Bioenergy: The Great Continuum

June 1, 2020 |

By Gerard J. Ostheimer, Ph.D., Managing Director, below50 and Douglas L. Faulkner, “the Clean Tech Conservative” & President, Leatherstocking LLC

Special to The Digest

In the rush of twenty-first century life, especially in this time of multiple crises, we can lose a sense of historical perspective, be lulled into thinking that only the new and shiny and loud are worth attention – – or vice-versa.  That seems especially true for energy and environmental issues.

America’s Memorial Day is a time for remembrance of national challenges.  In that vein, we would like to point out a number of anniversaries that put biofuels and bio-based products into a deeper and provocative historical context:

  • 85 years ago A now-forgotten manifesto was issued in Dearborn, Michigan:  “The Declaration of the Dependence Upon the Soil and the Right of Self-Maintenance.”  It was the culmination of the chemurgy movement from the 1920s and 30s, spearheaded by Henry Ford and Dr. George Washington Carver.  The document heralded the importance of using crops, trees and waste to substitute for petroleum in a host of everyday products.  Overtaken by New Deal politics and Big Oil’s dominance, it faded from the headlines.  Nevertheless, the movement still played a role in overcoming shortages for the Allied war machine in the second World War and resonated for decades under the “New Uses” banner.
  • 75 years ago America and its allies won a long and hard-fought victory over fascism in Europe and Asia.  That victory was sealed in the blood of patriots, but also by the constant production of fuels, food and materials by the U.S. “Arsenal of Democracy”.  From farm fields to the oil patch to the factory floor, Americans overwhelmed the Axis capacity for war-making.
  • 50 years ago Earth Day was celebrated for the first time and it crystallized public attention on human-driven environmental degradation.  Unfortunately, the environmental benefits of bioenergy remain misunderstood and controversial to this day.
  • 20 years ago President Clinton signed into law “The Biomass Research and Development Act” of 2000.  This remarkable piece of bi-partisan legislation named bioenergy as a national priority.    This new legislative “bible” for federal bioenergy programs led directly to President George W. Bush’s clarion call to end America’s addiction to oil and to the Renewable Fuel Standards.  All in all, that was a remarkable decade of growth for bioenergy before its long retreat in the next ten years.

Resilience and Re-birth.

Author William Faulkner wrote: “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.”   This last century is replete with bursts of American entrepreneurial enthusiasm and bi-partisan political support for making fuels, chemicals and consumer products from plants and trees.  America is blessed with phenomenal natural resources, industrial infrastructure and agricultural productivity.  The story of merging biomass with technological innovation and then using these products to national advantage is nearly a century old, but in many ways, we are just getting started.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has reminded us, it’s the value of being prepared for the worst-case scenarios.  Today’s oil markets are being supply and demand shocked, and there is an historic glut of unsold oil. These shocks have paradoxically revealed both the continuing importance and the fragility of global liquid fuel production.  The collapse of oil prices has undercut the dependability of American shale oil, and the U.S. (and its allies) are once again confronted with their ongoing reliance on foreign oil suppliers.

In this time of growing geopolitical uncertainties and rising global tensions, the U.S. and its allies need to re-embrace the long-held promise of biofuels and bio-based chemicals.  Advanced bioenergy could provide “freedom” reserves for an extra layer of defense and supply in case of international strife.  Biorefineries spread across the heartland and away from the concentrated and vulnerable Gulf Coast petrochemical facilities, as well as home-grown renewable biomass, both have strategic value.  Expanding America’s bioeconomy would provide an insurance policy for our supply of liquid transport fuels.

America and its allies are once again awakening to the importance of protecting global supply chains from pandemics, climate change or heaven forbid, broad international armed conflict.  We need a new strategy that fosters resilience, reduces the risks from our over-extended supply chains, and brings more production home.  Leaders of the bioeconomy need to make to clear to policymakers that current trends and national needs dovetail with the dawning of a new age of scientific discovery in biology and biotechnology. Following the revolutions in physics and computing, new biology will usher in an explosion of sustainable solutions from growing, using and managing the world’s flora.  Finally, an economy more in sync with natural systems will give the added benefit of reducing the carbon footprint of energy dependent industries, especially for aviation and maritime, which will rely on liquid fuels for decades to come.

So, What’s The Next Chapter In the Long Bioenergy Saga?

Biofuels and bio-based products are a complicated subject, facing many hoary myths and ossified conventional wisdom across the political spectrum.

All sides need to take a new look at this old, reliable energy source, asking questions about: what has worked and what hasn’t?  Governments should knock down regulatory barriers to economic growth and consider new policy approaches building on the past, but more attuned to new conditions. For example, see the bi-partisan legislation working its way through Congress, S.3734, “The Bio Economy Research and Development Act of 2020.”

Meanwhile, climate change activists should take a fresh look at the potent weapon against rising greenhouse gases with the real sustainability offered by bio-based fuels, chemicals, and materials.  Industry should speak up for the real benefits of their products and reduce the perceived risks to investors.

The present is a great opportunity to re-visit, re-embrace, re-imagine and re-invent sustainable biofuels and bio-based products, a great American tradition with deep roots in our past.

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