Stranger, Then | October 17, 2014
October 20, 2014

Commentary | February 24, 2014
Oil and all his friends
A researcher’s account on the war against biofuels
Written by | Visual by Midori Nishioka | The McGill Daily

To spare you the boredom paired with long cliché introductions about global warming and energy crisis, I am jumping straight to the point: we probably have enough oil to keep our engines running for another century. What we can’t afford though, is the ongoing climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions. Environmental issues aside, industrialized countries will continuously suffer from disruptions in oil exports caused by conflicts in the Middle East. Some will try to strengthen their grip on supply by ‘democratizing’ large oil producers while others will seek local alternatives. Although heavily criticized by some environmental groups, biofuels provide a convenient substitute to fossil fuels.

There are two types of biofuels in the world: ones that compete with food crops and cause famines, and others that use agricultural waste and non-edible crops. Not being huge fans of world hunger, most of us prefer the second type.

Biofuel Network (BFN) is a Canadian initiative that brings together academic and industrial institutions working on economically and environmentally sustainable fuel options; McGill is the proud host of this organization (don’t get excited, McGill was also the proud host of the Petrocultures conference earlier this month). As a PhD student, I am working with Professors Joann Whalen of Natural Resource Sciences, and Jeffrey Bergthorson of Mechanical Engineering, on comparing different alternative jet fuel technologies.

Despite our efforts, there is a fierce political battle currently being fought against biofuels in the U.S. which might affect the Canadian transition to sustainable, renewable fuels.

The EPA proposed to lower the annual volume of 2014 RFS targets. The proposal, moved by the Obama administration, was hailed by the oil industry and interest groups, while it came as shocking news to hundreds of biofuel companies and corn producers.

The story begins in 2005, when the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was established under the Energy Policy Act as the first minimum volume mandate for renewable fuels in the U.S.. Later in 2007, the congress issued RFS-2 as part of the Energy Security and Independence Act, which dramatically increased the mandate and included new types of second-generation biofuels. RFS-2 also necessitated that fuels undergo a life cycle assessment analysis (considering all emissions from raw material extraction to utilization phase) to validate that they produce fewer greenhouse gases overall than conventional fossil fuels.

Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to change the annual targets of renewable fuel blends. If you are ever in a U.S. gas station, for example, you’ll probably notice the ‘E10’ sticker on the gas pump, indicating that the fuel contains 10 per cent ethanol. In November 2012, for the first time in history, the EPA proposed to lower the annual volume of 2014 RFS targets. The proposal, moved by the Obama administration, was hailed by the oil industry and interest groups, while it came as shocking news to hundreds of biofuel companies and corn producers.

Hardcore biofuels opponents such as the American Petroleum Institute (API), which is lobbying to completely repeal the RFS, commented that the EPA proposal was a step forward but not enough. “Ultimately Congress must protect consumers from this outdated and unworkable program,” said Jack Gerard, president of the API, according to the Washington Post.

Can we really afford further discouragement to young researchers planning to work on alternative energies?

On the other hand, biofuels proponents have expressed their shock and disappointment in the EPA proposal. According to Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the EPA proposed trimming the RFS targets for 2014 to “capitulate” the fossil lobby. In anticipation of an annual increase in RFS targets, farmers planted 93 million acres of corn. Now with the trimming threat, more than 500 million bushels (with one bushel equivalent to eight fluid gallons) of demand have been compromised.

The effect of reducing the RFS targets in 2014 (or repealing the targets altogether if pressure from oil lobbies continues) is not limited to the U.S.. In a 2012 action plan issued by the Obama administration aiming to incorporate biofuels in the military fuel supply chain, the U.S. recognizes feedstock grown in Canada as “local.” The geographical proximity of Canadian fertile soils, and the demand encouraged by the RFS-2, provided a real opportunity for Canadian agribusinesses and bioenergy crops. It also served as a motive for Canadian policy makers and environmental groups to push for further governmental support for biofuels development (such as the Biofuel Network, which McGill is an active part of).

My personal concern with the EPA proposal’s implications is twofold. First, the direct consequences will include downsizing of existing ethanol value chains, and consequently people losing their jobs. My second concern is the message this repeal is sending to youth. Can we really afford further discouragement to young researchers planning to work on alternative energies? Is this that the message the ‘progressive’ Obama administration would like to convey to future scientists and entrepreneurs? Don’t bother with biofuels, solar or wind energy. Oil has won. Oil and all his friends.


Mohamed Leila is a PhD student in Natural Resources Sciences, and can be reached at mohamed.laila@mail.mcgill.ca.

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