Why Tim Searchinger Is Dead Wrong About Biofuels and Land Use

February 18, 2015 |

ericksonBy Brent Erickson, executive vice-president, the Biotechnology Industry Organization; head, Industrial & Environmental Section

The World Resources Institute (WRI) recently issued a new working paper, authored by Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich, resurrecting a previously discredited attack on the carbon neutrality of biomass feedstocks. Ironically the working paper makes plain the fallacies behind this attack in a way that hasn’t been accomplished in the past.

The authors’ argument rests, first, on a demonstrably false premise that human ingenuity and science cannot manage land use to simultaneously produce food and fuel in addition to storing carbon. Second, the modeling of carbon flows in the paper bestows a wildly inappropriate carbon credit on the fossil fuel industry. And lastly, the paper would propose the creation of a new flaw in international carbon accounting by shifting carbon storage credits from biomass to fossil fuels. If adopted in international carbon accounting, this new flaw would perpetuate the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and exacerbate the damage already done to the world’s climate.

The argument put forward in the Searchinger working paper begins with a flawed premise that, as the authors write, “in general the same biomass or tract of land cannot serve two purposes at the same time.” This premise has already been proved false by experience. In modern biorefineries, every bushel of corn produces biofuels, animal feed and food. While the starch (sugars) in the corn is fermented to ethanol, the protein and bran – fully one-third of the biomass in the bushel – is sold as animal feed. And, increasingly the oil from the corn is captured for use in cooking or to make additional biofuel in the form of biodiesel. Amazingly, the WRI paper avers that this is impossible.

In the past decade, farmers have drastically ramped up crop productivity to meet the new market opportunities created by biofuel production and the increased demand for food. This increased productivity has been accomplished primarily through higher yields and heavier rotation of crops on the same tracts of land. Now, we are seeing increased use of cellulosic crop residues, municipal solid waste and dedicated energy crops as well.

The fact is that every time the world has faced the challenge of increased demand for resources, human ingenuity has provided a solution based on increased efficiency and productivity. The Green Revolution initiated by Norman Borlaug is one example; productivity tools being developed by the biotechnology industry continue to build on that achievement. All arguments based on the specious premise that efficiency and productivity increases are impossible eventually are disproved by time. Leaders and policy makers around the globe should recognize by now that the WRI working paper is committing the logical fallacy of an unwarranted assumption.

The second glaring problem with Searchinger’s WRI working paper is the inexplicable gift of a lifecycle carbon benefit to fossil fuels. The authors fully reveal this fundamental premise of their argument in a footnote at the back of the report, writing, “Eventually, the greenhouse gas reductions from reduced fossil fuel use will equal and ultimately exceed the increase in carbon in the air from the transfer of forest.” They also illustrate the error in many of the pictorial scenarios within the report and appendix. Fossil fuels, by definition, take carbon previously stored underground and release it into the atmosphere, inexorably shifting the cost of that carbon to everyone else. The fossil fuel lifecycle ends with the release of carbon into the atmosphere – there is nothing about fossil fuel use that directly promotes recycling of that carbon. Searchinger’s bias toward fossil fuels is curious.

Carbon accounting through lifecycle assessment requires well-defined system boundaries, and the working paper’s modeling fails that basic requirement. By inaccurately claiming that crops would be grown and that forests would store additional carbon “anyway,” the authors attempt to change the system boundaries and deny biofuels and bioenergy conversion technologies the use of this biomass. But to complete this misrepresentation, the WRI modeling relies on attributing an unearned carbon benefit from crop production and forestry to the fossil fuel industry.

Lastly, while claiming that a flaw in international carbon accounting is being exploited by the biomass industry, the authors attempt to introduce a new and fatal flaw into the system. The authors fully reveal their mistake when they write, “a power plant cannot claim an offset by pointing to a forest that would grow anyway.” And yet, they’ve plainly accounted such an unpaid for and unearned offset in favor of the fossil fuel industry. You simply cannot have it both ways. The world has relied on the use of fossil fuels for more than a century now without forcing that industry to pay for carbon offsets, and that is the source of our current climate change predicament. Increased energy efficiency is insufficient to turn this around. Displacing more oil through alternatives, including biofuels and bioenergy, is not only prudent, but also necessary, especially in the transportation sector.

Bioenergy and biofuels appropriately deserve the carbon offset credit of biomass, because they pay for the biomass and establish an ongoing market that ensures its replanting and regrowth. And we’ve already observed direct proof over the past decade that this market mechanism generates additional biomass. The system boundary for international carbon accounting is correctly drawn when biomass for bioenergy and biofuels is assessed as carbon neutral.

These same flaws lie at the heart of the authors’ prior work on modeling indirect land use change. In their seminal 2008 paper, Searchinger and Heimlich construct a model that assumes a connection between increased demand for crops in the United States and increased land use elsewhere in the world. They then calculate a carbon penalty based entirely on the demonstrably incorrect assumption that this additional land use is the only possible outcome – that U.S. land can’t be used to serve several purposes. And the biofuels and bioenergy industry has been paying that carbon penalty ever since, while the fossil fuel industry has been profiting enormously. It makes one wonder what the real agenda behind Searchinger’s tortured assumptions is. It seems to be to try and kill off renewable biofuels and facilitate fossil carbon pollution. It’s long past time that the world recognizes the fatal flaws in Searchinger’s arguments and stores this argument in the compost pile, where it belongs.

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