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Energy Independence and Climate Change are strange bedfellows indeed

Many citizens assume that the policy movements on “energy independence” and “climate change” have a certain symbiosis of aligning interests. As an exploration into recent policy initiatives demonstrates, this harmony is not necessarily the case. In fact, it looks as though that climate is taking a back seat to the call of “energy independence”.

The latest exhibit is an bold bill by Senators Lugar, Harkin, Barak, Dorgan, and Biden to re-introduce the Biofuels Security Act of 2006, which was an ambitious plan to establish a Renewable Fuel Standard of 30% by 2030 (hat tip to GreenCarCongress). It also mandates E-85 distribution at US gas stations and the production of more flex fuel vehicles.

Big initiatives and long terms goals are precisely what is needed to fight climate change, so we applaud the Senators’ vision. However, digging into the details, we don’t find much to cheer about for the fight against climate change.

The problem, as we have pointed out before, is that blunt policy picks a technology instead of the goal. The US can produce biofuels in a variety of ways from a variety of crops, with huge consequences on the environmental impact. The current method of producing ethanol from corn kernels results in modest carbon reductions; 10% – 20% is the consensus view.

Therefore, despite the massive volume of fuel replacement involved, the program would shave gasoline based CO2 emissions by a little over 2%. Clearly, not the moonshot that we need to tackle climate change.

There are concerns over simple feasibility. To produce that amount, even from cellulosic corn process, according to new analysis by Harvard professor Michael B. McElroy, would require 225 million acres, or 60% of the current land under active crop cultivation. Add to that the fact the legislation doesn’t even prohibit coal-powered ethanol plants that quickly erase any global warming benefits, and its clear that climate is not the goal here.

Is that a problem? We’re not sure. Certainly, renewable fuels have the potential to be a weapon in our fight against climate change. Our concern is that this bill doesn’t reward the climate fighting aspects of biofuels. Our hope is that it will at least provide a base market from which low-carbon biofuels can flourish.

Another silver lining — the 2006 version of the bill aims to slowly close the flex fuel vehicle loophole in CAFE. That Chevy Tahoe that gets a CAFE calculation credit of 30 mpg slowly ratchets down to a number closer to reality.

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