National Research Council report says RFS biofuels targets out of reach

October 5, 2011 |

In Washington, D.C., a congressionally requested study from the National Research Council states that due to the high expense and difficulty in producing next-generation biofuels, the U.S. is unlikely to meet the government’s usage mandates.

The study also warns that the feedstocks needed to produce advanced biofuels could compete with food crops for land — a key criticism of the corn ethanol that biofuels are supposed to replace. One of the biggest hurdles is the cost of raw material. The study found that farmers will demand to be paid several times as much as the biorefineries can afford to pay them.

Furthermore, producing next generation biofuels could have unintended environmental consequences in some areas due to fertilizer and water requirements and may not do as much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as the government has estimated.

Brooke Coleman, Digest columnist and Advanced Biofuels Council executive director, commented:

“It is discouraging to see the National Research Council (NRC) miss an opportunity to cast the RFS in the proper light. The most glaring problem is the Council analyzed the ongoing development of the biofuels industry in a vacuum, as if these fuels are not displacing the marginal barrel of oil, which comes at great economic and environmental cost to the consumer.

“Congress was seeking a sober analysis of the RFS, and regrettably, this is not it. With regard to the specific findings in the report, Coleman noted that the report correctly highlights two major hurdles to commercialization of advanced and cellulosic ethanol technologies:  technological innovation and policy uncertainty.

“The RFS is an aggressive, technology-forcing standard that needs complementary policy to be achieved, in much the same way that oil companies rely on a bevy of tax breaks and subsidies to protect the investments necessary to bring new sources of petroleum fuels online as known oil reserves become increasingly scarce. If we enact policies reflective of the goals set forth in the RFS, the advanced biofuels industry will emerge and the RFS targets will be met. If we fail to enact forward-looking energy policies, we will be stuck with foreign oil at great cost to the economy and the environment.

Congress needs to stop moving the goal posts if it expects to build renewable energy economies in this country and get back into the global race to produce next generation fuels.”

Coleman noted that the report contained a number of questionable assumptions and statements regarding the environmental and economic impacts of all ethanol.  Specifically, Coleman challenged the report’s conclusion that the RFS may not be an effective tool to manage greenhouse gases from transportation fuels.

“The idea that the RFS may not be an effective strategy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is regrettable given the published science on the subject,” said Coleman.  “Even with land use change considerations, advanced biofuels are the lowest carbon fuels being developed in the marketplace; far and away less carbon intensive than electricity, natural gas and even hydrogen fuel cells.”

Coleman also directly challenged the assertion that cellulosic ethanol production is only economically viable at very high oil prices.

“The statement that the best cost estimates for cellulosic biofuel are not economic when compared with fossil fuels when crude oil’s price is $111 per barrel is simply false,” said Coleman. “This finding is totally out of step with publicly available assessments released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and others. The members of the panel should push back from the keyboard and talk to the industry. They might be surprised at what they find in a very difficult economy.”

A new report released today by the National Academy of Sciences about the barriers to reaching the Renewable Fuel Standard is inconclusive and fails to promote any real alternatives to addressing our nation’s energy crisis, according to a statement by Growth Energy, the leading coalition of U.S. ethanol supporters.”

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, added:

“You can read this report in a number of ways because the conclusions are based on variables that will undoubtedly change with technological advancements and innovation within the industry.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard was adopted by Congress as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act in order to wean the United States off of foreign sources of fossil fuels. There is no question that, as ten percent of the fuels market today, we are strengthening our national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

“A continued commitment to the RFS will create the market certainty that is crucial for both first generation and second generation ethanol. But any effort to doubt or dismantle the RFS would block the growth of the industry and ultimately threaten American jobs, our environment and our energy security.”

Novozymes North America President Adam Monroe added:

“Americans are looking for less expensive and cleaner ways to fuel their cars and trucks that are produced here in America. Advanced biofuels offer that promise. The technology is here, the plants are here and more are coming on line – all we need now is continued public support. This report confirms the need for that support: Developing new technologies takes time, and that’s where maintaining the Renewable Fuel Standard is vital. It’s smarter for our future to invest in advanced biofuels – and the jobs and energy stability they create – than send our money overseas.”

“The report makes broad assumptions about environmental performance of current and future biofuels producers who are continually improving energy and water usage. The report also ignores the environmental impact of marginal oil production and compares biofuels to standard or best case oil.  Biofuels will replace more expensive marginal oil first, so comparisons of biofuels environmental performance should be benchmarked against these sources.

“Over the last two weeks, the federal government has announced support for several major biofuels plants and production projects across the united states, including POET, Abengoa and UW/WSU/Zeachem/Weyerhaeuser/Gevo. The federal support is an indicator the government remains committed to advanced biofuels as America moves closer to bringing biofuels to market for consumers.”

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