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Biofuels’ bad rap needs do-over

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Mon, Apr 20, 2009 at 3:43 pm

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Biofuels’ bad rap needs do-over

04-20-09 by dugan

The biofuel industry was robbed by the California Air Resources Board, says a letter today from
scientists at the Sandia National Laboratories. The biofuels industry
has been crying foul since the California Air Resources Board put out a
study ranking current biofuels as equal to or maybe worse than
petroleum in their total global warming emissions. The letter, signed
by three scientists and led by Sandia Labs’ head of energy systems,
Blake Simmons, calls for an outside party to do the whole thing over.
The letter is polite, but Simmons’ news release uses strikingly harsh language about the California study, as in: "The current proposal includes carbon penalties based on ungrounded and selectively enforced science, which could set us back years in the effort to commercialize low carbon fuels.” 

The
chief signer, Blake Simmons, is Manager of the Energy Systems
Department at Sandia and an executive of the federal Joint BioEnergy
Institute. He’s been critical for months of the California board’s new
Low Carbon Fuel Standard because of its reliance on theoretical science
so cutting-edge that it can’t really be tested. He and other critics
argue that biofuels are being downgraded on the basis of unquantifiable
"indirect land use effects" that are not applied to petroleum fuels. Simmons also quotes another academic critic as calling the air board’s biofuel assessment in its new Low Carbon Fuel Standard "fiction supportive of a desired outcome." (see excerpts below)

The
disagreement might be written off to a battle between sincere biofuels
advocates and biofuel skeptics, except for this: Most of the university
scientists who did the controversial recommendations for the air
resources board were funded by the oil and transportation industries.
The UC Berkeley team’s funding came from oil giant BP,
which funded a big renewable fuels project at the university–and
raised a furor among other faculty because of the commercial secrecy
attached. UC Davis scientists were from the university’s Institute for
Transportation studies, which is funded by Chevron, Shell, Conoco and automakers and heavy industry, among others.

It’s
also notable that the chief ARB board member on the study, Dan
Sperling, is the founder and director of the Institute for
Transportation Studies. The institute’s chief fuels research focus has
been hydrogen fuels (including from coal), natural gas fuels, and fuel
cells–all of which are fossil-fuel related. Frankly, it looks like a
direct conflict of interest even for Sperling to utilize his own creation for the biofuels study.

Academics, like politicians, always insist that their funding doesn’t influence their research. But scandals in pharmaceutical research,
including the withholding of negative drug studies, and research
physicians taking travel, consulting money gifts from the industry,
show it’s not always so pure. Corporate funders often define the
research parameters, as well.

The depth of criticism against
the air resources board’s study, which will influence national policy,
is reason to step back for a matter of months and get it right.

I’m
the first to admit that corn ethanol and soy biodiesel are only a
start, not where we end up. But the air board plan would deeply damage
the current biofuel industry on the basis of science that is being
questioned. Fossil fuels–natural gas, petroleum, and hydrogen made
with fossil energy–aren’t a reasonable substitute.

Here’s more from Simmons’ letter, addressed to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board: 

 We are writing regarding the California Air Resources Board pending rulings next 
week on the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), in particular the premature and selective 
inclusion of indirect effects as a metric by which biofuels alone will be judged. We 
believe immediate action is necessary to avoid weakening an otherwise critical carbon‐
based fuel policy. 
 
The issue of how to deal with indirect effects has slowed down the rulemaking 
already, and is increasingly controversial from a scientific perspective. We are 
concerned that unresolved issues related to indirect effects enforcement are needlessly 
eroding support for an otherwise critical fuel policy. We are therefore requesting that 
CARB immediately enact an LCFS based on direct carbon effects while establishing an 
expeditious process to assess and account for indirect effects across all fuel pathways, 
including petroleum. 

And fuller excerpts from the news release:

"This is a precedent setting regulation that
could be an international model for regulating carbon in the
transportation fuel sector. The current proposal includes carbon
penalties based on ungrounded and selectively enforced science, which
could set us back years in the effort to commercialize low carbon
fuels," said Dr. Blake Simmons, a researcher at Sandia National
Laboratory. Simmons believes that the National Academy is the
appropriate institution to help resolve the brewing controversy over
indirect effects.

The letter, dated April 20, states that "[t]he issue of how to deal
with indirect effects … is increasingly controversial from a
scientific perspective. We are concerned that unresolved issues related
to indirect effects enforcement are needlessly eroding support for an
otherwise critical fuel policy. We are therefore requesting that CARB
immediately enact an LCFS based on direct carbon effects while
establishing an expeditious process to assess and account for indirect
effects across all fuel pathways, including petroleum." The letters
says the assessment could be done in 18-24 months, before the LCFS
compliance schedule begins to require the use of low carbon fuels.

"We’re basically talking about increasing the carbon score of some
alternative fuels by 40-200% based on dubious economic modeling that is
nowhere near ready for prime time, and then to add insult to injury
they are not doing the same economic analysis on other eligible fuels
in the program or petroleum," added Simmons. "This is indefensible from
either a scientific or public policy perspective and will ultimately
fail."

Although not the subject of the letter, Dr. Simmons pointed to other
comments made by other leading researchers in the field. "After reading
the independent comments of several other researchers in the field, it
is more clear than ever that the enforcement of indirect effects at
this time is not scientifically sound."

Several scathing assessments of the proposed standard have been
posted on the CARB website in recent days. Dr. Monty Kerley of the
University of Missouri states, "[t]he report reads as fiction
supportive of a desired outcome but not as factual information useful
for establishment of policy." Dr. Hans Stein of the University of
Illinois states, "The Appendix is filled with factual errors that make
one question all the conclusions that are reached. The report prepared
by staff is poorly completed and the conclusions that are reached are
not supported by data from the scientific literature. The work is based
on very few references and at least one reference listed is incorrect
or falsified." A letter authored by Justin Sexten of the University of
Missouri Extension states, "The [CARB co-product analysis] ignores
current data, presents a biased view, and failed to utilize appropriate
scientific justification … [d]evelopment of public policy using
inaccurate and incomplete information will result in detrimental
environmental effects in direct contrast to the goals of the CA LCFS." 

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This post was written by:

Judy Dugan

- who has written 655 posts on Oil Watchdog.

Judy Dugan concentrates as an advocate on health care reforms, oil industry issues and telecommunications. She also writes and edits foundation publications and conducts media outreach.

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