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Time's Grunwald Grinds an Axe Against Biofuels

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Let's say a journalist hears an exciting new idea propounded by a gifted phrase-maker who happens not to have a professional credential in the field. Let's say that journalist writes a one-sided cover story for his newsmagazine propounding his source's theory. And let's say that a year later he writes a story about public policies on the very issue where he's so heavily invested on one side of the debate.

Unfortunately for American journalism -- and for the public debate about renewable fuels -- this isn't a hypothetical question. Just read Michael Grunwald's report, "Stress-Testing Biofuels: How the Game Was Rigged".

Grunwald claims that the Environmental Protection Agency's examination of the impact on global warming of corn ethanol and other biofuels was stacked in favor of these renewables. But his claim that there was a rigged "stress test" doesn't pass the smell test.

As with his cover story last year, with the even-handed headline "The Clean Energy Scam" Grunwald's recent article relies on a theory propounded by a source whom he describes as "Princeton scholar Tim Searchinger." As Grunwald writes, the thesis that producing ethanol has "indirect effects on land use: when an acre of land is used to grow fuel instead of food, an extra acre somewhere else is probably going to be converted into farmland to grow food." Moreover, he continues, "that acre may well be an acre of wetland or forest that would otherwise store loads of carbon."

While he is indeed housed at Princeton University, Searchinger is an attorney by training, not a scientist, an economist, or an agronomist. So his assessment of the likelihood that the increased production of biofuels in the United States will require the despoiling of forests and wetlands which will deposit carbon in the atmosphere and promote global warming is as worthy of respectful attention as the views of any other attorney with a interest in economics, agriculture, and the environment.

As it happens, more than 100 actual scientists and researchers questioned the "indirect land-use change" theory in a letter to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is also addressing this issue.

Rejecting the theory that increased ethanol production automatically results in the loss of an equivalent acreage of forests and wetlands, these scientists note that "most primary forest deforestation is currently occurring in places like Brazil, Indonesia and Russia as a direct result of logging, cattle ranching and subsistence farming." In other words, when forests are destroyed in other countries, the causes are immediate and local, not a chain reaction resulting from the production of renewable fuels here in the United States.

In addition to this important point, other objections can be raised to the "indirect land-use change" theory:

  • It is based on a supposed model for events that have not yet occurred and, therefore, cannot be modeled -- what would happen if there is a dramatic increase in the production of grin-based biofuels, as well as "cellulosic" biofuels from non-food sources, such as wood chips, grasses, agricultural waste, and even garbage.
  • It ignores the increasing productivity of agriculture, not only in the U.S. but also throughout the world. For instance, it would have taken twice as much land in 1967 as it took in 2007 to harvest the same amount of corn.
  • It omits the fact that some sources of cellulosic biofuels -- for instance, switchgrass -- grow in soil that cannot be used as farmland and still other sources -- such as garbage -- need not be grown at all.
  • And it also overlooks the reality that ethanol production creates agricultural co-products. In fact, one-third of every bushel of grain entering an ethanol biorefinery is returned to the livestock feed market as cattle feed.

In fact, Grunwald got it wrong. Far from being "rigged" in favor of biofuels, EPA's examination was rigged against biofuels. While exploring a hypothesis about a hypothetical situation involving biofuels, the examination did not emphasize what is actually known -- the comparative carbon footprints of biofuels and petroleum-based fuels. Compared to gasoline, cornstarch ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 48-59 percent, and cellulose-based ethanol does even better.

Indeed, the EPA examination -- and Grunwald's journalism and Searchinger's thesis even more so -- ignore the actual alternative to biofuels: petroleum products. By exploring the "indirect land-use change" that may be caused by producing biofuels but not the comparable consequences of any other industry, including producing and using petroleum products, these stories and studies offer little illumination for the debates that must be held and the decisions that must be made.

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