Thursday, July 27, 2017

Biofuel Research vs. Mandates: House Science Committee Hearing

On Tuesday, July 25, 2017, the Environment and Energy Subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a joint hearing entitled, "Examining Advancements in Biofuels: Balancing Federal Research and Market Innovation." This post is the statement I delivered at the hearing. 


I wish to thank the chairs, ranking members and other members of the Committee and Subcommittees for the opportunity to testify.
The question being addressed today, that of the right balance between fundamental scientific research and government intervention in the marketplace, is crucially important. The focus on biofuels is telling because it involves so many aspects of the question. Indeed, federal biofuels policy provides a morality tale of how things go wrong when the right balance is not maintained.
Before delving into the problems, however, I want to emphasize the importance of maintaining a robust federal investment in research across all fields of study. Funding for science is crucial to maintain American leadership and foster the innovation that leads to high-quality job growth. Federal support for university research is especially crucial for training a new generation of Americans who can fill those jobs.
To summarize my written testimony, here are the key points:
1.   Protecting the climate from a worsening disruption due to excess CO2 in the atmosphere is now a top challenge for energy research and policy.
2.   But, the choice of what technologies to deploy must be left to the marketplace, to industries and entrepreneurs who take risks with private money rather than rely on public funds. Policies to address non-market concerns such as CO2 should therefore be technology neutral and well informed by independent science.
3.   Moreover, the climate challenge should not be an excuse to pick winners through demonstration and deployment programs, subsidies and technology mandates. Federal resources are best leveraged through fundamental R&D and technology-neutral regulation.
4.   Unfortunately, federal biofuels policy has overstepped these bounds. The result is not only wasted tax dollars, but excess costs for consumers and harm to the environment. Biofuels are making CO2 emissions worse and the Renewable Fuel Standard has been damaging in that regard.
5.   Finally, it is time to face up to the fact that the federal push for advanced biofuels has failed. DOE and other agencies have supported bioenergy research, demonstration and deployment for many decades and with billions of dollars. None of the promised cellulosic fuels have become commercially viable, even with subsidies amplified by mandates.
In short, it's time to go back to basics on these issues, to revisit biofuel policies that the science and economics now show to have been ill premised.
I realize that my work contradicts longstanding assumptions about biofuels. Twenty years ago, I accepted the notion that biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel were inherently carbon neutral, meaning that the CO2 emitted when they are burned does not count because it is taken from the air when crops grow. In reality, however, all CO2 emissions increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere regardless of where the carbon came from. The correct question is whether feedstock production speeds up how quickly CO2 is removed from the air. That doesn't happen when productive land is used for biofuels instead of food or forests that sequester carbon.
Last year we published research to evaluate what actually happened as the RFS ramped up. We found that ethanol and biodiesel are not carbon neutral and their use provided no significant direct CO2 reduction. Once indirect impacts are considered, it turns out that biofuels have caused higher CO2 emissions than petroleum fuels.
We do need to address emissions from motor fuel use along with those from the power plants and other sources. The best ways to do that are improving vehicle efficiency, controlling emissions during oil production and offsetting tailpipe CO2 through reforestation.
If biofuels policy were restricted to basic R&D, we would learn some things and help students build science and technology skills. Those are worthwhile outcomes even if the research does not yield successful products. Research is risky by nature; not all of it bears fruit and that's why the portfolio should be diverse. University research is broadly beneficial in that regard. In contrast to when federal funds are used for subsidies and demonstrations, they go a long way when shared with many schools to support students and young scientists.
Thank you again, and I'll look forward to your questions.

For the written testimony, see: 

DeCicco, J.M. 2017. Testimony on Advancements in Biofuels: Balancing Federal Research and Market Innovation. Washington, DC: U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Energy. July 25. [PDF]

Link to a video of the hearing.