Print

In support of cellulosic ethanol

The Union of Concerned Scientists is applying some energy to supporting ethanol. Well, not corn ethanol, I doubt they’ve made an about face there. But they are coming out in support of cellulosic ethanol.
By Susanne Retka Schill | February 20, 2012

The Union of Concerned Scientists is applying some energy to supporting ethanol. Well, not corn ethanol, I doubt they’ve made an about face there. But they are coming out in support of cellulosic ethanol. Nearly a month ago, an email was sent to reporters and editorial staff regarding the challenges of cellulosic biofuel production.

The letter says:  “… the payoff for public investment in energy sources are not immediate. After 100 years of support for the oil industry, and 30 years of supporting corn ethanol, it is premature to walk away from cellulosic biofuels. A detailed analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests there is a simple reason for the delay in commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel production: financing.  If your editorial board is considering weighing in on this debate, I hope you will consider that it is the challenge of securing financing, rather than the failure of the technology, that is holding back advanced biofuels.”

While the UCS is often highly critical of corn ethanol, this letter shows as an organization with strong environmentalist credentials, it understands the promise of renewable fuels. “Biofuels are an essential element of a comprehensive plan to deal with oil dependence and climate change, and we remain optimistic that the future is promising: advanced biofuels companies are emerging from the economic crisis smarter and with better technology; we are finally starting to see construction of the first commercial-scale refineries.” The letter is also critical of the oil industry, which “has invested only sparingly in cellulosic technology.” UCS points out that with profits surpassing $9 million an hour, the top three U.S. oil companies certainly don’t lack the means to help bring clean fuel to the mainstream.

This past week, the UCS weighed in on the request to EPA from the oil industry to waive the cellulosic biofuel RFS obligations for 2011. It made a good point in saying it would be a mistake to cater to petroleum refiner’s requests to adjust RFS requirements. Our EPM story  quoted UCS senior scientist Jeremy Martin: “As the main customers for cellulosic biofuels, and as strategic investors in many of the cellulosic biofuel companies, the oil industry is in a position to interfere in the marketplace for these fuels. Giving them an incentive to undermine this marketplace is a very bad idea.” He also pointed out the $6.8 million in waiver credits the oil industry is squawking about is less than an hour’s worth of the profits from the top three U.S. oil companies.

It is nice to see an environmentalist organization such as UCS come out so strongly in support of cellulosic ethanol. It demonstrates there are many areas where ethanol and environmental interests overlap and it may provide an opportunity for the two to mend some fences.  That could help both sides in the future engage in more productive discussions about the issues of disagreement.