Diversity of the feedstock supply is part of biodiesel’s sustainability benefits. Biodiesel is produced from byproducts or coproducts of existing food production industries. By transforming byproducts into renewable fuel, biodiesel makes food production systems more efficient and more economically sustainable. By providing a carbon neutral alternative to fossil fuels, biodiesel has significant potential to reduce greenhouse gases.

The biofuels industry has experienced more scrutiny of its comprehensive lifecycle analysis than any other industry. The greenhouse gas benefits of biodiesel and other biofuels are continually upheld by the USEPA, the California Air Resources Board, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and countless academic institutions. The methods of accounting and lifecycle analysis employed by these agencies follow the protocols set forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the international community of lifecycle experts. There are multiple methods for conducting lifecycle analysis. Differing methods may produce slightly different estimates, but they all prove that biofuels reduce greenhouse gases compared to petroleum and natural gas. The majority of respected studies converge to prove that biodiesel is responsible for about one fifth of the carbon emissions as average diesel fuel. Experts also agree that petroleum is going to get more carbon-intensive as we are forced to rely on more expensive forms of crude oil such as tar sands, deep offshore oil wells and oil from hydraulically-fractured formations. In contrast, the trend in biodiesel is increased efficiency, continued reductions of greenhouse gases, enhanced food security, and domestic jobs and economic benefits for the regions that produce clean, renewable biodiesel.

Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board.

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