Ron Steenblik

Ron Steenblik is a policy analyst with 35 years experience working on trade, energy, agricultural, and fisheries policies. He has a particular interest in subsidies and their effects.

Top of the crops

USDA scientist: Some crop residues may be too valuable for biofuels

Converting crop residues into cellulosic ethanol sounds to many people like a good idea -- certainly better than using food crops themselves. Yet according to respected USDA soil scientist Ann Kennedy, the stems and leaves left over after crops are harvested may have more value if they are left on the ground, especially in areas receiving less than 25 inches of precipitation annually. That includes most of the United States (click on link to see map) west of the 100th meridian, which runs roughly from Bismark, S.D. through Laredo, Texas.

Corn polls

New surveys suggest changing views on biofuels

Biofuel policy has made it to the polls. Yesterday, the National Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit, non-partisan educational foundation based in Washington, D.C., released the results of a survey (PDF) conducted at the beginning of this month which claims to have found that most Americans -- "including those in the Farm Belt" -- want Congress to reduce or eliminate the mandated use of corn ethanol. In response to the key question, "What do you think Congress should do now?" with respect to the Renewable Fuels Standard (which last December raised the minimum volume of biofuels used in the United States from 7.5 billion gallons a year in 2012 to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, of which 15 billion gallons is expected to be supplied by "conventional biofuel" -- ethanol derived from corn starch -- by 2015), 42 percent of the participants in the survey thought that that the mandate should be eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use. Of the rest: 25 percent wanted the mandate to be partly eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use; 16 percent wanted it left unchanged; Six percent wanted it partly expanded to increase ethanol production and use; and 2 percent wanted it significantly expanded to increase ethanol production and use. Nine percent were undecided, didn't know what to answer, or refused to answer. Even among people living in the Farm Belt, 25 percent percent said they wanted the ethanol mandate repealed entirely, and another 30 percent wanted it scaled back.

Taking the Pledge

Five nations agree to think about ending oil subsidies

The day after markets registered the highest single-day rise in crude oil prices ever, the United States and Asia's four largest economies (Japan, China, India and South Korea), meeting in Aomori, Japan in advance of the G8 Energy Ministers summit, have formed a sort of Petro-holics non-Anonymous club, calling for an end to oil subsidies in their countries. Consumer subsidies (subsidized fuel prices), that is, not producer subsidies. OK, what they actually agreed upon was "the need" to remove fuel-price subsidies. Eventually. According to a report by Agence France-Presse, the five nations announced in a joint statement: "We recognize that, moving forward, phased and gradual withdrawal of price subsidies for conventional energies is desirable. Undistorted and market-based energy pricing" would help "enhance energy efficiency and increase investment in alternative sources of energy." They said that subsidies "should be replaced wherever possible by better targeted policies for intended beneficiaries. Such a move "could also lead to reduction in the government cost and greater integration of the domestic and global energy economies."

To those who are blasé about expanding the RFS

Once in place, the RFS will be nigh impossible to eliminate

Several posts during the past week, and countless ones elsewhere, have asked people to support the Energy Bill making its way through Congress. Some people have no problem with one of its major provisions, which calls for substantially expanding the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) -- the regulation that requires minimum amounts of ethanol, biodiesel, or other biofuels to be incorporated into the volume of transport fuels used each year. Indeed, some would even welcome the prospect. Many others do not like the idea, but seem to feel that it is a price worth paying in order to preserve solar investment tax credits as well as production tax credits for large-scale renewable projects. (A national Renewable Electricity Standard has already been dropped from the bill.) Some of those people then argue, in effect, we can always go back and repeal the RFS next year. Next joke.

'Decision-makers' rank GHG abatement technologies

Guess which type of energy comes in last in a recent poll

GlobeScan, a self-styled "global public opinion and stakeholder research" organization based in Toronto, has just published the results of a survey of 1,000 climate "decision-makers and influencers" from across 105 countries, conducted in the two weeks leading up to the Bali Climate Conference (Nov. 22-Dec. 5, 2007). According to the firm's website: Unlike public opinion polls, this survey focuses on the views of professionals in position to make or influence large decisions in their organizations and society. This focus, together with the survey's large global sample and good balance of respondents across all geographies and sectors, makes this survey unique. A bar chart showing the results in graphic form is found below the fold.

Asking the wrong questions

An alternative view on biofuels, from a Briton in Sudan

I've just discovered a great blog maintained by Clive Bates, a self-described "selfless public servant, amateur chef, novice mountaineer, lawless cyclist, overweight runner and occasional optimist." He is being modest: he's the former head of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) in the UK and more recently the Head of Environmental Policy at the UK Environment Agency. Over the last two years, Bates has written extensively and persuasively on a wide range of topics, particularly on environmental and energy policies, and climate change. In his latest post, about biofuel policy, Bates states: Instead of asking how to reduce transport emissions from road fuel substitution, we should be asking how to make use of land to tackle climate change in the most effective way possible. In coming up with the biofuels targets, policy-makers have asked, and answered, the wrong question. It's not hard to see why ... transport policy-makers have to find transport policies. The results: waste, damage and lost opportunities to do better ... He starts off:

French connections

Is it something in the air?

Interesting things are happening in the francophone world. Last week I reported that the Quebec government had decided to stop supporting any new ethanol plants based on corn as a feedstock. Now the French government, perhaps flowing out of its broad social dialogue on the environment (known as "Le Grenelle français de l'environnement"), is reported to be thinking of slashing subsidies benefiting the production of ethanol in the country. Ooh la la, what in the world is going on?

Independent Québec

Backing away from corn ethanol

The big news north of the (U.S.) border is that Québec's government has decided that there is no future in corn ethanol. As explained in an article posted on Canada's Cyberpresse website, back in May 2005 Québec's then Minister for Agriculture, Yvon Vallières, gave a green light, "for obvious economic and ecological reasons," to the construction of the first plant to manufacture ethanol from corn kernels, in the town of Varennes. However, during an emission of the Enquête television program (click to view) on Radio-Canada last Thursday evening, Québec's Minister for Natural Resources, Claude Béchard, promised that the 120-million-litre-per year Varennes plant would be the first and the last of its kind. "It is necessary to turn to other [feedstock] sources," he said. No other ethanol factory based on corn will be built in Québec. On Sunday, a leader in one of Montreal's newspapers, The Gazette expressed satisfaction with the decision, declaring, "Backing away from ethanol makes sense."

A slew of new reports on biofuel subsidies

Evaluating U.S. and EU policies

The last couple of months I've been busy preparing two major reports on government support for biofuels, both for the Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). These reports follow on from our October 2006 report on support for biofuels in the United States, which we commissioned from Doug Koplow of Earth Track, and which has been cited numerous times on these pages. Last month, we issued what we call our "Synthesis Report," our overview of government support for biofuels in selected OECD countries. Coming out right on the heels of the so-called "OECD Paper" (actually, a discussion document for a meeting of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, to which I contributed), "Government Support for Ethanol and Biodiesel in Selected OECD Countries" hasn't yet attracted much attention in the press. It is rather dense in parts, I'll admit. But it contains some crunchy numbers. For example, we estimate that total support to biofuels in OECD countries was at least $11 billion in 2006, with most of that provided by the U.S. and the EU. Expressed in terms of dollars per greenhouse-gas emissions avoided, the levels vary widely, but in almost all countries, whether for ethanol and biodiesel, they exceed $250 per tonne of CO2-equivalent. That is several multiples of the highest price of a CO2-equivalent offset yet achieved on the European Climate Exchange. Then, last week, we released our long-awaited report on "Government Support for Ethanol and Biodiesel in the European Union" ...