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Science article off the mark, but biofuels face tougher standards

Agriculture.com Staff 02/15/2008 @ 12:18pm

Recent articles in the journal, Science, suggested that all biofuels production actually increases emissions of the global warming gas carbon because more CO2 is released by plowing up grasslands and cutting rainforests than is saved by producing ethanol or biodiesel.

This week, several authorities reacted to an article by Timothy Searchinger and others that said that even switchgrass grown on corn lands will increase carbon emissions by 50%.

The paper, which some say blamed global deforestation mainly on ethanol, showed that there is a bad way to make biofuels, Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association told Agriculture Online Friday.

"It demonstrates that you can produce biofuels in an unsustainable way, and we've known that," Dinneen says. But biofuels can also be produced sustainably, he said. Studies by the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have shown that corn-based ethanol using today's technology reduces carbon output by at least 20%, he said. "But we're the whipping boy du jour."

Rahul Iyer, co-founder and executive vice president of Primafuel, a biofuels company with labs in California and Europe and business operations in New York and Asia, agrees that it's unfair to blame the environmental effects of 150 years of modern U.S. agriculture on ethanol.

Iyer's company is involved in research on advanced biofuels that will have a smaller carbon footprint, as well as in building infrastructure to move existing biofuels more efficiently. In 2007, Primafuel was awarded the state of California's largest biofuels production grant towards construction of a $90 million biofuel production facility at the Port of Sacramento.

But several new laws will push the biofuels industry to be even more efficient in how it uses and produces energy, he said.

"There has been a dramatic shift globally towards a new type of biofuels policy." Iyer told Agriculture Online.

It started in California in 2005 with a low-carbon fuels standard designed to create a technology-neutral market in the state for low carbon fuels.

The rules in California say you can meet the regulations any way you want to, but you have to reduce net carbon content of fuels by 10% by 2020, he said, "which now means there's a burden on ethanol producers and biodiesel producers to figure out what there environmental footprint is."

The new Renewable Fuels Standard for the energy bill passes last year also sets up new requirements that biofuels reduce carbon emissions. And the European Union has adopted new carbon standards for biofuels that are similar to California's rules. He expects the environmental effects of agricultural production to be a part of debate about biofuels and carbon use that is growing more sophisticated.

But Iyer also sees opportunities.

As he recently said after receiving the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer Award in Davos, Switzerland, "If we make material long-term commitments, encourage breakthrough creativity and invest resources wisely, we can right the global economy into sustainability."

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