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United States: Biofuels balancing act

BARACK Obama's policy on biofuels development shows the president walking a tightrope between demonstrating that his credentials are greener than his predecessor's and keeping the country's powerful maize-growing lobby happy.

An early May draft ruling promises the introduction of tough requirements for cuts in greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by biofuels in the future. But the White House plans to leave blending targets for the use of maize and grain-based ethanol in fuel set by the George Bush government in place for the moment. This will ensure a market for mid-west cereal growers, whose profit margins are under pressure as demand for energy – and, therefore, biofuels – has fallen during the economic crisis.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed the Bush administration's 2007 Renewable Fuels Standard, which rules that a maximum 15bn gallons (USG) of maize and grain-based ethanol can be blended into gasoline by 2015. This figure will remain static until 2022, when 36bn USG of biofuels are to be mixed into gasoline, including 16bn USG of cellulosic biofuels, 4bn USG of other advanced biofuels and 1bn USG of biomass-based diesel.

However, any relief in the corn belt over the reaffirmation of the 2015 target may be short-lived, first because the ethanol industry is already producing close to 15bn USG for blending and, second, because the government has left little room for doubt that it favours a switch to potentially cleaner second-generation biofuels in the long run, as they become commercially viable. Lisa Jackson, administrator of the EPA, said maize-based ethanol was "a bridge to the next generation of biofuels".

Carbon emissions targets for biofuels production – proposed for the first time by the EPA – are designed to speed up the adoption of new biofuels, as the processes used to produce them are expected to be cleaner than those used for first generation ethanol and biodiesel. All renewable fuels produced from new facilities will need to produce at least 20% less GHG emissions than conventional gasoline, while advanced biofuels and biomass-based diesel will be required to produce 50% less and cellulosic biofuels must produce 60% less. The EPA says existing biofuels' emissions are 16% lower than emissions from unblended gasoline, when both direct and indirect emissions are taken into account.

A 60-day comment period on this proposal is under way and it is unlikely to be controversy-free, especially with regard to indirect emissions. These include, for example, the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere as an indirect result of biofuel crops displacing food crops in the US; that leads to food growers elsewhere in the world to cut down forests to grow extra food crops, producing more carbon emissions as a result.

The cellulosic biofuels that will form the most important part of the next generation are derived from the parts of food crops – including maize – that usually go to waste, as well as grasses and other vegetation that grows on marginal land and, consequently, does not put so much pressure on acreage needed for food as first-generation bioethanol.

Environmental organisations broadly welcomed the EPA's move. Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council said: "The EPA has taken an important step towards getting biofuels right." But the US farming and biofuels lobbies were less impressed, arguing that it is impossible to gauge such indirect effects accurately and that including them could unfairly disadvantage maize growers. Industry group The Renewables Fuels Association claims that if estimated indirect effects are excluded from the EPA figures, existing biofuels reduce GHG emissions by 61% compared with gasoline.

But farmers may find that they have an uphill struggle to make the government think again about long-term replacements for first-generation maize-based biofuel. The Obama administration appears prepared to hold its ground on the issue, having already outlined a $1.8bn plan to encourage the development and use of next-generation fuels and to support the design of flex-fuel engines, which can run on much higher blends of biofuels than conventional ones.

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