The Climate Bill’s Biofuel Boondoggle

flickr user aero nerd

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


In what may be this week’s worst amendment to the Waxman-Markey climate bill, a midwestern Congressman has introduced a provision that would ban the EPA from accounting for the full carbon footprint of biofuels.

Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the powerful chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, is expected to attach the amendment before releasing the bill to the House floor, where a vote is expected as early as tomorrow. The change would prevent the EPA from accounting for the way that growing biofuel crops in the U.S. drives food production abroad, causing deforestation that contributes to climate change. Ignoring this “indirect land-use change“–the technical term for a phenemon that can account for up to 40 percent of corn-based ethanol’s carbon emissions–would allow the fuel to qualify under the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, making it eligible for government subsidies.

In effect, the ethanol industry is hiding behind the difficulty of calculating its own environmental footprint. Though the EPA  has already devised a method to account for the land-use impacts of biofuels, the amendment prohibits the agency from implementing it for six years, at which point the National Academy of Sciences will have completed a study that is supposed to resolve lingering uncertanties with the method. 

 

Yet those “uncertainties” are much smaller than Congress wants to admit. In California, regulators have already spent the past year and a half closely studying ethanol’s land use impacts (part of an effort to calculate how it could be used to meet the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which mandates a 10 percent reduction in the greenhouse gas intensity of all fuels by 2020). The state commissioned three major universities to study the issue, held numerous workshops with industry, reviewed the ample peer-reviewed literature on the subject, and ran models to test its assumptions. The result? A finding that corn-based ethanol would at the very best release 18.7 percent less greenhouse gas than conventional fuel–still not enough to meet the 20 percent reduction needed to qualify for the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.

And that’s the rosiest scenario. When the state accounted for more realistic land-use impacts, four of the 11 corn-based ethanols it reviewed released more greenhouse gasses than regular gasoline.

So here’s California’s message to Congress: “There is an uncertainty associated with land-use emissions of biofuels,” grants Anthony Eggert, science and technology policy advisor to the California Air Resources Board. “But we do know enough to know that there is an impact. It’s not zero. And we think our estimate that we currently have is a good one.”

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate