EPA scientists say ‘gaps' exist in biofuels research

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, February 1, 2012 -A team of EPA scientists who reviewed 10 years of biofuels research say significant “gaps” exist in policy makers' understanding of impacts the alternative fuels could have on the environment and public health, potentially widening ethanol's exposure to criticism from the scientific community.

Biofuel industry leaders dispute the assertions made by the research team, made up mostly of scientists from EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment, in a study published by the American Chemical Society last month. The analysis says that while much research has been done on biofuel production, feedstock viability and greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuels, much less study has been done on the environmental and public health impacts of biofuels.

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By contending the published, peer-reviewed literature does not present a full portrait of biofuels and their potential impacts and trade-offs, the analysis implies that there is cause for a lack of confidence in biofuel policies “that aspire to be environmentally, economically, and socially conscious.”

The team, led by Caroline Ridley, an ecologist with EPA's environmental assessment center, analyzed more than 1,600 biofuels-related articles published between 2000 and 2009, plugging each article into one of four categories, and then dividing them among topics within those categories. They also looked at the geographic trends of the research and how often each article connected more than one topic.

Fuel production, feedstock production and greenhouse gas emissions dominated the research with several hundred articles each. Only 80 studies looked at the impact of biofuel production on biodiversity and only 15 attempted to analyze the potential of increased air pollutants from burning biofuels. The team did not attempt to review the specific findings of the literature, but, instead, tried to “ascertain the structure of biofuels research efforts in the past decade in order to stimulate discussion of its utility to a range of stakeholders.”

More than one industry source contacted by Agri-Pulse, however, said that more studies don't mean more insight and understanding. “More important than the quantity of biofuels research is the quality and defensibility of that research,” said Geoff Cooper, vice president for research and analysis with the Renewable Fuels Association. Cooper and other industry officials say that, in fact, the direct environmental and economic impacts of biofuels are relatively well understood, especially when compared to the potential effects of other new fuel sources like tar sands.

The study notes that biofuels are commonly touted as a solution to the problems of dependence on foreign energy sources and climate change, “but their impacts are not confined to these two areas…..Any policy that seeks to significantly alter the form and method of energy exploitation raises the specter of unintended or misjudged consequences.”

It's a point not lost on the industry. “We agree that the indirect ‘ripple' effects of biofuels production are not yet well understood; but the same can be said for the indirect effects of any fuel option,” Cooper said. Furthermore, he said, the authors of the study “don't acknowledge or discuss the notion that there are substantial risks associated with not pursuing expansion of biofuels production capacity.”



Original story printed in February 1, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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