October 12, 2011

A National Academy of Sciences panel -- co-chaired by Ingrid (Indy) Burke, director of the University of Wyoming's Environment and Natural Resources Program -- has raised questions about the United States' Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

A provision of the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, and amended in 2007, the RFS requires that 36 billion gallons of fuel come from alternative sources, including cellulosic, renewable and biodiesel biofuels, by 2022 to help limit the country's dependence on foreign oil and provide an economic boost for the agriculture industry.

The National Research Council report, however, finds that the promotion of biofuels will yield mixed environmental and economic impacts and may be an "ineffective policy" for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. To meet the RFS goal, the panel believes industry needs more consistent governmental subsidy support and research funding.

"Biofuels have the potential to increase energy security and to provide net environmental benefits for the U.S.  Our committee found, however, that the net environmental effects are very dependent on how individual sites are managed -- for instance, tillage and agrochemical inputs -- and on market-mediated land use change," says Burke, who led the panel along with Wally Tyner, an energy economist and co-director of the Purdue University Center for Research on Energy Systems and Policy.

"That market-mediated change is hard to predict, because it is so much a function of human behavior.  If more land is plowed out to replace food or grain production because of biofuels, that will produce more net greenhouse gases on balance," she says. "If more land is converted to perennial grasses or woodland, that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The development of best management practices for different regions could help to ensure that increased biofuel production had net environmental benefits."

The panel also found that it is unlikely under current economic and technological conditions to meet the mandated production of cellulosic biofuels. Higher oil and carbon prices and more technological advances will be necessary to make cellulosic biofuels competitive with fossil fuels.

The panel, composed of researchers in economics, environmental studies and transportation, presented its findings last week to congressional and Senate committees in Washington, D.C., and to the National Press Club.

To read the panel's report, go to https://download.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13105.

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