How Trump's Cuts to Biofuels Research Would Hurt the Planet and Our Economy

Biofuels can reduce emissions, benefit American corporations, and create jobs. But slashing the budget of the Bioenergy Technologies Office effectively eliminates those possibilities.
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Biofuels can reduce emissions, benefit American corporations, and create jobs. But slashing the budget of the Bioenergy Technologies Office effectively eliminates those possibilities.

Michigan State University's biofuel research plots. 

With each new report that describes the ballooning effects of human-caused climate change it becomes harder to deny that we urgently need to decarbonize our society. This task is daunting, but achievable. However, as Congress and the Trump administration take deliberate steps to slow our transition to renewable, non-fossil fuel energy, this task is about to become much more difficult. In its budget request for 2018, the Trump administration has proposed a crippling 70 percent cut to the Department of Energy's $2 billion budget for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. Congressional appropriators in the House of Representatives have proposed a slightly less crippling 53 percent cut.

These cuts would scale back federal efforts to foster the development of wind and solar energy, in line with President Donald Trump's campaign promise to bring back coal industry jobs. This would slow, but not stop our transition to wind and solar power—because their cost is at last low enough to out-compete fossil fuel energy in many states. But another type of renewable energy—one that is absolutely essential to ending our reliance on fossil fuels—is much more vulnerable to budget cuts: biofuels. The Trump administration's proposed cuts to biofuels research and development would stifle the country's participation in a nascent industry that's crucial to the future of our planet.

Even if we all switched to driving Teslas tomorrow, liquid fuels would still be necessary to power our planes, ships, and trucks—modes of transport that aren't going electric any time soon. To completely end our need to draw oil from the ground and burn it, we must develop renewable, low-carbon, and economically competitive alternatives to diesel and jet fuel. The Department of Energy plays a critical role in this, by supporting the development of the technology and infrastructure needed to build a truly green biofuels industry. Much of that support comes from the department's Bioenergy Technologies Office. The Trump administration proposes to cut the office's budget by 75 percent.

The Bioenergy Technologies Office works with scientists, national labs, and industry to tackle the main technical challenges that must be overcome before low-carbon biofuels become economically competitive enough to displace fossil fuels. These technical challenges span a range of scientific fields, but, ultimately, they come down to a math problem. Biofuels emit carbon dioxide when we burn them, but the crops they're derived from take carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere as they grow. In principle, that means biofuels don't add to our net carbon dioxide emissions. But, in practice, the net carbon budget depends on which crops we grow, and how they're harvested and processed. When you account for these factors, corn ethanol—currently the most widely produced biofuel in the United States—generates about 43 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline. That's an improvement, but it's not nearly enough. The goal of biofuels research is to make the math work in a way that results in a genuinely low-carbon energy source.

This Bioenergy Technologies Office helps solve this equation by supporting research on which bioenergy crops to grow and how to grow them; technologies designed to convert biomass to fuels and other products; and analysis methods for determining how well the production processes achieve their economic and environmental goals. For example, the Bioenergy Technologies Office has helped a company develop a process for making commercial airliner biofuel (now being tested by Boeing), and it sponsored research by public university scientists investigating how a bioenergy crop can help prevent water contamination from fertilizer runoff.

The Trump administration's proposal to gut the Bioenergy Technologies Office comes at a time when federal leadership is more crucial than ever. There is now enough evidence to conclude that we really will be able to make the carbon math work out, and that an environmentally sustainable, low-carbon biofuels industry is genuinely feasible. In a recently published review of the science of biofuels, a team of scientists, led by Philip Robertson at Michigan State University, concluded that "with the proper safeguards, the likelihood of environmental payoff appears high." Even though many outstanding research questions remain unanswered, we now have the outline sketches of what a successful, low-carbon biofuels industry should look like.

Robertson and his colleagues lay out several broad findings from recent decades of research. One key finding is that we can achieve truly significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by switching from gasoline to biofuels—but just how much of those reductions we realize depends on what crops we plant and where we plant them. "We now know that there are no 'silver bullet' crops that thrive under most growing conditions, even within a given region," the researchers write. A sustainable biofuels industry will mean that farmers must make very localized decisions, growing switchgrass on one plot of land and poplars on another.

A second finding is that, when done right, bioenergy crops placed near food crops can improve the surrounding ecosystems by boosting the diversity of insects. A broader range of insects means that pests are suppressed and pollination is increased, which leads to better food crop yields.

One of the most important findings is that many bioenergy crops can be effectively grown on so-called marginal lands not suited for food crops. This addresses a long-standing worry that a switch to biofuels would mean less acreage devoted to growing food—and higher food prices. It's now clear that the U.S. could boost biofuels production without threatening the food supply.

When asked about climate change, GOP politicians routinely insist that any actions we take shouldn't compromise our economic growth. In response to a question about climate change at his Senate confirmation hearing, Trump's secretary of energy, Rick Perry, replied that "the question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs." And yet Perry is willing to acquiesce to massive budget cuts to a program that will be critical for the American economy in a post-fossil fuel future. The Department of Energy's budget request—the same document calling for a 70 percent cut to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs—touts a study showing that the $12 billion invested by the agency in this research over the years has yielded "an estimated net economic benefit to the United States of more than $230 billion."

Next-generation biofuels could, unlike corn ethanol, completely replace petroleum-based fuels in the gas tanks of existing cars, trucks, and planes. This is exactly the sort of solution that GOP politicians claim they are searching for: a way to fight climate change without completely disrupting our existing transportation infrastructure. We have an opportunity to foster a new industry that will save the planet, benefit American companies, and create American jobs. The Trump administration and its allies in Congress are choosing not to take it.