Another day, another self-defeating energy bill compromise

Stopping climate change won't be easy if everybody who squawks gets a free pass

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 24, 2009 8:20PM (EDT)

The Waxman-Markey energy bill, a.k.a. "American Clean Energy and Security Act," now appears headed for a Friday vote in the House of Representatives -- but only after a few more compromises aimed at getting "Farm Belt" Democrats to fall in line.

The New Republic's Brad Plumer reports that one of the concessions had to do with how the downstream impact of biofuel agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions is calculated.

Waxman also agreed to exempt ethanol from indirect-land-use analysis for five years. In other words, if corn or soy in the United States is grown for fuel and that, in turn, prompts farmers elsewhere to clear a patch of forest and grow their own corn, well, the EPA can't consider that in its assessment of the impacts of ethanol. Joe Romm deems this a minimal concession, since corn-based ethanol is already exempt from this sort of scrutiny, and newer biofuels like cellulosic ethanol -- where this rule could do a lot of damage -- are more than five years away anyway. That's the optimistic take, at least.

How the World Works is in the camp that accepts that the legislative process, in general, rarely results in in what anyone, on any side, would regard as an ideal solution. Compromises are by definition unsatisfying. But it's still distressing, nonetheless, to see the greenhouse gas land-use impacts of ethanol shoved to the side for five years.

As U.C. Berkeley researchers Alex Farrell and Michael O'Hare told the California Air Resources Board in January 2008:

Simply said, ethanol production today using U.S. corn contributes to the conversion of grasslands and rainforest to agriculture, causing very large GHG emissions... Even if only a small fraction of the emissions calculated in this crude way [through land use change] are added to estimates of direct emissions for corn ethanol, total emissions for corn ethanol are higher than for fossil fuels.

Congress may not be ready to listen to science, but Berkeley, which, ironically, has already been attempting to use biodiesel as much as possible in city-owned vehicles, is paying attention. Earlier this month, city officials axed the program.

From the Contra Costa Times:

Berkeley has ended its six-year attempt to save the world by burning biodiesel in its trucks and machinery amid concerns it actually increases greenhouse gases worldwide and exacerbates hunger....

Robert Clear, a member of the city's Community Environmental Advisory Commission. ... said American farmers who are now converting their crops to grow soy beans to meet the biodiesel demand are decreasing the amount of land used to grow food for people and cattle.

That in turn has caused an increase in demand for land to grow food in South America and South East Asia where farmers are burning down virgin forests. The burning of the forests releases carbon into the atmosphere and there is a decrease in the amount of carbon the plants suck out of the atmosphere: two big negatives for global warming.

Saving the world is tricky business, that's for sure.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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