May 28, 2009

Dirty oil's direct land change impact

Photograph by Peter Essick for National Geographic magazine.

Once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alberta's oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.

So intones an article in this month's issue of National Geographic magazine titled "The Canadian Oil Boom: Scraping Bottom." Its opening shot shows how arbitrary standards that attribute direct and indirect land use change factors can be when comparing fossil fuels vs. biofuels created from cultivated crops.

Corn and energy crops are being held to a high standard in new Low Carbon Fuel Standard legislation passing through California's legislature. This standard is reflected in U.S. EPA presentations which assign an arbitrarily high factor in assessing the indirect (aka "international") land change impact of producing the fuel (shown in bright green in the graph above). Without the assessment, even the worst case scenario for producing ethanol (dry mill using coal for heat) including the GHG tailpipe emissions passes the standard set by gasoline tailpipe emissions alone.

But there is no attribution for direct land use change from gasoline production even though this article provides clear evidence that there is for mining Canadian tar sands. This is the kind of arbitrary comparative accounting that has biofuel producers claiming that the standard that applies land use factors is, at best, artbitrary and, at worst, biased.

As a native Californian, I too think that CARB is being incredibly arbitrary on defining indirect effects. What if, in addition to indirect land use change (iLUC) CARB considered a new factor – “indirect cultural abuse change” (iCAC). If they did, the oil benchmark would be pushed up off the chart.

The argument would be that our addiction to oil wreaks cultural abuse worldwide – including military manufacturing and logistics expenditures, war damage to existing utility infrastructure, pollution from sabotaged wells during conflict, and the transfer of wealth from democracies to tyrannies – who exploit natural resources and have much less stringent environmental and workplace controls than most democraciees do. Surely these add carbon to the atmosphere (not to mention carnage, health, environmental, and human rights abuse).

Bottomline – until we deploy emerging technologies and a progressive infrastructure path to distribute alternative products we should build upon what already gives us options and makes us more self-reliant. Otherwise we have no choice at the pump and we remain pawns to those who profit from and control the status quo.

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April 25, 2009

Bias in California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard

California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is a good initiative but it is flawed in its current form. Consider:

Ethanol is an alcohol with a fairly simple, universal formula regardless of how it is made. The great thing about all ethanol is that it is miscible in gasoline, oxygenates gasoline so that it burns more cleanly, and it is a renewable fuel whose carbon comes from the atmosphere, not from subterranean fossil deposits - so it is at least carbon neutral or "low carbon" compared with "high carbon" petroleum products.

When people talk about advanced biofuels like "cellulosic ethanol" they are not talking about the alcohol product, they are talking about the feedstock used to produce the ethanol and, to some extent, the process of its cultivation, harvest, and manufacture. Cellulose is the raw material but the product is the same.

The public doesn't discriminate a difference because neither do most reporters and their editors (see "Everyone Hates Ethanol?"). When "Ethanol" is painted as a "racket" in the Wall Street Journal it impacts all ethanol - "advanced" or not. Whether policy-makers understand the difference is irrelevant if they are unduly influenced by negative public opinion spawned by a misled press.

The indirect land use change (iLUC) issue is an example of a unscientifically proven theory that can kill a nascent industry before it starts to grow. The press and public opinion can sway policy-makers without regard for the truth. Investors and politicians become unwilling to stick their necks out. And then only the government or established energy giants can control the outcome.

Even though most "advanced biofuels" process developers think they are immune to the iLUC issue - because 1) they may not use corn or other cultivated crops as feedstock or 2) they may not need tilled soil to get feedstock - they should think again. The brush being used to paint "ethanol" is very broad and, by the way, the most successful independent ethanol investors have come from the corn ethanol industry.

Exciting innovations for producing biofuels will come from the first generation ethanol producers to create "advanced biofuels" - increases in yield per acre, no-till and advanced agronomic practices, reduction of fossil energy inputs, and the expanded use of cellulose residuals (starting with cobs and corn stover, and moving on to other crops). Unless, of course, bad policy saps or limits investment resources.

Growth Energy sent out an email appeal for fairness that appears to be lacking in a process that rewards scientific speculation and is biased against first generation success. If we start handicapping success, who will assume the considerable risks that come with this very expensive paradigm shift? How does that make us more economically independent and globally secure? And how does that speed us toward alternatives to the status quo?

Here is the action that Growth Energy solicited on the same day that CARB passed the LCFS:


Below are some stories that have been published recently that we would like you to respond to. We need you to reinforce the message that ethanol is a clean, green renewable fuel that is available today to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Please refer to the talking points below for additional messaging on this issue.

Fuels must clean up act, The Sacramento Bee
Air Resources Board moves to cut carbon use, The San Francisco Chronicle
California Fuel Move Angers Ethanol Makers, The New York Times
General Wesley Clark goes to battle for ethanol industry, Chicago Tribune
Editorial: California air board makes good decision to move away from corn-based ethanol, Contra Costa Times

Talking Points:

• Growth Energy supports efforts to move to a low carbon environment. Ethanol is a low carbon fuel and its inclusion in our nation's energy mix will help reduce green house gases. The latest research shows that ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 59 percent compared to gasoline.

• While Growth Energy supports the concept of a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), it objects the California Air Resources Board's (ARB) staff report, which proposes unfair standards in calculating the carbon intensity of fuels. It would penalize ethanol by adding an "indirect land use change" penalty to biofuels.

• The theory of ILUC is built on the idea that American grain exports will plummet because of corn used for ethanol. One model estimates that corn exports will decrease by 62 percent and that soy exports will decline by 28 percent. Those assumptions have been proven to be false as you can read in our policy paper.

• The ARB only applies ILUC penalties to biofuels for land use, but doesn't take into account the indirect carbon effects of petroleum, including the protection our oil supply in the Middle East, or the increased carbon intensity from the characterization, storage, transport, and disposal of oil production waste products.

• The adoption of ILUC models in GHG measurements will slow advancements in second-generation biofuels and discourage corn-based ethanol producers from investing resources to reduce their carbon footprint.

• Not only will implementing ILUC theory not reduce carbon emissions, but it could lead to other calls for indirect market effects included in carbon calculations. For example, China has already called for the nations who buy its exports to pay for the carbon emissions related to the production of those exports. Such an arrangement would not be sustainable in any sort of cap and trade system.

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April 14, 2009

Join ACORE's Biomass Coordinating Council

The Biomass Coordinating Council of the American Council of Renewable Energy is an ever-present resource and meeting place for biomass professionals - or anyone who wishes to be engaged in the issues at the heart of emerging biomass renewable energy industries. At the helm of the council is the renowned Bill Holmberg. Below is his recent appeal for members that explains the scope and objectives of this group for 2009. I highly recommend attendance at their events where you can meet many of the most respected movers and shakers of this industry.

The Biomass Coordinating Council (BCC) is formed under the auspices of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE), a 501(c)(3), non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. BCC is working to accelerate the adoption of renewable biofuels, biopower, and biobased products into mainstream American society through work in policy initiatives, convening, networking, and communications. BCC's goals include reducing America's dependence on oil, creating a cleaner environment, and expanding markets for rural America.


BCC promotes all renewable and sustainable uses of biomass. BCC supports sustainability measures such as water conservation and soil enhancement, and the use of all biomass feedstocks including waste streams.

Biomass Coordinating Council (BCC)

In 2007 and 2008 biofuels and biopower represented about half of the renewable energy produced in the United States. It is certain biomass will play a fundamental role in “Renewing America” in 2009. However, we must unite biomass stakeholders to ensure biomass sustainability through optimized land use, vitalized soil and water management.

To do this we need to properly enhance and sustain the 6Fs of the Biomass Wheel, in addition to four major spokes; Project Development and Finance, Advanced Fuel Vehicles, Plug-in Hybrids with multi-fuel engines and Land Use Management. To do this, the BCC intends to engage its members - working collaboratively in advancing all involved individuals, businesses and pertinent organizations in developing informational and political support systems.

The BCC understands the importance in integrating this effort to unify and organize members of the BCC and other biomass stakeholders.

To strengthen this integrated effort, the BCC has set the following goals for 2009:

• Establish co-chairs representing biomass stakeholders corresponding to the 6Fs of the Biomass Wheel; food, feed, fuel, fiber, fertilizer and feedstock for chemicals, Project Development and Finance, Advanced Fuel Vehicles and Plug-in Hybrids with multi-fuel engines and Land Use Management
• Hold monthly webinars similar to the American Bar Association
• Submit foundation grants to expand the capacity of the BCC program
• Continue to support the formation of additional Councils throughout the world on Renewable Energy, with a focus in developing countries
• Continue to expand and enhance
• Continue to support the Admiral Thomas H. Moorer Forum on Energy Security
• Advance the concept of uniting Veterans in support of the “Green Revolution” as articulated by Thomas Friedman
• Launch a Biomass Power and Thermal Energy Committee under the BCC
• Support the launch and development of an ACORE National/Energy Security Committee
• Fully support ALL of ACORE’s contingences
• Double the membership of the BCC
• Overall, enhance membership, functions and opportunities of the BCC

Accomplishments in 2008

The BCC met twice in 2008–both at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC) in March 2008 and at the Phase II Policy Conference on Capitol Hill in December 2008. The topics of both meetings featured the development of the great need for more integrated biomass industries. It was also decided to proceed with a committee structure as outlined in the Goals for 2009.

Made extensive efforts to counter the GMA/ADI funded PR attacks on the ethanol industry. Today, the issue is less volatile due rising fuel costs and the hard work of a number of our members, but it is far from resolved.

On December 9th 2008, we helped host the Thomas H. Moorer Military Energy Security Forum at the National Defense University which determined the need for continued advancement of Renewable Energy and energy efficiency in the Department of Defense and the military services at home and abroad.

We continued our tradition of helping small non-profits get off the ground, contributing our support and time to the Latin American and Caribbean Council On Renewable Energy, Renew the Earth, Remineralize the Earth, International Biochar Institute, and others.

The BCC provided extensive support for ACORE’s Washington’s International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC), Wall Street Renewable Energy Finance Forum (REFF-Wall Street), Renewable Finance Conference in Seattle (REFF-West) and Phase II on Capitol Hill.

We also continued the support of the and a series of Biomass Committees under the BCC.

BCC Membership increased by 48% in 2008.

How to Join the Biomass Coordinating Council: To Join this committee contact Taylor Marshall at

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March 22, 2009

Economic Impacts of Biofuel Development

The impact of biofuel development should be significant to the economy of any nation that successfully deploys it. By becoming more energy self-sufficient, the balance of trade of otherwise energy-dependent nations should improve dramatically - as it has in Brazil.

However, the impact on the economy of the region producing the biofuels is even more impressive. Iowa was one of the most energy dependent states in the Union. Now, because of corn ethanol, it is one of the most energy independent. The state's economy has improved, schools are better, and land prices are higher - not because of ethanol subsidies, but because of the invigorating impact of the formation of new business ventures and the production of a valuable product to export.

Now a new report from researchers from North Dakota State University, published on the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center website, measures the statewide impact of the corn ethanol industry in North Dakota and projects the economic impact of cellulosic ethanol production on the Midwest and Great Plains states. Of course, the feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol are not only to be found in this region. It is not too much of a stretch to believe that these impacts could be duplicated, if not surpassed, in other regions of the country (and the world) where feedstocks are abundant and the need is greatest.

Summary findings from their report are excerpted below...

Economic Impacts of Biofuel Development

by Nancy M. Hodur, Research Scientist and Larry Leistritz, Professor of North Dakota State University

In recent years, the most prevalent type of new agricultural processing ventures in the Midwest and Great Plains states has been corn ethanol plants. Like other types of agricultural processing, these biofuel ventures have generally received widespread support, and numerous studies have addressed their contributions to local or regional economies. The rapid growth of the corn-based ethanol industry shows the potential for biofuels. However for biofuels to make a substantial contribution to the domestic liquid fuel supply, the industry must expand beyond corn-based ethanol. Accordingly, substantial resources have been devoted in both the public and private sector to the research and development of cellulosic biomass conversion. Much work has focused on technical issues, and several studies have examined potential biomass feedstock supplies. However, one aspect of biomass conversion to liquid fuels that has received very little attention is its potential as an economic development stimulus for rural areas with high biomass production potential and how that potential compares to the economic impact of corn based ethanol.

. . .

North Dakota and other “biomass belt” states are particularly well placed to capture the economic impact of an emerging biomass industry as plants will undoubtedly be located near the feedstock source. The potential economic development contributions of an emerging biofuels industry are particularly significant because many of the areas where such an industry could concentrate have in the not-distant-past faced adverse economic and demographic trends. The rural, agricultural counties of the western Corn Belt and northern Great Plains have experienced long term trends of farm consolidation, leading to fewer and larger farms. In the absence of major nonfarm employers, many counties have experienced substantial out-migration and population losses.

Farm households have also become more dependent on off-farm employment. In North Dakota, during the period 1993-2007, off-farm wages and salaries of farm households more than doubled, growing from $6,847 in 1993 to over $16,000 in 2007. An emerging biofuels industry could offer new jobs that would help to support rural communities and farm households and provide the kind of economic stimulus many agriculturally dependent areas have been seeking. Further, the sheer scope of the potential development, with capital cost of $34 billion and annual regional operational expenditures of over $10 billion, suggests that a biofuels industry could also substantively change the economic and demographic makeup of some Midwest and Great Plains counties.

Click here for the full story.

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March 16, 2009

Everyone Hates Ethanol?

It is a sad day when even the Wall Street Journal takes a page from the petroleum industry playbook and chop blocks the only national defense that makes a dent in their monopoly on supplying fuel to Americans (accounting for less than 5% of transportation fuels sold here). Offensive foul - intentional roughing.

The cheapest shot is the indiscriminant use of the term "ethanol." Ethanol, while chemically varying very little from batch to batch, comes from many feedstocks using a variety of very distinguishable processes. Those knowledgeable in the field are careful to specify whether they are talking about 1st generation ethanol (sugar and starch fermentation) or 2nd generation (converting cellulose using enzymes or Fischer-Tropsch process); the sugar feedstock (corn vs. sugar) or the cellulosic feedstock (i.e., woodchips, cultivated energy crops, switchgrass, MSW, algae, etc.); the cultivation method (if any); and the process fuel input. Each combination can vary dramatically for energy return on investment, lifecycle impacts, process emissions, feedstock cultivation, land and water use, economic return, and other factors.

The tiresome target for the smear here is where it traditionally aimed - against the American corn ethanol industry that only uses corn kernels, fossil fuel for process heat, and petroleum-fertilized land that has been tilled. However, by being indiscriminant, this editorial (from one of America's few trusted journalistic brands remaining) paints the entire multi-faceted industry with the same "gotcha" brush. Not even biorefineries within a single company can be painted with the same brush, and there over 150 biorefineries in operation.

Shouldn't the WSJ use more judgment than Rolling Stone which did their own hatchet job titled "The Ethanol Scam." It is hard for this reader to see a difference.

Here is a suggested followup opinion piece for the editors to ponder - what alternative to fossil transportation fuels do you support? It should be remembered that even the former "oil" President of U.S. - leader of the "Drill Baby Drill" Republican Party - lamented that "America is addicted to oil." Is there some "methadone" that does warrant support? Or is it your opinion that the country remain hooked?

Below is a response to the article on a point by point basis.

Everyone Hates Ethanol
March 16, 2009, Wall Street Journal opinion piece

These days, it's routine for businesses to fail, get rescued by the government, and then continue to fail. But ethanol, which survives only because of its iron lung of subsidies and mandates, is a special case. Naturally, the industry is demanding even more government life support.

Wrong. The industry expects a level playing field and the chance to provide a viable alternative product to those foisted on a disenfranchised consumer by a monopolistic industry that has been subsidized and protected for over 100 years. We need cleaner, more sustainable alternatives at the pump.

Corn ethanol producers -- led by Wesley Clark, the retired general turned chairman of a new biofuels lobbying outfit called Growth Energy -- want the Obama Administration to make their guaranteed market even larger. Recall that the 2007 energy bill requires refiners to mix 36 billion gallons into the gasoline supply by 2022. The quotas, which ratchet up each year, are arbitrary, but evidently no one in Congress wondered what might happen if the economy didn't cooperate.
What happened to the world economy is, in great measure, a result of the spike in the price of oil and the national security subsidies we pay to defend this country against predatory speculators, producers, and regimes. It is fitting that a distinguished General (joined by ex-CIA Director Jim Woolsey and others) would step into the breech to defend their country. It is a motivating conviction shared by most in the emerging industry.

Now the recession is hammering demand for gas. The Energy Information Administration notes that U.S. consumption fell nearly 7% in 2008 and expects another 2.2% drop this year. That comes as great news for President Obama, who is achieving his carbon-reduction goals even without a new carbon tax, but the irony is that the ethanol industry is part of the wider collateral damage.
Damage to the broader industry sure to be exacerbated by opinion pieces such as this one.

Americans are unlikely to use enough gas next year to absorb the 13 billion gallons of ethanol that Congress mandated, because current regulations limit the ethanol content in each gallon of gas at 10%. The industry is asking that this cap be lifted to 15% or even 20%. That way, more ethanol can be mixed with less gas, and producers won't end up with a glut that the government does not require anyone to buy.

The ethanol boosters aren't troubled that only a fraction of the 240 million cars and trucks on the road today can run with ethanol blends higher than 10%.
To the contrary, many in the industry strongly believe that all cars should be flex-fuel compatible. This is the cheapest way to implement change to a multi-fuel distribution infrastructure. Even a third world power, Brazil, found it to be easily achievable.

It can damage engines and corrode automotive pipes, as well as impair some safety features, especially in older vehicles. It can also overwhelm pollution control systems like catalytic converters. The malfunctions multiply in other products that use gas, such as boats, snowmobiles, lawnmowers, chainsaws, etc.
Actually, it is the "10%" number that is arbitrary. New research is being conducted which supports contentions that much higher blends are viable in conventional internal combustion engines.

That possible policy train wreck is uniting almost every other Washington lobby -- and talk about strange bedfellows. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Motorcycle Industry Council and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, among others, are opposed, since raising the blend limit will ruin their products. The left-leaning American Lung Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists are opposed too, since it will increase auto emissions. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club agree, on top of growing scientific evidence that corn ethanol provides little or no net reduction in CO2 over the gasoline it displaces.
Low level blends are always available to small engine machines - which, incidentally are very polluting no matter what they run on. The Sierra Club, in partnership with Worldwatch Institute, just published a report titled "Smart Choices for Biofuels" in strong support of development of 2nd generation ethanol... an important distinction.

The biggest losers in this scheme are U.S. oil refiners. Liability for any problems arising from ethanol blending rests with them, because Congress refused to grant legal immunity for selling a product that complies with the mandates that it ordered. The refiners are also set to pay stiff fines for not fulfilling Congress's mandates for second-generation cellulosic ethanol. But the cellulosic ethanol makers themselves already concede that they won't be able to churn out enough of the stuff -- 100 million gallons next year, 250 million gallons in 2011 -- to meet the targets that Congress wrote two years ago.
Cellulosic ethanol technology is being fast-tracked to satisfy a mandate that developers would be all too happy to satisfy. It takes time to launch new commercial-scale biorefineries. Meanwhile, the demand for ethanol needed to replace toxic MTBE oxygenates needs to be filled by existing production facilities. Unless you want to import it, that would be the corn ethanol industry.

So successful but politically unpopular businesses will be punished for not buying a product that does not exist -- from companies that haven't yet found a way to succeed despite generous political and taxpayer advantages. The next step is to use cap and trade to make green alternatives look artificially good by comparison. Even then they'll probably still be bottomless money pits.
Fossil industries are not guilty for selling fossil products - rather for engaging in fossil thinking. Who knows better than they that U.S. production of oil has been on the decline for thirty years. If they had admitted to themselves the longterm folly of only offering one source of fuel over which they have dwindling authority, they could have lead the development and commercialization of alternative fuels technology. Instead they have yet to build a new refinery of any kind in thirty years while the ethanol industry has built over a hundred.

To recap: Congress and the ethanol lobby argue that if some outcome would be politically nice, it should be mandated (details to follow). Then a new round of market interventions is necessary to fix the economic harm resulting from the previous requirements, while creating more damage in the process. Ethanol is one of the most shameless energy rackets going, in a field with no shortage of competitors.
A final chop block. Let's cripple the only longterm alternatives to fossil fuels, be indiscriminate in the smear piece, and paint everyone even tangentially associated as a racketeer. Is there to be no alternative fuel available at the pump?

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February 16, 2009

"FUEL" - an interview with Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell

In January 2008, Josh Tickell screened his new documentary “Fields of Fuel” at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews (see trailer here). It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. After a full year of more development, it has recently been released to a few theaters in the L.A.

I was invited to attend a pre-premiere green carpet party at one of only two gas stations in Los Angeles that sell both E85 and biodiesel fuels. It was cold (for L.A. in the high 40’s) and threatened rain but it still drew a number of celebrities – Peter Fonda, James Cromwell, Mariel Hemmingway, Stephen Collins, and others – who wanted to support the movie’s successful release.

I caught up with Josh and his fiancée, Rebecca Harrell, on the green carpet and conducted this interview.

Scott: I know that leading up to this, you have had trailers at various conferences. Two years ago I saw it at a Farm to Fuels conference in St. Petersburg Florida. What’s happened since?

Josh: It was quite a journey from Sundance a year ago to here. We cut the movie and added a whole new section about sustainability and the solutions that people were asking for. So the movie grew up a little bit in the year – and we got it ready to come out to the movie theaters as well.
Hello Rebecca, what is your role?

Rebecca: I am Rebecca Harrell and I am a producer of the film as well as Josh’s fiancée… and the Marketing Director during this evolving process for this “labor of love.” We have had to address all the controversy that has been erupting around biofuels. So we couldn’t release the movie without proving that. I think watching the movie will spark your interest and make you more aware of how you can help move biofuels forward.
Why did you make the film?

Josh: We started shooting the film in 1997 when I started driving the “Veggie Van” around the country. We didn’t originally go out with the objective of making a movie so much as the objective to see if these solutions are viable. For two years we just drove it around, making my own fuel, looking for solutions.

What started out as a two month journey turned into an eleven year journey to not just find solutions but to bring them to the public in a way that is accessible so people can understand. What better way than in the form of a movie!
Can you give us some highlights of the film?

Josh: One of the best parts of the film is what we call “the sustainable barrel.” It’s an animated barrel of solutions that replace an oil barrel. People love that part and all the things that people can do themselves that are shown in the movie. It is not often that you can see a movie and then you can do the things in the movie as soon as you’re done.

Rebecca: It is certainly an environmental documentary but it doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge at the end. It leaves you inspired and uplifted and full of things you can do right now and that’s not usually the way green activists look at this.

Josh: This isn’t a movie that your vegetarian girlfriend is going to drag you to and you end up feeling depressed. She might drag you to it but it’s actually fun.
I think you’d agree that stakeholder engagement is going to be key to the environmental community to accept the deployment of any new technologies. Sustainability being a huge issue, are you prepared to go and help educate America that there can be alternatives?

Josh: Absolutely, the film is about outreach, it is about communities, its about individuals banding together to understand the solutions and act on them. We’ve got a “Big Green Energy Bus”, we’ve got this big inflatable screen – this is really about a community coming together and getting out on the road and activating America. Not around problems but around solutions, especially those that can help us get out of this economic crisis. That’s what green energy and green collar jobs really is.
Do you see an advantage to decentralization of our energy paradigm that seems locked into going further and further to tap fewer and more remote reserves that are dirtier and dirtier to distill?

Josh: Yes, I think the core message of the sustainability movement is that it has got to be local, it’s got to be recyclable. The core of sustainability is non-centralized energy sources – energy you and I can help make – whether it is in my apartment, my house, or my ranch.

Rebecca: It’s also about using our waste streams as fuels.
You are to be congratulated on the work you have done so far. It will be interesting to see where you take it after the flurry of interest in the film itself.

Rebecca: It isn’t just a movie. We are going to take the educational portion of the film and turn it into a 45 minute entertaining, rock and roll, educational film that we distribute for free to every school in America. We will go along with our Big Green Energy Bus and educate people how to be green and sustainable.
You have a wonderful website at ( > that’s beautiful, number one, but also very functional.

Josh: Yeah, that’s Rebecca’s creation.
Is that going to be a keystone as part of this movement?

Rebecca: What you see there is just the tip of the iceberg for our website. We are going to use it as a way for people to broadcast their own green message. We developed it so that people will be the eventual owners of that site and we will be facilitating it.

Josh: Everything – the movie, the bus, the website – is for the people and generated by the people as well. Every ticket that is sold for this movie is a vote for green energy, it’s a vote for change. People around the world see those ticket numbers. People ask, “What can we do?” – well right away people can get to the theater and get others to the theater. We will be building a whole network for people to act on as the movie rolls out across the country.
Well we vote with our dollars in this country. And the problem is that, at our gas stations, you can get whatever fuel you want - as long as its petroleum based. We are desperate for fuel alternatives. This fuel station, called Conserv Fuel, is one of the only one’s selling alternatives in all of Los Angeles.

Rebecca: You’re right and they almost stopped selling biodiesel a few weeks ago. When we got that email we were pretty shocked and depressed and then we realized it doesn’t have to be this way. So we started writing and we got others to write also. Within literally five days we got a notice from the gas station that they changed their minds and were going to sell biodiesel. We wanted to celebrate with them and that’s one of the reasons we are here today – I don’t think anyone has ever had a film opening at a gas station before.
Well I hope you can roll this out to other bloggers and the bioenergy conferences that are going on around the country on this very subject. There is a Waste to Fuels conference in San Diego in mid-May – maybe we can show your movie there as well, with your blessing.

Rebecca: Great! We’ll definitely be in contact to set that up.

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February 12, 2009

"Fuel" is a Galvanizing Vehicle

"Fuel" is a film for our time - and also winner of the 2008 Sundance Audience Award for Best Documentary (see trailer here). It may help America wake up to the inexorable consequences of its fossil fuel addiction the way that "An Inconvenient Truth" did to global warming.

"Fuel" is the end product of an eleven year odyssey by Director Josh Tickell in his sunflower festooned, diesel Winnebago called Veggie Van. The traveling show that accompanies the movie release promises to capture attention and stimulate grassroots demand to replace fossil thinking, process, and fuels with renewable energy. "Fuel" could become the communications vehicle that educates the public at large of the liabilities associated with fossil fuels and the benefits of home grown alternatives.

The current film is 111 minutes long and full of geology, biology, physics, politics, and history - most of it personal. It is first and foremost the perspective of a 34 year who grew up not knowing any better. He didn't know that he couldn't use the balance of his college student loans to buy a diesel vehicle. He didn't know whether there would be a low-budget, sustainable way to convert restaurant grease and vegetables into fuel to power his transport. He couldn't have imagined that he would spend the next eleven years RVing America. To what end? To what purpose? Quite frankly, when you're 22, who cares.

All he knew was that he wanted to find out if there was a clean alternative to the paradigm that has resulted in the environmental and health disaster of the bayous of his family's native Louisiana. This region, once home to Cajun culture and bayou ecology, is now dominated by the brown fields of the petro-industry with air, land, and water quality contamination that more than likely will never return to normal. In a stark section of the film about hurricane Katrina, Josh shows an on-land oil spill the size of the Exxon Valdez that was left in the hurricane's wake - yet never reported in the mainstream media. Why not? Clearly, the petro industry is a "sacred cow" in the state.

I doubt if Forest Gump traveled as far as Josh did crisscrossing America, but both engendered the same kind of popular fascination. It's a great story that captures the imagination of all generations. Talk about "the audacity of hope" - Josh's trek is it. A personal journey that is an affront to Luddite thinking and entrenched interests.

While the duplicity of the oil industry is on display, this isn't a rant against their lack of integrity and responsibility. It is a call to action for people to seek alternatives and support them with their purchases. To hold their leaders to a higher standard. To demand research, development, and deployment of an infrastructure that will support a paradigm shift to renewable fuels and power.

It is also a great example of the power of the individual to become a "one man army." By using event and modern media, the tools are at hand for creative, insightful individuals to leverage profound effect with relatively little means.

It is no surprise that such an individual collected such a following among celebrity activists who are recorded in the film - Woody Harrelson, Julia Roberts, Sheryl Crow, Larry "JR" Hagman, Vinod Khosla, Willie Nelson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Larry David, Sir Richard Branson, and others. Are they experts? Most aren't, but they want to use their celebrity to advance causes they believe receive too little attention. And our energy options are perhaps the most important discussion in the country.

In one of the more educational parts of the movie, an animated treatment spells out the many ways we can substitute sustainable fuel alternatives for oil. Josh is clearly a biodiesel advocate, but he doesn't stop there. An oil barrel is carved into sections that are replaced by other alternatives - biomass, solar, wind, tidal, energy efficiency, and others.

Speaking of education, the "Veggie Van" that educated America as it toured the highways and byways now has a big brother - the BIG GREEN ENERGY BUS. According the the website:

The Big Green Energy Bus is a mobile education laboratory featuring the latest interactive technology in sustainable energy including solar, conservation, energy efficiency, water recycling, thermal heat and green appliances.

FUEL’s Big Green Bus Project gives students hands on experience with green energy - providing them with fundamental understanding of how they can use green energy in their homes, in schools and in vehicles.

Upon entering the bus, students are greeted with a member of our certified “Green Team.” The Green Team takes students through each “Learning Station” explaining the function of the systems in the bus. Students have the opportunity to switch on and off components of the solar display and see how much energy is saved by using energy efficient lightbulbs, how to turn sewage into fuel, how solar panels work, how to use the internet to access green energy information, how to make and use biodiesel, how to compost, how to build a simple grey water recycling system, and how to turn America’s unhealthy school buses into clean green buses like this one!

Plans are in the works to pare the original movie to 45 minutes and distribute it for free through schools whose students can view the shorter film during class time or assemblies.

I recommend that readers watch for this film as it is slowly introduced at theaters around the country. You will witness a consequential film with character, credibility, and relevance too rarely seen in American cinema.

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January 28, 2009

Perspectives on Sustainability Standards for Biofuel Production

This article is a response to a call for comments on Version Zero of the draft Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Biofuels written by the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels after extensive, multi-stakeholder, international collaboration. A running public dialog on these standards is available online at the Bioenergy Wiki.

We need change to a renewable fuels paradigm and we need it to be sustainable.

How do we engage in a massive overhaul of our energy paradigm that impacts on the quality of life of future generations without disturbing the natural order of things?

According to the preponderance of current research on "global warming" we have already disrupted the natural order of things. We need to quickly learn to responsibly manage Earth's resources to correct an imbalance that will not correct itself.

One only has to look at 2008's headlines and editorials to see how important the concept of "sustainability" has become to a wide swath of stakeholders as we move into the renewable energy era. Unfortunately, good news is rarely considered news-worthy to major outlets of opinion journalism. Instead, useful debate about certain sustainability issues has been, in far too many cases, distorted far out of proportion to their real significance. Controversy over "energy return on investment", "food vs. fuel", and "indirect land use change" stole much of the momentum that was being generated in support of advanced biofuel production. Some promising and sustainable projects were lost in the process.

Still, the artificiality of the controversy perpetuated by some of the media is no excuse to disengage from a discussion of the issues. To an extent, controversies draw valuable public interest to the topics under debate. In a sincere attempt to contribute a constructive opinion on these issues, I submit the following comments:

Recognize the threat posed by the status quo.

Renewable biofuels are carbon neutral (or negative) and are getting more plentiful and cleaner (fewer noxious byproducts and a reduction in greenhouse gases). Contrast that with fossil fuels that are carbon positive and getting dirtier (more greenhouse gases emitted from harder to extract and refine resources like tar sands and oil shale).

Before biofuels sustainability criteria are promulgated, it is important to ascertain the level of the challenge and the cost of doing nothing. Even prolonged delay has consequences. Lifecycle analyses of fossil fuel production should be used as a standard for comparison. Distance from well to wheel is a very important variable because it take energy to transport (and transmit) energy.

Credit the achievers.

Creating biofuel alternatives require innovation, creativity, and a significant amount of investment risk-taking.

In the fog of adversarial journalism, it is easy for the general public to lose focus on the clear benefits and achievements of the corn ethanol industry during the past few years. Few recognize the credit the ethanol industry deserves for replacing ALL groundwater contaminating MBTEs with clean, biodegradable corn ethanol as an oxygenate blended into gasoline. This simultaneously extended the volume of non-imported fuel used in American cars (roughly 3% nationwide) and resulted in cleaner running, less polluting vehicles.

Without the ethanol industry's rapid growth, there would be far fewer alternative fuel vehicles on the road, less developed infrastructure for supply and delivery, increased dependence on foreign sources of energy, more expensive gasoline during the recent price spike, and many lost opportunities to bolster a revitalized generation of Midwestern rural communities. This is an industry that has not only doubled production within the last few years, but is also moving forward with retooling agricultural practices, reducing fossil energy usage, and expanding the variety of feedstock that can be converted. With deployments come improvements.

We should continue to build and improve on models that have been successful.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

The deleterious impacts from the status quo energy paradigm is the reason that we seek alternative technologies. It is not likely that new innovations will meet all criteria upon first deployment. And raising the bar and adding new criteria - like water usage, land use change, and greenhouse gas emissions - often arise after high capital expenditure deployment. By penalizing innovation we risk total inertia. Doing nothing is not an option.

All too frequently innovative processes are compared to theoretical concepts and abstract ideals that have remained pure because they have never been deployed so their impacts can be measured. Some may never be viable economically whether they meet sustainability criteria or not.

Biorefineries can cure environmental ills.

Conversion technologies can be used to turn environmental blights into fuels and power. Waste-to-energy power plants have helped municipalities reduce the amount of post-recyclables destined for landfills while creating new electricity. Similarly, biorefineries are being proposed to utilize environmental waste as biomass feedstock - trash and tires; bug infested forest timber; wildfire salvage; chicken litter; food scraps; forest management trimmings; hurricane, flood, and tornado debris; forest knockdown; and industrial wastes. These biowastes emit greenhouse gases as they decay so lack of management contributes to global warming.

Cleanly harnessing the btus contained in biomass waste completes a cradle-to-cradle energy value chain. The commercial value of biofuels and biopower can help fund environmental cleanup. We need as many conversion technology approaches as possible because the range of environmental challenges are vast and the resources available are becoming ever more precious.

Sustainability standards should be inclusive and regional.

To achieve the ends that we all want - more sustainable energy processes to pass on to future generations - we must deploy the most promising technologies now so we can perfect them. Multiple approaches provide options that can be tailored to specific resource, climate, and local stakeholder acceptability.

One of the prime characteristics of the bioenergy paradigm is the shift from centralization to decentralization. Fossil fuels are found at specific locations and, over time, the hunt for new reserves ranges further, wider, deeper - and dirtier. By comparison, biomass is relatively ubiquitous. It can be found everywhere except the most extreme conditions - like the deserts and the arctic regions.

The logistics for bioenergy solutons are based on short radius resources basins of 75 miles or less. Rather than expending vast sums for shipping remotely accessed raw materials from the corners of the world, biorefineries will depend on utilizing resources indigenous to the immediate vicinity. What is sustainable in one resource basin is totally different than another. Soil fertility, water availability, climate, and cultural mores vary greatly as do stakeholder interests. To mandate global sustainability criteria without factoring in indigenous variables would be pure folly.

This has already happened. The definition of "renewable fuel" in the groundbreaking 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act excluded classifications of different feedstock (notably woody biomass from federal forest lands). To many in the industry this seemed very arbitrary. Those that it did not specifically exclude were couched in terms that could lead to litigious action in the future against biorefiners attempting to receive the benefits outlined in the renewable fuel standard. The definition should be inclusive of a broad range of feedstock from private and public sources - not exclusive - because every resource basin is different.

Add concerns over the use of water, depletion of soil, deforestation, wildlife diversity, pesticides, energy return on investment, and fertilizers and the obvious question becomes "is there any biofuels production technology that will deployable?" If so, will it be so hamstrung by over-analysis and red tape that it never achieves its potential as a reasonable alternative to the status quo?

Even if a developer successfully threads the needle of expectation this year, will increasingly restrictive standards make duplication of the feat impossible to permit?

What ends might we sacrifice if we focus solely on the means?

Our dependence on fossil fuels is playing havoc with our economy, national security, environmental quality, and the climate predictability of our atmosphere. Just because fossil fuel industries existed before lifecycle analyses were required does not mean that they should forever be immune to measurement and sanction. The social, economic, health, climate, and military costs of fossil fuels are profoundly high.

We need to incentivize the development of many technologies to leap the hurdles of our paradigm challenge. Let's be careful that we don't handicap entrepreneurship with restrictions that will serve mainly to hamper creativity, slow the pace of change, and stifle investment.


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January 6, 2009

The Impact on Renewable Energy from Obama's Nominations

"Who ARE those guys?"

The bad news is that the economic crisis threatens to suspend deployment of renewable energy facilities. Coupled with the meteoric drop in fossil fuel prices - one of the key drivers for developing alternative fuels - and it would not be surprising to see a new administration lose focus on renewable energy.

The good news is that the incoming Obama administration's choices for Cabinet and key positions are very encouraging to those in the emerging renewable energy and energy efficiency industries. Below is the full "Special Report" analysis on each nominee as reported by 25x'25 dated 12/31/08.

The one disappointment is the loss of Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico who was nominated to be Secretary of Commerce. Just yesterday he opted out of confirmation because of government investigation of some alleged "pay for play" campaign contributions.

Obama Nominations Expected to Drive Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency Policy

President-elect Barack Obama has moved quickly to fill his Cabinet and most key positions in an administration set to take control of the White House in three weeks, and a significant number of the nominees or appointees bring with them serious renewable energy and energy efficiency credentials. Obama's selection of scientific, energy and environmental experts to his administration underscore his campaign pledge to address the faltering economy and climate change with programs that will use green technology and infrastructure improvements to create jobs and boost markets.

The diversity and bipartisan nature of the new administration team mirror the similarly wide-ranging composition of the National 25x'25 Renewable Energy Alliance, whose member organizations come from the agriculture, forestry, energy, environmental, business, labor, civic and government sectors. Five of the 14 Cabinet nominees have over the past two years formally endorsed the 25x'25 Vision for a renewable energy future. Obama was an original co-sponsor of the 25x'25 resolution adopted by Congress in 2007 as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act signed into law a year ago. Members of the bipartisan team that Obama has picked include what some analysts have deemed to be "superstars" in their fields.

Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004 and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, represents a key appointment for renewable energy interests with his nomination to head the Department of Energy. Chu is a champion of second-generation biofuels and solar technologies, focusing the Berkeley lab's scientific resources on energy security and global climate change, in particular the production of new fuels and electricity from sunlight through non-food plant materials and artificial photosynthesis. The lab director, who has shared his research at a 25x'25 roundtable in California in 2007 and at the National 25x'25 Summit in Omaha in March, has also spearheaded significant work at Berkeley on energy-efficient technologies.

Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa and another champion of land-based renewable energy development, is Obama's nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. One of the early endorser's of the 25x'25 Vision, the two-term governor vigorously campaigned for Obama, promoting their common ideas on renewable energy and rural growth. "As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat but the energy we use," Obama said in nominating Vilsack. The former chairman of the Governors' Biofuels Coalition has pushed for further development of cellulosic ethanol, in which products such as woodchips and switchgrass are used as feedstocks, and promoted wind energy as an alternative source of electricity.

Sen. Ken Salazar, an original co-sponsor of the 25x'25 resolution adopted by Congress, is the nominee to head the Interior Department. As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the second-term senator from Colorado says he "will do all I can to help reduce America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil" and work with Obama "as we take the moon shot on energy independence. That energy imperative will create jobs here in America, protect our national security, and confront the dangers of global warming." Salazar also said he wants to help "build our clean energy economy, modernize our interstate electrical grid, and ensure that we are making wise use of our conventional natural resources, including coal, oil, and natural gas."

Rep. Ray LaHood, a supporter of mass transit, is set to lead the Transportation Department in the new administration. As a co-sponsor in the House of the 25x'25 resolution ultimately enacted into the 2007 Energy Act, the Illinois lawmaker voted for legislation that would have eliminated tax breaks for oil and gas companies and diverted them to the development of renewable fuels. LaHood also voted for an amendment to the National Science Foundation funding bill that created a K-12 curriculum on global warming, climate change, and the actions people can take to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The six-term congressman Ray LaHood was recently honored for his work in promoting Illinois' 25x25 Renewable Energy Alliance during a special ceremony in Peoria last month. Former U.S. and Illinois House Representative Tom Ewing, a member of the National 25x'25 Steering committee and coordinator of Illinois' 25x25 efforts, joined other Illinois 25x'25 alliance members in presenting an award of appreciation to LaHood. "Ray LaHood has been a real champion of the 25x25 movement since we started it in 2004," said Ewing, speaking at the Illinois Commodity Classic conference in Bloomington. "He was a supporter of our independent resolution in Congress recognizing our goal of producing 25 percent of the nation's energy from renewable sources - including agricultural sources - by the year 2525."

Senator from New York and former Obama political adversary Hillary Clinton was nominated by the president-elect as Secretary of State. Sen. Clinton is a member of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works and a co-sponsor of the 25x'25 resolution. She was a strong supporter of renewable energy provisions in the 2007 Energy Act. Her advocacy of measures that would stem climate change is expected to be carried into the international arena. Also expected to play a part in Clinton's approach to her role as Secretary of State is her support as a senator of policies to diversify energy supplies by investing in renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar, and her promotion of the environmentally responsible recovery of oil and gas resources. She also championed energy-efficiency in cars, homes, and offices.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, one of the first national political leaders to embrace the 25x'25 Vision when the campaign was launched in 2006, was nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. The secretary-designate has long promoted the clean air benefits of renewable energy and is expected to tout the health advantages inherent to improved air quality as the Obama administration develops energy policies that reduce polluting emissions. With more than 25 years of service in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and 10 years as Senate Democratic Leader, Daschle has played an instrumental role in the development of U.S. legislative and regulatory policy. He brings to the incoming administration extensive Washington experience and high odds for quick Senate confirmation. The former South Dakota senator, who lost his bid for re-election in 2004, has been serving as a member of the Energy Future Coalition national Steering Committee and a ''special public policy adviser'' with the Washington law and lobbying firm of Alston & Bird. His portfolio there includes health care and renewable energy.

Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a green jobs advocate and author of clean energy job training legislation included in the 2007 energy bill, has been nominated to head the Labor Department. Her legislation authorizes up to $125 million in funding to establish national and state job training programs, administered by the Department of Labor, to help address job shortages that are impairing growth in green industries, such as energy efficient buildings and construction, renewable electric power, energy efficient vehicles, and biofuels development. H.R. 2847 was included in the Energy Independence and Security Act adopted by Congress and signed into law in December, 2007.

Other key members of the incoming administration announced by Obama that are expected to have significant impact on renewable energy and energy efficiency policies include:

Lisa Jackson, who is set to head the EPA. The agency regulates the nation's renewable fuel standard, which determines how much ethanol, biodiesel and eventually other biofuels get used each year. Rules currently under formulation would determine the extent to which land use and the effect of biofuel production on climate change are to be considered in setting the RFS. Jackson was the director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before being tapped to head Obama's energy and environment transition team. She had previously served as DEP Deputy Commissioner. Her past experience includes management responsibilities at the EPA's regional office in New York; for enforcement programs at both EPA and DEP; and for New Jersey's Land Use Management Program. Jackson helped create the Northeastern states' Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and also served as vice president of the RGGI's executive board. She is a professional engineer.

Carol M. Browner, who has been named to the new position of Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. Her position has been coined as "climate czar" and Obama says she will coordinate environmental, energy, climate and related matters for the federal government. The former chief at EPA during the Clinton administration, Browner is a founding member of the Albright Group, a "global strategy group" headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As a principal in the firm, Browner assists businesses and other organizations with the challenges of operating internationally, including the challenges of complying with environmental regulations and climate change.

Nancy Sutley, who will chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She has instituted a number of energy saving programs in Los Angeles where she currently serves as the Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment. She has previously served as a gubernatorial energy advisor and the Deputy Secretary for Policy and Intergovernmental Relations within the California Environmental Protection Agency. During the Clinton administration, Sutley was a Senior Policy Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA, Region 9 in San Francisco and a Special Assistant to the Administrator at the Federal EPA in Washington, DC. Sutley has also served as the Policy Director for the National Independent Energy Producers and as an Industry Economist for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

John P. Holdren, who was named Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A Harvard professor of environmental policy, Holdren led major studies for the Clinton administration's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology on U.S. energy research and development strategy. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Since 2002, he has been Co-Chair of the independent, bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, and from 2004 to the present he has served as a coordinating lead author of the Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development, reporting to the U.N.'s Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Commission on Sustainable Development.

National 25x'25 Alliance leaders say stronger support for renewable energy within the incoming administration will help mobilize the 25x'25 base in 2009 and expand grassroots support for the policies needed to create a clean and green U.S. energy future. An alliance plan of action for next year notes that over the past four years, the 25x'25 Alliance has evolved into a strong coalition that now serves as providers of solid, credible information on the role renewable energy can and will play in a revived economy. "We believe that in 2009, the new administration, in concert with the incoming 111th Congress, will support our efforts to sustain the nation's resource base and protect the environment through renewable energy development and energy efficiency," says Project Coordinator Ernie Shea. "The Steering Committee believes our new national leadership understands the role agriculture and forestry can play in improving energy security, boosting our economy and reducing emissions that contribute to global warming."


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