John DeCicco: The LCA Is the Wrong Way to Look at Biofuels & CO2

10.23.17 | Podcast | By:

Recently I interviewed John DeCicco, Research Professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, about a study he and his team completed last year on the Carbon Balance Effects of U.S. Biofuel Production and Use. In August 2017, a team lead by Ford published a commentary on that study which prompted a reply from Professor DeCicco. That prompted me to ask both the Professor and a representative from the Ford team to discuss the study and commentary in a Q&A session for Future Fuels Outlook service clients. Professor DeCicco accepted, but Ford declined.

Instead, I did a podcast with the Professor to discuss a range of issues concerning not only the study and commentary and how he sees the issues, but lifecycle analysis (LCA) generally, where next generation biofuels fits in, what the future of biofuels will likely be as he sees it, and what kind of transport policy we should really be thinking about globally. Highlights from the discussion follow below. You can listen or download the podcast below or listen to it in ITunes

On the Study and Its Key Findings:

“We honed in on this key assumption regarding the balance between the input and output as I like to put it. Again, input is CO2 coming from the atmosphere into the landscape, into cropland as it grows crops, and then output is, of course, the emissions from the tailpipe and any processing emissions at refineries or along the way. So that was really the premise: let’s just take a clean sheet of paper, look at what happened during this period where we had a very rapid expansion of biofuel production and use in the United States [under the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) program]. What we found was that the input and output were not in balance. We found when we looked at cropland data and we used standard U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, crop harvest data, that there wasn’t enough gain in the amount of carbon being taken up by the crops to fully balance out the CO2 emitted when the biofuels are burned. In the case of ethanol, there’s also CO2 emitted when the ethanol is fermented.”

On to the Renewable Fuels Association’s (RFA’s) Comments on the Study, Especially that the Study Is Not Legitimate Because It Was Funded by the American Petroleum Institute (API):

“I will fess up to being skeptical of the claims of biofuels for many years, but I make that point in part to then address this other allegation by the Renewable Fuels Association that my work, because it’s funded by the American Petroleum Institute, is not legitimate, that it’s been distorted or something — distorted science for the sake of making a point. Well, my skepticism about biofuels long predates my accepting funding from API. And when we put this contract together, we were very careful. We worked with university lawyers to make sure that the funder had no undue influence on the results, that we were free to come up with what we came up with through our analysis. As I said, the study, while new, builds on several years of critical work that I had published that were increasingly critical about biofuels and scrutinizing this assumption of carbon neutrality, the input versus output balance question. So before the API funding, that study was basically done without any specific external funding, and that was the basis for the analysis.”

On “Swimming Upstream” in the Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) Community:

“The point I’m making here is that yes, the lifecycle community has really grown up. As you said, it’s become a cottage industry. A lot of people have latched onto that. In fact, policymakers have latched onto that. It’s written into the RFS language by Congress. California has written a lifecycle analysis into the Low Carbon Fuels Standard. It’s the basis for that. Other jurisdictions that are implementing renewable fuel policies all have some form of lifecycle analysis as part of that policy. What happened though, is it’s a case where policymakers latched onto this, I think with good intentions. The lifecycle provisions put into the RFS, which were inserted when the RFS was expanded by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, or EISA, as we like to call it, were advocated by green groups.

 

A consensus grew up around this paradigm even before the paradigm had actually been validated with field data, with real, say, fundamental empirical scientific work. It was all done on the basis of modeling. So it’s in many ways a tragic situation because lots of well-intended people have embraced this paradigm. At a certain simple level, it sounds good, it seems to make sense, even though in my view, it’s really the wrong way to analyze the situation. And as I said, when I consulted with and talked to lots of structural ecologists, they have no problems with my work. It passed peer review and the Journal of Climatic Change, which is a premier journal on the subject. What we have here is a situation of two different scientific communities that don’t talk to each other that much.”

On the Ford Commentary of the Original Study:

“But you have to bring it all back to the real world, not just the world that you model. If you compare those two things, [gasoline and ethanol], there’s something wrong with the story. They say well cropland is not part of the gasoline lifecycle, so we’re not looking at it when we analyze petroleum gasoline, but cropland is part of the biofuel lifecycle, so we count the CO2 from photosynthesis when crops are grown. Well, in the real world, the cropland is there whether or not you’re making biofuels. That’s the rub. That’s where my analysis departs…The world always has cropland in it and that cropland is always removing CO2 from the atmosphere whether or not the harvest is being used for fuel. So that is really the crux of the issue. There’s basically a conceptual disagreement about how to look at the world.”

On How Next Generation Biofuels, Like Cellulosic Ethanol, Would Fare:

“That being said, if we did the kind of analysis that I feel is the correct analysis as I’ve done, what I have been calling ABC, annual basis carbon accounting, which means you’re looking at the actual carbon a year at a time, some of these cellulosic tools would probably come out okay. They would not come out as well as the computer models, the lifecycle models they come out, but they would be potentially beneficial. If you look at this from an economic point of view, cost benefit analysis, the cost benefit equation does not look very good. The bottom line is that these cellulosic fuels are likely to remain for the reasonably foreseeable future a very economically poor way to address CO2 emissions. I say the outlook for these cellulosic fuels is not very optimistic. Again, I’m not denying that they couldn’t be beneficial, but we simply don’t even have anywhere near the scale of real-world experience to actually measure how beneficial they turn out to be and as I said, if we measured correctly, they’re not going to look as wonderful as they’ve looked on paper.”

If Not Biofuels, Then What to Reduce Transport CO2?:

“My analysis actually implies that instead of trying to make biofuels, we should be doing a lot more forest protection, regrowing forests, grassland protection, building up carbon stocks in the atmosphere on land and protecting the atmosphere by building up carbon stock from land rather than taking that land, increasing the pressure on it by putting fuel demands on top of food demands, which ends up releasing carbon from the land as opposed to building it. In short, we should be using what good land we have for a lot more reforestation rather than converting it to biofuel production…

 

…I’m obviously very critical of biofuels from the environmental perspective. I know I should never say never, okay? I’m not saying there never will be a role for biofuels as part of the climate solution. What I am saying is that for that to happen, we first better get the modeling analysis right. We’ve got it badly wrong, so there’s a lot of work to do there. When it’s done right, the scale and scope is going to look a lot less ambitious than what people thought it was based on the lifecycle model that was part of the premise for the expansion of EISA. It’s really a question of getting realistic about the extent and timing for biofuel use. The real missing link here goes back to what I said: we need to reforest.”

 

Note: I mentioned in the context of the discussion about the Professor’s collaboration with Tim Searchinger that the two had completed a paper. I want to clarify that it wasn’t a paper, but a policy statement issued in 2002 and that can be accessed here.