Mounting Criticism Targets Biofuel Programs

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:53:00 AM

While UC Berkeley is betting big on biofuels—a half-billion-dollar wager funded by British oil giant BP—the notion of fueling cars with crops is drawing international fire. 

Organizations like Oxfam, the United Nations and even the World Bank are questioning the rush to turn plants on Third World lands, increasingly hacked out of threatened forests, to slake the First World’s thirst for transportation fuels.  

Oil companies and agrochemical giants like Monsanto are partnering with universities across the country to develop patented processes and proprietary patented crops to keep the wheels of the world’s planes, trains and automobiles rolling with fuels they control from plantation to pump. 

While UC Berkeley scientist Chris Somerville—head of the BP-bankrolled Energy Biosciences Institute—has insisted the program is about making the U.S. energy independent from nonfood crops grown on marginal existing farmlands east of the Mississippi, the BP scientist in charge of the program says the oil company is interested in “the green parts” of the entire globe. 

Though Berkeley scientists say their goal is production of new forms of synthetic fuels similar to gasoline and other petroleum-derived fuels, the first commercial program to arise from Berkeley’s efforts will be a plant designed to produce ethanol, a fuel considerably less energy efficient than gasoline. 

The program that will be building a plant in Broadman, Ore., to turn wood chips and the non-edible parts of food plants into fuel is a partnership of Berkeley’s second biofuel program, the Joint Bioenergy Institute, and Pacific Ethanol, a Fresno-based firm headed by former California Secretary of State and legislator Bill Jones. 

The Department of Energy is bankrolling half the costs of the plant, with the other $24.3 million coming from Pacific Ethanol and a second company, BioGasol ApS, which is based at the Technical University of Denmark in suburban Copenhagen, where it developed the technology to be used in the plant. 

Pacific Ethanol has been hard hit by the stock market, where it has fallen from an all-time high of $32 a share two years ago to 85 cents a share Wednesday morning. Earlier this year the firm lost a major investor when software tycoon Bill Gates dumped his stock in the company. 

Gates had been a major funder of another program headed by JBEI Executive Director Jay Keasling—the efforts by Amyris Technologies, a private company Keasling founded, to harness microbes as miniature factories to produce a key anti-malarial drug at a fraction of the cost of traditional factory methods. 

Both Keasling and Somerville have been entrepreneurs in the patented microbe business, though Somerville has said he will give up his corporate interests. 

Somerville’s previous work as an academic-cum-entrepreneur has produced patented soybeans, created through genetic modification, for agribusiness giant Monsanto, which produces both plants and pesticides as well as a host of other chemicals and products. 


Scathing studies 

While the professed goal of Berkeley researchers is to create more efficient fuels than ethanol, it is that fuel—otherwise known as “white lighting,” “moonshine” and corn liquor—which is the main form of so-called “green energy” now in production. 

And the increasing demand for ethanol, spurred by mandates from state and national governments, has played a central role in the rapid increase of food prices before the recent stock market crash that triggered food riots in several cities across the globe. 

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently issued a major report that warned of the dangers posed by current biofuel policies. 

“There are many concerns and challenges to be overcome if biofuels are to contribute positively to an improved environment as well as to agricultural and rural development,” warned FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in the report’s foreword. He also warned that too-hasty adoption of restrictions could “limit opportunities for sustainable agricultural development that could help the poor.” 

Current policies, the FAO concluded, were driving 30 million people worldwide deeper into poverty and hunger. 

But there is no doubt that large swathes of virgin forests—home to the world’s richest biodiversity—are being slashed and burned to make way for fuel crop plantations. 

Oxfam International, one of the world’s most respected NGOs and devoted to feeding the world’s malnourished, issued a scathing 58-page briefing paper in June, which declared that “rich countries’ biofuel policies currently offer neither a safe nor an effective means to tackle climate change.” 

Oxfam cited an analysis published in Science, the leading science journal in the U.S., which “calculates that the emissions from global land-use change due to the US corn-ethanol programme will take 167 years to pay back.” 

Those policies include Bush administration rules changes that allow farmers to plant fuel crops on environmentally sensitive land that had been held in a federal reserve program that compensated farmers for banking the land to prevent erosion of more valuable farmland. 

Oxfam called on developing nations to give priority to biofuel programs  

that “provide clean renewable energy sources to poor men and women in rural areas,” adding that “these are unlikely to be ethanol or biodiesel projects.” 

Those countries should also carry out their obligations “to protect the right to food, to ensure decent work and to ensure that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent [CQ] of affected communities is obtained before biofuel projects commence.” 

Oxfam also called for programs that focus on small farmers, not the huge agricultural plantations that often characterize Third World corporate agriculture. 

Brazil alone recorded the loss of 300 square miles of Amazon rain forest in August, an increase of 228 square acres over the previous year. Large agricultural plantation owners were cited as the main culprits. 

Grist magazine reported that the rise in deforestation was produced in large part by the soaring price of soybeans. At one of his pre-EBI startups, Somerville developed patented soybeans for Monsanto, a major source of soy seed for much of Latin America. 

One major backer of the Latin American agrofuel industry is the Inter-American Development Bank, which has been making extensive agrofuel sector loans. Bank president Luis Alberto Moreno is a co-founder, with U.S. presidential brother Jeb Bush and former Brazilian agricultural ministry executive Roberto Rodrigues, of the Inter-American Etha-nol Commission, created to boost the industry throughout the region—a fact that drew the attention of Friends of the Earth in a critical report issued in April on the bank’s agrofuels strategy. 

Other critical studies declaring that extreme caution is needed have come from the World Bank and, most recently, from the International Risk Governance Council, a Swiss-based NGO. 

An earlier FAO report, released in April, concluded that “Rapid increases in the large-scale production of liquid biofuels in developing countries could exacerbate the marginalization of women in rural areas, threatening their livelihoods” 

Even Somerville has become more cautious in his public statements, noting in a Sept. 15 interview with the university’s public relations department that “Our goal is truly to understand it. I think that’s actually more valuable than making any specific discovery—is to understand all of the pieces as a whole. There’s no other organization that’s actually doing that right now.” 

That statement is a long way from earlier declarations asserting the EBI’s goal was to create energy independence for the nation—in essence, an issue of national security. 

The reports are available online: The FAO report on agrofuel impacts on women is at http://www.fao.org/Newsroom/en/news/2008/1000830/index.html 

The FAO’s broader review of agrofuel subsidies and policies released last week may be found at http://www.fao.org/ docrep/011/i0100e/i0100e00.htm 

The Oxfam report, “Another Inconvenient Truth,” is at http://www.oxfam. org.uk/resources/policy/climate_change/downloads/bp114_inconvenient_truth.