Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

Getting fuel from green plants seems like a great idea. But draft rules issued this past week by the Environmental Protection Agency underscore that it's not so easy to produce biofuels that are good from the standpoint of global warming.

NPR's Richard Harris explains.

RICHARD HARRIS: Green plants take carbon dioxide out of the air, and when you burn them, the carbon dioxide just goes back where it came from. So, in theory, at least, biofuels dont add any extra carbon to the atmosphere. But an industry based on this idea turns out to be not so green. For one thing, when the ethanol industry took off, so did the price of their main raw material -corn. So, farmers in places like Brazil planted corn on their pasturelands to cash in.

Professor BRUCE BABCOCK (Iowa State University): Where is Brazil going to get more pasture? Well, by converting Amazon forest and savannah.

HARRIS: Thats Bruce Babcock from Iowa State University laying out the bad news scenario at a congressional hearing last week, where the draft rules were discussed.

Prof. BABCOCK: Thus the argument goes, any increase in Brazilian cropland leads to deforestation and a loss of savannah.

HARRIS: And deforestation puts huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency attempted to factor global deforestation into its regulations. It found that in general, deforestation driven by high corn prices actually makes biofuels worse from the standpoint of climate change. And the law says biofuels must do more good than harm, globally and domestically.

But Babcock, along with the biofuels industry, is arguing that the effect of biofuels on forests around the world is being exaggerated. And the industry is actually better for the climate than the EPA analysis suggests. He acknowledges that there's been a lot of deforestation in Brazil.

Prof. BABCOCK: But there's scant evidence that increased production of crops has been the primary culprit in the loss of Amazon forest. Certainly cattle and pasture have both increased in the Amazon since 1996. But was that due to the 36 percent increase in Brazilian cropland, or to the 30 percent increase in the cattle herd in Brazil?

HARRIS: Given that uncertainty, the biofuels industry is trying to get the EPA to back down from its conclusions about deforestation and biofuels. If they dont back down, it could harm the existing industry, at least thats the worry expressed by Congressman Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat.

Representative EARL POMEROY (Democrat, North Dakota): I mean, I think it's terribly important, this investment made in good faith not be just relegated to, you know, rusting hulks of steel on the prairie - that we do indeed accommodate their production.

HARRIS: But the EPA intends to let existing ethanol plants keep operating, regardless of the climate impact. Overall the fate of the industry is uncertain. Thats partly because the economics have turned sour. But it's also because all the science have led the EPA to draft the tough rules that it has.

Professor DAN KAMMEN (University of California Berkeley): But I think it says for the industry, though, is that you need to innovate. And there are pathways that look very much more attractive than others.

HARRIS: Dan Kammen is at the University of California Berkeley. He says, for starters, it might make sense to rethink the best way to get energy out of green plants. A study in the latest Science magazine, for instance, suggests that liquid fuels like ethanol aren't the best way to go. Better to burn the material to make electricity.

Prof. KAMMEN: Taking a biofuel and making electricity from it can be done relatively efficiently. And then the benefit, of course, is that if your car is running on electricity, you use an electric motor to drive the wheels. And that's very efficient.

HARRIS: But of course there are practical and economic reasons that we won't all be riding around in electric cars anytime soon.

Richard Harris, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.