Make Sure 'Alternative' Fuels are Clean

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Note: This page reproduces an opinion piece written by BioenergyWiki user Suzanne Hunt.

Make sure 'alternative' fuels are clean

Suzanne Hunt

Des Moines Register

October 18, 2007'

The past few years have shown that high oil prices make room for all kinds of alternative fuels - the good, the bad and the ugly.

With Goldman Sachs predicting that oil will rise to $100 per barrel next year, possibly not dropping below $95, discussions on new fuels must focus not only on food security and climate change, but also on creating sustainable biofuels policy. Such a policy would integrate biofuels with other alternative solutions, including better-designed transport systems, while keeping out dirty competing options.

The most worrying "alternative fuels" are liquid fuels derived from tar sands, oil shale and coal, which cause devastating environmental and human-health impacts. Tar sands are viable when oil is above $30 per barrel. Their greenhouse-gas emissions are nearly three times those of regular petroleum production.

Worse, such fuel sources exist in enormous reserves, and economic arguments can distract from their ecological harm. In 2005, Canada produced more than 1 million barrels per day of oil from tar sands, a rate several times higher than even current U.S. ethanol production levels. Total tar sands potential in Canada alone is estimated at 1.7 trillion barrels.

President Bush's "20 in 10" executive order calls for 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels - not necessarily biofuels. And Canada already exports about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day (two-thirds of its total production) to the United States. The door is already open to mass production of these dirty, destructive fuels.

However, lawmakers are accepting that climate change is real and that humans play a role in causing it. With dozens of competing climate bills being debated, we can expect some form of national climate legislation to pass in the next few years. The biofuels industry, still in its infancy, would be wise to focus on low net-carbon production and push for strong climate legislation as a strategy to ensure its future.

A challenge also remains in the increasing public backlash to the biofuels industry. Biofuels production from edible crops is booming, while more than 850 million people worldwide are chronically hungry. Population growth and over-consumption are putting enormous strain on water, soil and ecosystems. Rich countries continue subsidizing domestic commodity agriculture to the detriment of poor-country producers.

Next-generation biofuels technologies - such as those using algae grown during waste-water purification - could dramatically reduce pressure on food markets while ramping up production. Managing impacts of the current biofuels industry, however, will remain a challenge over the next decade or so.

The biofuels industry must directly address these environmental and social risks and opportunities. The poor and the hungry will suffer most from the impacts of climate change, and they have the most potentially to gain or lose from biofuels.

With the opportunities that biofuels present for improving the global energy situation, a call must go out for the auto industry to step up and do its part as well. The transportation sector is responsible for a full 25 percent of the world's energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions. The ubiquity of personal cars has overloaded roads and highways, yet simultaneously has led to underinvestment in efficient public transport.

The automobile industry, while not in its infancy, is in its awkward teenage years. The industry should widen its market view and remake itself as the "mobility industry, shifting its business model to a focus on high-quality, low-carbon transportation. Automobile makers should also increase their innovative efforts to take better advantage of clean fuel sources, including biofuels.

The challenges are daunting. But if industry can rapidly develop low-carbon products, and if supportive policy frameworks can be put in place to facilitate an accelerated evolution toward sustainable energy and transport systems, the world can more effectively chaperone the young biofuels industry in its emerging years and displace the destructive and dangerous "alternative" fossil fuels.


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