2013 was a year of steady progress for the Biodiesel Industry and its efforts to improve and define biodiesel’s growing contribution to a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment. Progress both in the expansion of production volumes and in the growing works of published scientific literature quantifying the positive benefits of biodiesel are proving that it is a wise investment for NBB to take an active role in defining biodiesel’s sustainability attributes.
This year, the University of Idaho and USDA published a peer-reviewed paper updating the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions of biodiesel. Factoring in recent data collected by NBB, the United Soybean Board, USDA, and other sources, researchers confirmed that biodiesel reduces GHGs by 85 percent compared to average 2005 petroleum diesel. Their work also suggests improvements to the method used by US EPA for quantifying the international indirect emissions from US biodiesel policy. While EPA qualified biodiesel as meeting the 50 percent GHG threshold defining biomass-based diesel and advanced biofuel, the specific GHG scores assigned to biodiesel produced from first-use vegetable oils grossly underestimate the true carbon reduction value. The USDA and the University of Idaho improve those scores by suggesting that soybean oil-based biodiesel reduces GHGs by 76.4 percent even after applying penalties for international indirect land use change (ILUC).
With the RFS operating as intended, the debate over biodiesel’s exact GHG reduction score according to EPA might seem academic. However, controversy still brews over biodiesel’s role in national, state, and international policy. With opponent groups dedicated to dismantling the RFS, biodiesel’s role as a successful advanced biofuel becomes increasingly important for the program. The European Union continues to struggle with the concept of indirect land use change. While the European models lack the sophistication of US models and do not adequately quantify the GHG benefits of US biodiesel, headlines from across the pond can stain our reputation and potentially threaten European market access for US products.
The most immediate opportunity to improve market economics for biodiesel through GHG lifecycle analysis is through the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). The LCFS ranks fuel alternatives so they compete in the market according to their assigned GHG scores. GHG reduction goals in the LCFS increase over time, and will likely increase the volume of biodiesel sold in California in order to reduce the GHG emissions of diesel transportation fuel. California still uses outdated analysis for assigning indirect land use change scores to US biodiesel. Correcting these scores will make biodiesel more competitive in the LCFS and produce returns for NBB members. NBB has supported academic research at Purdue University to improve the GTAP (Global Trade Analysis Project) model used by California to quantify indirect land use change. The model improvements implemented to date reduce the predicted land use change and more accurately predict the types of land that may change with net results equating to significantly lower GHG emissions. Work must continue in FY14 to further improve model reliability and adoption of the best models for official policy implementation.
While NBB’s sustainability programs place heavy emphasis on scientific evaluation, the human factor is equally important when it comes to the perception of our industry among thought leaders. Policies like the LCFS are driven by politically powerful environmental activist groups. Coincidentally, many of these environmental activists hold negative views of production agriculture. It was these negative views and biased perception that allowed regulators to accept the initially high estimates of indirect land use change (ILUC) before they were thoroughly and scientifically vetted. An important component to acceptance of better ILUC science and acceptance of agricultural products into their markets is educating thought leaders on the true sustainability of modern agriculture. To this end, NBB is engaged in a successful outreach effort that seek to introduce environmental activists to actual biodiesel producers and actual farmers. First-hand experience paired with the latest quantified evidence is proving to be a successful strategy for assuring thought leaders that biodiesel provides multiple environmental benefits.