Last year the Energy Independence and Security Act put into place mandates that will in all likelihood increase GHG emissions. The Lieberman-Warner act (critiqued by Sean here) could turn out to be just as ineffective.

From an analysis [PDF] of the Energy Independence and Security Act by the NRDC:

… the requirement for renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biogasoline, will grow from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022.

So far, so good, but keep in mind that biogasoline, green diesel, algae derived biodiesel, and cellulosic ethanol have yet to be proven commercially or environmentally viable. Less than a month ago, the NRDC and our government were under the mistaken impression that our conventional biofuels produced fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. And it gets worse:

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By 2022, 21 billion gallons must be advanced biofuels, of which 16 billion gallons must be cellulosic biofuels. The new RFS will require conventional, advanced, and cellulosic fuels to provide a respective 20 percent, 50 percent, and 60 percent greenhouse gas lifecycle savings benefit over gasoline on energy basis.

Advanced biofuels: renewable fuels refined from biomass other than corn starch and having life cycle greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent below gasoline.

At the time, the latest studies were showing that corn ethanol reduced GHG by 18 percent; soybean biodiesel, somewhere between 41 and 78 percent; and cellulosic, better than 60 percent. Thus, the standards:

  1. Corn must reduce GHG 20 percent lower than gasoline or diesel (even though it doesen’t).
  2. Advanced biofuels (soy, canola, palm oil, or whatever fuel that meets this criteria) must reduce GHG 50 percent (even though none of them presently do).
  3. Cellulosic studies have been touting huge GHG reductions, but based on all aforementioned claims, would you bet the farm on it, especially when even sugarcane — which has already proven better than cellulosic estimates — is consuming carbon sinks?

36 billion – 21 billion = 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol, which (in all likelihood) will actually create more GHG than gasoline does. The legislation is based on a report in Science a year or so ago, which compared all corn ethanol studies to find that corn ethanol is roughly 20 percent carbon neutral. In other words, this piece of the legislation is based on what has now been shown to be grossly incomplete scientific studies (not to mention, it defies all common sense).

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Rather than try to dictate how the market should reduce GHG, they should have simply said, any new liquid fuel must prove to reduce GHG by 50 percent on a full life cycle basis and be no more environmentally destructive that the fossil fuel it replaces. Of course, such a simple declaration might be the death knell for most biofuels.

These standards, along with other restrictions, will help ensure that market expansion does not come at the expense of environmental performance.

“Help ensure” is not quite the same as “guarantee.” What about the distinct possibility that science will show all of these biofuels to be worse than oil? Like I said, sugarcane trumps even cellulosic, and even it is gobbling up carbon sinks. Will the government change the legislation to end market expansion of biofuels? Where is Plan B?

Based on our methodology, we estimate that the new RFS would cumulatively save 1.4 billion metric tonnes of emissions by 2030.

This reflects an inherent quality of spreadsheets. If the values in the cells containing the GHG percentages were replaced with the figures from the latest science, their methodology would estimate that the new RFS would cumulatively increase GHG emissions 1.4 billion metric tons by 2030, and for once I’m not being trying to be facetious.

Update [2008-4-9 9:23:39 by biodiversivist]: I revised this post at the top to clarify the difference between the 2007 energy bill and the Lieberman-Warner act and added the comment below:

The NRDC recognized the weakness of the energy bill in this summary.

Done right, biofuels have the potential to produce clean, renewable energy that will help increase energy independence and reduce global warming pollution. However, the current Senate Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) lacks essential safeguards to ensure its call for a five-fold increase in biofuels production does more good than harm. For example, the Senate RFS omits clear global warming pollution standards. Without these standards, the RFS could reverse any other climate gains in the energy bill. Any expansion of the RFS must reduce global warming pollution and include strong protections for our air, land, forests, water, wildlife habitat, and public health.