Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Turned Upside Down

Even Alice in Wonderland with her myriad experience in the strange and unexpected would find perplexing recent developments in the world Renewable Fuel Standards. We take a break from tracking the Department of Energy grants for development of renewable fuels and chemicals, to consider a lawsuit that was filed on May 25, 2010 by the Clean Air Task Force on behalf of Friends of the Earth.

The lawsuit alleges that implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard II will lead to greater global use of fossil fuels because the U.S. would be decreasing its dependence upon imported oil through the adoption of renewable fuel alternatives.

Against all the rules we learned in English class, that sentence is left to stand on its own so it can be considered carefully. The logic of the lawsuit might be missed at first. Read it one more time.

Yes, the Friends of the Earth reason that if the U.S. uses more renewable fuels it will increase overall greenhouse gas emissions as a consequence of shifts in land use in the U.S. and around the world to support renewable fuel production. The suit suggests the Department of Energy is using faulty logic in its energy requirements land use calculations for renewable fuels. Some renewable fuel alternatives (read ethanol) may lead to increases in emissions due to energy input requirements. This is not news to those who follow the ethanol industry. How many ethanol plants are in operation today - maybe two.

The lawsuit also suggests that DOE is not doing enough to fulfill a Congressional mandate to protect natural ecosystems from being diverted to growing feedstock for renewable fuel. Most of the natural ecosystems we have in the U.S. are protected in national and state parks. It is doubtful Yosemite would be plowed under to grow corn or sugar cane. Conservation programs are in place to encourage protection of wildlife habitat on private land. I discussed the friction between the U.S. conservation programs and renewable fuel feedstock demand in previous posts. Conservation appears to have won out, partly because the price of oil went down and put ethanol producers into bankruptcy.

How exactly the Clean Air Task Force and the Friends of the Earth expect to break the fossil fuel cycle? They offer no solution. They could start by helping to beef up the U.S. land conservation program that would provide a competitive alternative to renewable fuel crop production….just in case a spike in oil prices gets farmers thinking again about plowing up ditches and dry creek beds for corn.

Somebody needs to show some leadership somewhere. With all its imperfections, we have a start in the Renewable Fuel Standard II, at least for U.S. transportation. In my view, the lawsuit is a nuisance that detracts from the real work in breaking the fossil fuel juggernaut.

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