April 2, 2008

Responses to Time's unbalanced biofuels bashing

The April 7th issue of Time Magazine features a cover story that attacks the biofuels industry in general and corn ethanol in particular.

I have written about irresponsible media attacks before (i.e., Rolling Stone Magazine's The Ethanol Scam) and when the Science magazine "Land Use Change" research article started being trumpeted in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal I even organized two Bioenergy and Communications side events at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference. The plague of headline seeking writers to play gotcha journalism with incredibly important technological developments knows no bounds. What is surprising is the desperation with which "responsible" media grab and attempt to parlay slanted research into public lynchings.

My personal response to Time's "Inbox" was a brief rewriting of their cover headline (vainly hoping they would actually print it without butchering it too badly):

There are plenty of Clean Energy Myths but I think Time magazine has been duped. The cover story subhead should have read: "Mainstream Media and Big Oil are bashing biofuels like corn-based ethanol as alternatives to oil. In addition to driving up food prices and making global warming worse they are paving the way for future energy resource wars like Iraq - and you're paying for it."

The paradigm shift from fossil to renewable liquid fuels is imperative. We need alternatives at the pump and ethanol is already contributing as a clean oxygenate alternative to toxic MTBE's. Meanwhile biofuel feedstocks are shifting from cultivated food crops to greenhouse gas producing environmental disaster debris like landfills; knocked-down, bug-infested, and fire-ravaged forests; toxic waste dumps; and disease-infested marshlands. Leaders in government, environmental groups, private industry, and academia are working together to create ecologically and economically sustainable solutions. Why don't your writers do something constructive, rather than sensational, and report on those efforts?

Other, more reasoned responses have been issued by 25x'25 and the Ethanol Promotion Information Council (EPIC)...

April 2, 2008
25x'25 Responds to Time Magazine Biofuels Article with Letter to the Editor
by Congressman Thomas W. Ewing

Responding to widespread inaccuracies in this week's Time magazine cover story, the 25x'25 National Steering Committee is responding with a letter to the editors of Time expressing disappointment with the questionable characterization of biofuels and their role in the issue of greenhouse gas emissions in "The Clean Energy Scam," by Michael Grunwald. The letter was authored by steering committee member and former Congressman Thomas W. Ewing, who is also the Immediate Past Chairman of the USDA and DOE Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee. The entire letter follows:

As a former Member of Congress and a leader in a diverse alliance of agricultural, environmental and conservation organizations working together to advance clean energy solutions, I am greatly disturbed with Time magazine's April 7th feature story on biofuels. In this article, Michael Grunwald criticizes biofuels yet offers no alternative to using petroleum to meet our energy needs - much of which comes from the Middle East.

Members of our alliance share the author's anxiety for the continued health of the Amazon rain forest and other "carbon sinks" that nature has provided around the globe. As champions of many forms of land-based renewable energy (biomass, wind energy, solar power, geothermal energy and hydropower, in addition to biofuels), we agree that environmentally sensitive lands should not be exploited in pursuit of renewable fuels.

Unfortunately, the story's message of concern is undermined by misinformation about biofuels and an over-simplified analysis of complex systems. The implication that biofuel production is responsible for the destruction of the Amazon rain forest ignores the reality that ever increasing worldwide demand for food and fiber is the primary cause of land use change in this and other regions. Simply eliminating biofuels will not stop land use changes from occurring, and in countries like Haiti that have already lost their forests, biofuels could help reestablish forests and offer more affordable and sustainable energy options. Similarly, information in the story about a recent study, which claims land-use changes brought about by increased biofuel production are producing more greenhouse gas emissions (Searchinger et al.), only tells half the story. What is missing is that Searchinger's methodologies have been widely questioned by respected biofuel life-cycle analysis researchers such as Michael Wang, with the Center for Transportation Research at the Argonne National Laboratory, who counter that Searchinger et al. used outdated, if not incorrect, data to reach their conclusions.

The story's reference to a UN food expert's dramatic condemnation of biofuel production fails to mention that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization almost immediately distanced itself from the remarks. The head of the UN Food Program recently noted that higher energy costs, erratic weather and low stocks are big factors contributing to the high cost of food around the globe.

Of particular concern is the ready dismissal of emerging technologies that will allow us to produce next generation biofuels from non-food feedstocks sustainably grown on underutilized and marginal lands not suited for food production. Conservation tillage and other agriculture and forestry residue management practices used to produce biomass energy feedstocks can also provide a constant buildup of soil organic carbon. Researchers at Ohio State have concluded that the total potential of carbon sequestration in U.S. soils, counting croplands, grazing lands and woodlands, is nearly 600 million metric tons of carbon, or the equivalent of more than 2,200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions - about 33 percent of total U.S. emissions.

We encourage the editors of Time to contribute to a much-needed discussion of the role renewable resources will play in improving national security and the environment while moving us closer to energy independence. We simply ask that they demand a basic level of accuracy and balance from the stories that they run.

EPIC's Executive Director Toni Nuerenberg response to Time article entitled "The Clean Energy Scam"

technorati , , ,


Anonymous said...

I know you could personally benefit from reading available information at
www.energyjustice.net on the costs of bio-fuels or ethanol. Diverted land usage is a problem, not to mention diverting potential food to our fuel tanks only perpetuates the problem.

Whether or not you wish to change your 'public' stance on this issue - just please check out the information provided.

C. Scott Miller said...

Thanks for this link, although I can never understand why commenters insist on remaining "anonymous." It kind of reflects a lack of commitment to a position.

The "Energy Justice" blog is well organized and well-written but I think its purist, idealistic message is unrealistic and counter-productive to the extreme. The kind of justice espoused seems to me to be very undemocratic and close-minded.

Take, for instance, its stand for zero waste. Zero waste is a practical impossibility. In L.A. recycling has achieved a high water level of achievement of about 62% since its inception. Unfortunately, the rate of waste accumulation has increased about 50% during the same period of time. The net result is that utilities have to deal with the same volume of trash today as it did at the inception of the program.

Make no mistake, it's a great program because it has diverted a monumental amount of recyclables (although a vast majority of the tonnage is in fact shipped to China for processing because wages, benefits, and environmental regulations are so strict here). But what idealists fail to realize is that proceeding further with Zero Waste will become geometrically more expensive as we approach the ideal. Meanwhile trash accumulates at an unacceptable rate requiring even more onerous solutions than the current landfills.

The world is not a physical absolutist paradise (if only those "greedy-corrupt-corporate-warmongers" would give it a rest). No, it is a biological fractal of incredible dimension and creativity. We can't stop the growth - we shouldn't want to - and we can't stop the clock (like preservationists would have us do with our public forests) - and we can't stop people from being human (try raising children if you need proof). The more you try to do that the more you end up with environmental catastrophes like megafires (6 of the 7 worst fire seasons in the U.S. have occurred in the last 8 years).

We need to learn through technological development - not absolutist environmentalist manifestoes - to solve the problems. A recent Hart survey concluded that 51% of Americans believe that fossil fuel dependency will be solved with technological solutions while only 28% believe conservation will succeed (17% believed in more drilling/mining).

The solutions will evolve with new problems but we better start now or we will bequeath endless and dreadful resource wars on our children chasing impossible and tyranny producing ideals - and they would be counter-productive anyway.

I believe in collaboration - building bridges between private industry, investors, environmentalists, academia, and the government. Together we can tap the best ideas and fractal our own solutions. No one source has a monopoly on insight but together maybe the solutions will be more effective through stakeholder involvement than the sum of their parts. The stakeholders have to buy in to make the solutions work anyway.

Come to the conferences and state your position. Otherwise you really aren't contributing to a discussion that needs to precede action.

Anonymous said...

I was really surprised at Time´s issue on corn-based biofuels. Although one can argue a lot about its harm to the Amazon and the environment in general, this article is clearly biased due to the following:

- It makes all the biofuel industry exclusively responsible for practically all the Amazon deforestation, the food prices rise, and some other terrible catastrophes.
- The author doesn´t even stop to think of other alternatives to food-based crops such as high-yield algae and others.
- I do think (and this is just my personal opinion) that Time accepted to publish the article (and also show it on the front page) just for marketing purposes. I mean, this is a sensitive issue and both environmentalists and the biofuel industry will find it interesting to argue.

My name is Juan P. R. Serrate, I´m from Spain. Best regards.