Do Liberals Hate Biofuels?

August 27, 2015 |

dougfaulknerBy Douglas L. Faulkner, “The Cleantech Conservative”, special to The Digest

Most liberals don’t hate biofuels. But most don’t love them either, mainly because of their underlying environmental concerns about first-generation biofuels, corn starch ethanol and soy biodiesel. The left’s deep ambivalence toward biofuels is thus a mirror image of conservative views, amplifying that political dynamic into a major headache for the biofuels industry. (See my article in this publication, “Do Conservatives Hate Biofuels?” 10 October 2013.)

The left’s ambivalent views have deep roots that start with early knee-jerk hostility to the policies of the George W. Bush Administration, which includes his clarion call to end America’s addiction to oil and his signature support for biofuels. The left’s singular focus on climate change also triggers a never-ending global drive to try to “purify” biofuels (through unscientific land-use restrictions, for example.)

Environmentalists, and conventional agriculture and forestry

CleantechConservativeFurther adding fuel to the fire is deep-seated and long-standing streak of antagonism in the environmental community toward the conventional agriculture and forestry communities, which sparks uneasiness at least over using “food” crops and trees for transportation fuel.

As the left tilts more toward electric vehicles as the answer to personal transportation needs, it will tend to view the biggest benefit of biofuels – – their partial backing out of oil – – as its biggest liability. In other words, biofuels may well be branded eventually as energy Quislings, collaborators prolonging the life of the hated internal combustion engine and the dominance of oil.

Urban vs Rural

Finally, while the Republican base is centered in rural America, the Democratic base is anchored in America’s urban areas with their emerging informational and consumer businesses and thus, more disconnected from the land and the factory floor. As the social analyst, Joel Kotkin, put it recently, “In some cities, a new economy has emerged… with little appreciation of the difficulties faced by those who build their products, create their energy and food.”

At the same time, cold political calculations and a willingness by more moderate elected Democratic officeholders to throw a broad net over the “green” label mean the left generally won’t publicly attack biofuels and will even occasionally pursue some beneficial policies for the industry in other contexts – – just not too much and too loudly.

Granted, low oil prices have made it easier to brush aside lingering transportation fuel issues, but the net effect of all these factors though is a gradual and quiet de-emphasis of biofuels by the left during a louder, more public drumbeat for green electricity solutions in the service of climate activism.

What’s evidence for this trend?

When was the last time President Obama publicly and whole-heartedly embraced biofuels? He actually personifies this split on the left: on the one hand, as a Senator from an “I” state with a reliance on legacy biofuels, but on the other hand, as President pursuing an administration legacy in environmental climate activism and as the titular head of his party, which is rapidly moving leftward. He has had many occasions over the years to show strong support for biofuels, including his latest energy/environmental pronouncements: they all circle instead around a push for new wind and solar power; energy efficiency; and, anti-fossil fuel regulations – – not biofuels. The left sees greenhouse gases from fossil fuels as the top threat to the environment and reducing them their top priority. Biofuels are at best a distraction from that singular focus and worst counter-productive.

The break-up of the Old Coalition

What does this mean for the biofuels industry? Principally it means that the political ground has shifted dramatically away from the long-standing bipartisan support of just a few years ago. That coalition centered on rural development and import substitution. And, it has fractured and will never be reconstituted. The reality is that today, in the eyes of the media and the political class, all biofuels are not created equal.

What happened to that old bipartisanship? It was mugged by a perfect storm of skyrocketing federal debt, doubts over the sustainability of biofuels, polarization over climate change and the flood of new oil and gas production in the lower forty-eight states. The industry needs to recognize that the right’s opposition to mandates and crony capitalism combined with the left’s environmental concerns clearly demand a new approach.

A New Strategy for a New Time

I believe the heart of that new strategy is to build a new majority, bipartisan coalition centered on second – and later- generation, advanced biofuels and less reliance on federal regulations. This approach would also recognize both the huge contribution of first-generation biofuels as well as their market maturity, with declining need for federal incentives. To grow a substantial new advanced biofuels industry, the next President, Congress, and both parties should:

• Reclaim the national priority for advanced biofuels, re-packaging the principal argument for them on national security grounds, primarily as long-term insulation against unpredictable oil supply disruptions;
• Loudly and often tout the economic, environmental and social sustainability successes of advanced biofuels, including that industry’s critical importance in in combatting climate change, highlighting scientific facts, not emotional political arguments in public commentary. It would not hurt to underscore some of the challenges as well, rather than always responding defensively to allegations.
• Embrace the growing competition between liquid, gaseous and electrical sources of energy for transportation as a positive development in a high-tech, fast-changing, global market sector;
• Sunset the Renewable Fuels Standard as well as EPA’s involvement in any reform proposal: sooner for first generation fuels and later for advanced biofuels to buy the latter time for greater competitiveness and more consumer choices;
• Reinvigorate federal green research and development, coldly cutting the funding for those clean technologies close to market and giving priority to futuristic, rising industries, like advanced biofuels and their feedstocks;
• Ruthlessly tear down barriers to greater global biofuels trade and cut away regulatory red tape impeding more domestic use of biofuels and more efficient federal R&D financial assistance;
• Promote a paradigm shift to private-public partnerships, recognizing the rising influence of business; an important role for states; and, the declining influence of the federal government.

Without these steps, America and its allies will find themselves facing the next inevitable oil crisis without the fullest possible quiver of options and rueing the day they did not take steps to prepare for the worst when time was plentiful.

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