Berkeley Agrofuel Research Hits Temporary Roadblocks

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday March 11, 2009 - 07:20:00 PM

Just as UC Berkeley researchers are poised to lead a national effort to create new fuels from genetically altered plants and microbes, they have encountered obstacles closer to home. 

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) says that any evaluation of the impact of biofuels—or agrofuels as critics prefer to call them—must take into account a full range of impacts that would result from their production, including both direct and indirect impacts. 

And one of UC’s corporate research partners has encountered a raft of financial problems and temporarily closed three of its refineries. 

In addition to the direct greenhouse gas emissions produced by the fuels, the Air Resources Board proposes that evaluation—mandated as part of new state regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gases—should include indirect land use changes that occur when demand for fuel crops drives up the price of those crops, leading farmers to devote more of their available land to plants that can be used for fuel. 

As fuel crops replaced plants grown for human and animal food, rises in the prices of food crops follow, according to this argument, leading invariably to the farming of virgin land and the release of greenhouse gases sequestered in the soil and existing vegetation. 

The proposal by CARB staff to include these indirect effects has raised a storm of protest from researchers who are now ready to seek the rich federal research funds promised by the Obama administration’s Department of Energy (DOE), headed by Nobel laureate Steven Chu, who was pulled for the secretarial slot from his post as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

A letter of protest urging CARB to eliminate rules covering indirect land-use changes has been signed by many of Chu’s former LBNL colleagues, backed by Brazilian sugar cane producers, domestic ethanol producers and companies with a financial interest in ethanol production technologies. 

Several of the signatories come from LBNL’s DOE-funded Joint BioEnergy Institute, including Jay Keasling, its executive director. CARB has scheduled a two-day hearing in Sacramento on the proposals starting at 9 a.m. on Apr. 23. 


Chu’s choice 

In a Mar. 5 statement to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Chu focused on the need to increase funding for energy research, quoting his former LBNL colleague Dan Kammen—who, coincidentally, did not sign the protest letter to CARB. 

Kammen, he said, “has conducted studies showing that while overall investment in research and development is roughly three percent of gross domestic product on average, it is roughly one-tenth of that average in the energy sector.” 

Under the Obama administration, Chu said, “as part of the President’s plan to double federal investment in the basic sciences, the 2010 Budget provides substantially increased support for the Office of Science, building on the $1.6 billion provided in the Recovery Act for the Department of Energy’s basic sciences programs.” 

He singled out the DOE’s three bioenergy research labs at Oak Ridge, Tenn., the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and LBNL. 

“We need to do more transformational research at DOE to bring a range of clean energy technologies to the point where the private sector can pick them up,” he said, listing as his first priority, “gasoline and diesel-like biofuels generated from lumber waste, crop wastes, solid waste, and non-food crops.” 

One of the DOE’s first acts under Chu was a Jan. 30 announcement of a new $25 million Biomass Research and development Initiative, the first move in a new $1.6 billion program. 

The crops-into-fuel agenda received another powerful boost this week when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday that he wanted to move quickly to boost the amount of ethanol in domestic gasoline supplies. Ethanol, derived largely from corn in the United States, is currently the major source of synthetic fuels which are being advanced as alternatives to foreign oil.  

Both the President and Vilsack come from grain belt states, Obama from Illinois and Vilsack from Iowa. Obama was a U.S. Senator from Illinois while LBNL and the University of Illinois were successfully negotiating to win the $500 million research program funded by British oil giant BP that has produced the LBN-led Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a consortium that includes UCB and the University of Illinois. 

EBI is researching a range of fuel sources, with the primary focus on producing non-ethanol fuels from plant fibers. Other projects including creation of microbes to harvest oil from Canadian tar sands, a potential source of fuel in which BP has a significant interest. 


Partner’s woes 

While the EBI is focusing on non-ethanol fuels, the DOE-funded Joint BioEnergy Institute, or JBEI, is one of the three energy programs cited by Chu in his Senate address, and it is currently partnering on a pilot plant to derive ethanol from plant fibers rather than the sugars used in conventional ethanol distillation. 

Ethanol, popularly known as “white lightning” or “corn licker,” has been derived from plant sugars present in the fluids in corn and cane, but the JBEI project focuses on creation of organic chemicals designed to convert the hard-to-digest sugars in plant fibers. 

JBEI has partnered with Pacific Ethanol, a politically connected but financially troubled firm headed by former California Secretary of State and legislator Bill Jones. 

The DOE has funded $24.3 million for an Oregon demonstration plant to transform cellulose into ethanol using patented technology from a Danish company, BioGasohol ApS. 

But Pacific Ethanol has been hit by a succession of crises, and has closed—at least for moment—two 60-million-gallon-a-year plants in Stockton, CA, and Burley, ID, and a 40-million-gallon plant in Madera. The company continues to operate a refinery in Boardman, OR. It also owns a minority interest in a still-operating plant in Colorado. 

The company was also forced to renegotiate agreements with its lenders, announced Feb. 27, after it proved unable to meet repayment obligations. The new agreements run through March 31, after which the company could be default unless new financing can be arranged. 

While the company’s stock has traded for as much as $42 in 2006, in recent weeks, they hit a record low of 20 cents, but had risen to 28 cents by Wednesday morning. 


Chu’s aides  

The highly political nature of selling the administration’s energy agenda can be discerned from Chu’s picks to run the DOE’s public relations arm, announced Feb 26. All four choices come to the department directly from the Obama presidential campaign staff. 

Dan Leistikow, the agency’s new Director of Public Affairs, was, according to the official announcement of his appointment, “Regional Communications Director for the industrial battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan during the general election, after having served as a state communications director for primary contests in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Montana.” 

Lestikow’s deputy director, Tom Reynolds, had served as the campaign’s Deputy Communications Director in the key battleground state of Ohio. 

Press Secretary Stephanie Mueller had been the campaign’s Colorado Communications Director, and her deputy, Tiffany Edwards, was the campaign’s Deputy Press Secretary of Constituency Outreach..