In the middle of his much-publicized bus tour into the nation’s agricultural heartland on Tuesday, President Obama announced a new initiative to kickstart the U.S. biofuel industry, which among other things would create more jobs for rural communities in the biofuel production chain. The announcement is the latest in a closely timed-series of three, all related to federal biofuel policies that would benefit rural economies.
The stage was set on July 26 with the administration’s expansion of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which reserves acreage for growing non-food crops that produce liquid biofuels. One example is the weedy plant camelina, which can produce a drop-in replacement for aviation fuel.
The expanded program is expected to create more than 3400 jobs in agriculture, biofuel refineries and related sectors such as transportation.
Just two weeks later, on August 10, President Obama dropped the other shoe. The administration released a new update for a 2005 study of biofuel feedstock potential in the U.S. known as the Billion-Ton Study. The Billion-Ton update basically confirms the findings of the 2005 study while outlining sustainable strategies that could - or should - enable biofuel production to increase dramatically without competing with food crops.
According to the Billion-Ton update, the nation’s current annual 473 million dry tons of biomass could be increased to 1.1 billion by 2030. That could potentially produce enough biofuel to replace about 30 percent of current U.S. petroleum consumption.
Finally we get to the somewhat anatomically puzzling third shoe, the August 16 announcement just three days after the Ames straw poll.
The administration announced that the U.S. Navy will join the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy in a joint initiative with private-sector partners to invest up to $510 million in biofuel production over the next three years.
The ventures will focus on biofuels that can be used as drop-in replacements for aviation and marine fuels. The Navy and Air Force are already testing a camelina biofuel blend on fighter jets, and the Navy is also testing an algae-based biofuel on helicopters.
So far the tests are going as planned, but at the present time the biofuel industry is churning out barely enough product to maintain a consistent test schedule for some new biofuels, let alone sustain large-scale government or commercial demand.
The administration’s new investment initiative is designed to give biofuel production a boost by encouraging the building of more production plants. It’s part of a broader effort to aid development of rural communities.
This broader initiative, organized by the White House Rural Council, encompasses expanded broadband access, education, health care, and renewable energy. The administration said that the initiatives are designed to “help ensure that America’s rural communities are repopulating, self-sustaining, and thriving economically.”
The administration’s biofuels initiative still leaves some key long term biofuel sustainability questions unanswered, however.
Despite assurances from the Billion-Ton Update, the administration’s initiative still sets up a significant potential for building a competitive channel of demand with demand for food crops.
This could exacerbate an already dicey situation as climate change wreaks extreme weather conditions, which causes another wrinkle in food production.
Expanding the nation’s farmed land is another issue to consider, involving loss of natural habitat, increased potential for soil erosion, competition for water, and more use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
In addition, the technology to create biofuels may simply not improve at a rate fast enough to satisfy the planned demand compared to developments in other kinds of alternative energy.
Emerging competition from non-liquid alternative fuels such as fuel cells or electricity combined with advanced battery technology, adds an element of risk to large-scale investment in biorefineries.
All of these issues are solvable to one degree or another, and none are deal breakers, but while one would like to assume that President Obama’s approach will be far more planned than the previous administration’s haphazard pursuit of ethanol (which uses corn,) the transition to a full scale biofuel economy will not be an easy one.