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Keep Your Eye on the Ball

| February 9, 2012

By Jim Stewart, Chairman, BioEnergy Producers Association

Last Sunday’s Super Bowl brought a reminder of that familiar adage, “Keep Your Eye on the Ball.”

In America’s quest for alternative and renewable energy, the “ball” is national security and energy independence.  All other issues pale by comparison.

Let’s not lose sight of a critical fact: America’s enemies are bleeding this nation’s economic strength through terrorism and guerilla-style military confrontation, and by exploiting its need to import petroleum, with the related costs of military protection for its points of origin, its production and transport.

Then there’s that other old line, “Nero fiddles while Rome burns.”

And where renewable energy is concerned, there’s an awful lot of fiddling going on.

The five big oil companies have made something approaching $1 trillion in profits over the past ten years, and yet, the Republicans in Congress resist the repeal of even as little as $2 billion of their annual incentives, while systematically stripping the emerging renewable energy industry of the financial assistance it needs to cross the valley of death—among other things, extending the time it will take for the industry to achieve its Congressionally-mandated goal of producing 21 billion gallons of advanced non-food derived biofuels.  Might this be because the oil & gas industry spent $145 million on lobbying in 2011?

Every year, this nation produces some 1.5 billion tons of carbon-based waste.  The Argonne National Laboratory has projected the potential for the production of ethanol from all available organic waste resources nationally to be 100 billion gallons—more than enough to eliminate our need to import petroleum without impacting our environment or that of our neighbors in Canada.

Rather than aggressively supporting the development of waste-to-clean energy in America, Republicans in Congress press for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline through the heart of America to Houston, where Canada’s oil sands petroleum, the production of which is devastating their environment, can be successfully refined—essentially for tax-free export to foreign countries.

Meanwhile in California, with virtually unanimous support from the environmental community, Democrats on the legislature’s environmental committees, for seven years, have blocked corrective legislation that would enable the efficient use of organic wastes as feedstocks for the production of biofuels, biobased chemicals or electricity.

As just one example, California statute has a scientifically inaccurate definition of gasification that requires zero emissions from the entire biorefining process, a physical impossibility and a standard that would shut down every power plant and petroleum refinery in the state.

Today, other than gasification, all conversion technologies, including low temperature, acid or enzymatic, biochemical or mechanical processes, are categorized as “transformation,” equating them with incineration and subjecting them a more rigorous and time-consuming permitting pathway than is required to site a major solid waste landfill.

In 2011, after recycling, California put more than 30 million tons of post-recycled municipal waste into landfills. The organic materials in this waste stream contain the energy equivalent of approximately 60 million barrels of crude oil.

California’s legislature recently increased the state’s mandate for recycling from 50% to 75%.  To comply with its recycling mandates, the waste industry is exporting a substantial portion of the state’s recyclables to China, Nigeria and India, where there is no regulatory oversight, but in California these materials count as recycling the moment they leave the docks.  In most cases, the use of these same recyclables as feedstocks for energy recovery would count as disposal, so that jurisdictions that are required to meet the 75% recycling mandate have no incentive to contract their municipal wastes for renewable energy production.

In recent years, the national offices of environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists have published strong endorsements of thermal conversion technologies, and yet their California chapters lobby against the very legislation necessary for them to move forward in the state.

As a result, California’s biobased technology developers have now located, or have moved to other states, conversion technology projects representing capital expenditures approaching $1 billion, depriving the state of economic growth, jobs and one of its most practical pathways to energy independence.

As one example, Arnold Klann of BlueFire Renewables moved a major project from California’s Riverside County to Fulton, Mississippi and took an $88 million DOE grant along with him.  In announcing the move to his shareholders, Klann wrote, “Navigating the development and licensing process in California in a time effective manner coupled with the challenging business climate in the State convinced BlueFire to petition the DOE for a site change to Mississippi.”

And now, voices are claiming that the United States is approaching energy self-sufficiency through fossil fuels, and that the country may soon be exporting as much fossil-fuel derived energy as it is importing.  Why, then, isn’t there a mandate to stop importing petroleum and consume the fossil fuels we produce here at home–here at home?  Not a prayer.

Similarly, after spending billions of taxpayer dollars to develop the ethanol industry for the very purpose of reducing this nation’s dependence on petroleum imports, America exported 1.1 billion gallons of ethanol last year.  Why is it not being consumed domestically?  Might it be because of concerted attempts to delay the certification of E15?  Might it be because there has been insufficient Congressional support for building an infrastructure for E85?  Might it be that issues like “Food versus Fuel” and “Indirect Land Use Change” were advanced to deflect attention from our fundamental goals of national security and energy independence?

The world’s newly emerging thermochemical technologies represent perhaps the cleanest pathway for the disposal of waste and the production of renewable energy. Yet, environmentalists and regulators quibble over whether post-recycled municipal solid waste should qualify as a feedstock for renewable energy, because it might contain a miniscule percentage of fossil fuel-derived products like diapers or plastic bags.

These little stories could go on and on, but they add up to a failure of government, industry and the environmental community to establish energy independence as a unified national priority.

This nation’s enemies are still out there.  The ball is now on about the ten-yard line and it’s not in their territory, it’s in ours.  You could say that energy independence and national security are in the red zone—and the red zone is on our end of the field.  Do we recover the ball and march down the field as one nation toward the goal of energy independence, or do we punt.

Contact the author, here.

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