Defending Biofuels on a Global Stage

An international federation of biofuels associations has been fighting biofuel’s opponents for the past three years.
By Holly Jessen | November 05, 2012

When the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance was formed, biofuel’s public and political fortunes had started to shift. Suddenly, the renewable fuels industry was getting bombarded with biased and negative reports. “We got a lot of bad press and the vast majority was ill-informed,” says Bliss Baker, spokesperson for GRFA. “That was very new for us because we had always been the darling issue for politicians.”

That was the genesis for the creation of a global association. The existing associations were doing a good job of representing their members and responding to misinformation in their backyards, so to speak, but a united front was needed on the international stage. Baker gives Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, a large part of the credit for moving the idea forward. By February 2009, the GRFA and its mission were formally announced at the National Ethanol Conference. Its members are biofuel associations, such as some of the founding members, RFA, the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, and eBIO, today known as ePURE, the European Producers Union of Renewable Ethanol. “The fact of the matter is, all of us advocating for renewable fuels are facing many of the same issues, many of the same arguments—there’s nothing really that’s unique,” Dinneen tells Ethanol Producer Magazine. “It helps to be able to share experiences with those in other countries.”

When it was first formed, GRFA represented more than 60 percent of the world’s renewable fuels production from 30 different countries. Today, that has grown to 65 percent representation in 44 countries, Baker says. Some of the newer member associations represent Australia, Argentina and southern African countries.

Since day one, Baker has been at the helm of GRFA, as the face of the organization. Baker operates consulting business Maple Leaf Strategies, formerly Bentham & Associates, out of Toronto. Although the company does have other clients, the majority of his work is for GRFA. He’s a past CRFA board chairman and president and also worked as vice president of Greenfield Ethanol for a number of years. His well-rounded background made him a good fit for the position, Dinneen says, describing Baker as a trustworthy and effective advocate for the global biofuels industry.  “He’s someone that I think is knowledgeable, articulate and passionate on these issues,” he says.

Daily, Baker and analyst Giancarlo Drennan monitor the biofuels-related activities of more than two dozen international organizations. That means keeping an eye on what is said publically about biofuels in media interviews as well as studies or reports on the subject. In fact, GRFA sometimes gets involved with commenting on or peer reviewing biofuels research. “We monitor what they are saying and, ideally, impact and influence what they do,” he says.

And, Baker believes they have had some success in developing relationships and even changing attitudes about biofuels. For example, in the early days of the GRFA quite a bit of time was spent monitoring and responding to statements made by the World Bank. “We shot back pretty hard and challenged everything that they were saying, because 80 percent of it was based on information that was either wrong or it was completely biased,” he says, adding that today, the World Bank isn’t really saying a lot on the subject of biofuels.

It’s a similar situation with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group with which GRFA now has a good working relationship. “They are taking a different tone now on biofuels and looking at this much more scientifically than they used to, and the GRFA had a lot to do with that,” he says. Still, that doesn’t mean every person in the organization is on board. In mid-September, a representative of OECD went on record suggesting that biofuel mandates have a role in food price inflation.  GRFA quickly responded with a press release, saying the real factors for rising food prices include volatile oil prices, financial speculation in commodities markets and more. In addition, it pointed to a recently released OECD agency report that stated biofuels could make up 27 percent of the world’s transportation fuel supply by 2050 without jeopardizing food security and that current global biofuels production takes up only 2 percent of arable land, not significant enough to have any impact on food prices. “Our job is to keep them honest and when they say things that are wrong or ill-informed, we challenge them instantly,” Baker says.

He’s not the only one who thinks the organization has had an impact this way. “The GRFA has, in a very short time frame, become a strong voice for the industry within the international community,” W. Scott Thurlow, president of CRFA says.

Next on the agenda is a targeted public relations or advocacy campaign. The group is actively seeking funding from corporate sponsors. “We’re at a very critical point right now in our future, and if we were to cede any kind of ground to the antibiofuels folks it could be very damaging to our industry,” he says.

Rate of Return
So, what do the association members of GRFA get out of membership? For one, from a communications standpoint, the GRFA is able to echo some of the same key messages put forth by its members, Baker says. For example, when the RFA challenges the flawed science of indirect land use change in the U.S., GRFA echoes those arguments in the international community. The old food versus fuel argument is another battle the organization pushes back against repeatedly.

CRFA’s membership in GRFA allows the association to focus on what’s going on domestically, knowing that the global group is monitoring and dealing with international issues, Thurlow says. Considering the increasingly important role international organizations are playing in developing biofuels policies, that’s key. “We need to be heard within these organizations and we need a seat at the table when policy and research is being developed,” he says. “The GRFA gives us that opportunity.”

Dinneen echoed that by saying when he and other association members can’t attend an overseas biofuels event, GRFA can. “What we really wanted to make sure that we had with the GRFA is the opportunity to interact with the international forums more consistently,” he says.

ePURE considers the GRFA a very important vehicle in keeping the organization aware of and able to respond to emerging global developments that affect the biofuels industry, a spokesperson told EPM via email. After all, many issues affecting the EU biofuels industry are also global issues, such as agriculture systems as well as the need to reduce emissions and fossil fuel consumptions. “[Being a part of GRFA] allows the global biofuels industry to speak with a unified voice to international institutions,” the spokesperson says.

GRFA also puts about a lot of biofuel-related data. The organization works with research or consulting companies to release several annual global biofuels reports. In September GRFA put out its annual greenhouse gas reduction report, which forecast global ethanol production would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 million metric tons in 2012. The organization also reported in June that predicted global ethanol production would reach 82.2 billion liters in 2012, a 1 percent growth from the previous year. A third report, which was new this year, outlined the substantial impact biofuels has on the global economy—including supporting nearly 1.4 million jobs in 2010.

Interacting with other associations is a perk of membership that might not be as obvious to outsiders, Baker says. GRFA hosts monthly calls that association leaders from Europe, Canada, the U.S. and Argentina participate in on a regular basis. Any of the other association members are welcome to call in, and sometimes they do, he says, but due to time zone constraints some communicate primarily via email instead. In addition, two or three times a year, GRFA members have a chance to get together in person, typically at the National Ethanol Conference and sometimes at the Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit or the World Ethanol & Biofuels event. Whether a meeting is on the phone or face-to-face, it provides a valuable platform for dialogue on policy ideas and trade issues, he says.

Staying connected with CRFA’s industry partners and keeping the lines of communications open is very important, Thurlow says. “While we do not always agree on issues—particularly trade issues—the GRFA platform allows us to have continued communications, share ideas and share messaging.”

Author: Holly Jessen
Features Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]