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Stephanie Cohen

New Atlantis blogger Stephanie Cohen is a journalist who covers energy and environmental issues for a wide range of print and online publications. She can be reached at scohen@thenewatlantis.com.
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Power Politics

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

SAFE reports on second-generation biofuels 

A report from Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), “The Truth About Biofuels,” argues against reliance on liquid biofuels, concluding that 1) “there are drawbacks as well as advantages” to liquid fuels, 2) the limitations of corn-based ethanol have become clearer, and 3) second-generation biofuels (cellulosic ethanol) also have some of the same limitations. The report’s take on corn-based ethanol:

It is easy to understand the appeal of corn ethanol. At first glance, it appears to be everything that oil is not. It is renewable. It is domestically produced. It is clean (or cleaner, at least). But it has become increasingly clear to even casual observers that, like perpetual motion, what looks good on the surface may in fact be just a mirage.

The report summarizes all of the news and events that have led to a backlash against corn-based ethanol. On the topic of second-generation biofuels, the report — not surprisingly — finds that it, too, is seriously flawed:

Cellulosic ethanol...has distinct advantages over corn ethanol, but it is not perfect. The end product of cellulosic production is chemically identical to corn-based ethanol, meaning that it also has a lower energy concentration than traditional gasoline, and that it faces the same infrastructure challenges. In addition, some of the crops suitable for 2nd generation biofuels can become invasive species if introduced to certain regions. For example, jatropha is not a problem in its native India, but it can be an invasive weed in other areas, hindering agriculture later.

Maybe third-generation biofuels — “commercially viable liquid biofuels that combine the low cost of cellulosic feedstock with an output that can be transported and distributed using current pipelines and tanks, and burned in conventional engines” — are the answer?

Not likely, the report says. “All of these investments are designed to test fuel technologies that appear successful at the lab scale but have unanswered questions about cost and scalability for commercial use. It appears increasingly likely that some strong alternatives to cellulosic ethanol may appear on the market well before ethanol production reaches the scale of requiring substantial new infrastructure and engine modification investments.”

If biofuels and “all liquid fuels” are out, what’s in? “The electrification of the transportation system — with advanced biofuels providing critical bridging technology — may be the true path to energy security.”

SAFE’s advisory board includes lots of former senior White House staff and agency officials from the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations. Roger Ballentine (chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force and deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton), Rand Beers (senior director for combating terrorism for President George H. W. Bush), F. Henry Habicht II (deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and assistant attorney general at Department of Justice under the Reagan administration). The group says its aim is to reduce America’s dependence on oil and supports ending a federal moratorium on oil and natural gas production in the Outer Continental Shelf.

The group spent $380,000 lobbying in 2007 and so far has spent $80,000 in 2008, according to OpenSecrets.org. The website Muckety.com has a “relationship” map that shows the co-chairs of SAFE. Clicking on each name brings up a map of their professional and corporate connections.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 1:32 pm
File As: Biofuels