09/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When It Comes to Land Use Change -- Look at Oil

For those who have been paying attention to a debate over the impact of biofuels on indirect land use change (ILUC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a review panel to assess the methodology for measuring and estimating the impact. While this issue may seem esoteric to some and strange to others, depending on the decision that EPA makes, it could have grave consequences for America's developing biofuels industry.

The reason some find EPA's focus on the impact of biofuels on land use around the world strange has to do with its failure to even consider the impact on land use by the production and consumption of oil. The world's consumption of oil, as we know, is one of the major contributors to the rising amounts of carbon in the atmosphere -- a major contributor to climate change. But it also has significant impacts on land use. For example, the oil industry has a record of destroying pristine forests and habitats. For example, in the Niger Delta, a once fertile area, there are huge swaths of oil contamination. According to one Niger Delta resident, "There are no fish near shore now, the mangroves are dying, our food crops will not grow, our well waters are contaminated, and even our rainwater is no longer safe to drink."

Land Use Changes

Or take Canadian tar sands, where production is expanding with much of it heading to US consumers. Aside from a huge clean-up problem and water contamination, "tar sands are clearly the worst type of oil for the atmosphere," says Steven Hazell of the Sierra Club of Canada. The Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental group points out that although tar sands producers recycle much of their water, about one barrel of water is lost for every barrel of oil culled. And while tar sands miners are required to completely restore and revegetate sites, little has been done. According to Wikipedia:

Open pit mining destroys the Boreal forest of Canada and muskeg. The Alberta government requires companies to restore the land to "equivalent land capability". This means that the ability of the land to support various land uses after reclamation is similar to what existed, but that the individual land uses may not necessarily be identical. In some particular circumstances the government considers agricultural land to be equivalent to forest land. Oil sands companies have reclaimed mined land to use as pasture for wood bison instead of restoring it to the original boreal forest and muskeg.

In EPA's thinking such changes in land use caused by tar sands production which delivers oil into the US market somehow doesn't qualify for analysis or consideration. Anyone wonder why?

Land Use Changes

The environmental damage done by our dependence on petroleum is clearly evident. Despite this consensus, those seeking to impose greenhouse gas penalties for indirect impacts of fuels are zeroing in on biofuels while giving oil a free pass. This is a dangerous precedent that will undermine asserted goals to reduce oil dependence, mitigate climate change impacts, and develop a renewable energy economy in this country. While the indirect, ripple impacts of our dependence on petroleum fuels are often well hidden, to ignore them altogether is irresponsible policy and questionable science.