UK biofuel policy review "not terrible thing," say analysts

(By Massie Santos Ballon) - Any changes should be considered cautiously, say industry observers, after the U.K. announced it is examining its biofuel policies.

“It’s not a terrible thing to change your policy because of what we’ve learned,” said Alex Farrell, associate professor of energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Governments should always consider what new science and technology developments are indicating about their policy.”

Farrell’s comments followed news that United Kingdom Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly had asked the country’s Renewable Fuels Agency to review its biofuels policy.

The U.K.’s review is a direct response to two papers published in the journal Science, which claimed producing biofuels actually generates more greenhouse gases than previously thought.

“The U.K. government takes this issue very seriously,” Kelly said. “We are not prepared to go beyond current U.K. target levels for biofuels until we are satisfied it can be done sustainably.”

Farrell noted that the policy under review was developed when the impacts had not been “well appreciated enough” by both scientists and policymakers. “I think that the review she invited is very appropriate,” he said to

Speculating on the possible effects of the U.K.’s review, he noted that a way to avoid the risks that biofuels production might have higher greenhouse gas emissions would to develop and use biofuels that don’t use arable land.

In response to Kelly’s announcement, Renewable Fuels Agency chairman Ed Gallagher promised to make the review as comprehensive as possible within the time period alloted.

“There are many factors affecting the biofuels market, and we are determined to have these properly covered in our reporting systems, specially those affecting sustainability. This review will enable us to assess indirect effects of biofuels including those on land use change,” he said.

Bill Parton, a senior research scientist at Colorado State University and executive at the Ecological Society of America, told most European countries are evaluating their biofuels policies.

Given new credence by the Science papers, a report by the EU’s Joint Research Council regarding the feasibility of the EU’s plans to set a mandatory 10 percent target use of biofuels in transportation was leaked last month, saying that the EU’s biofuels policy will cost billions, require large tracts of land outside Europe and may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The problem that all these new articles are pointing out is the leakage effect,” he said.

“If you promoted the conversion of agricultural land in another country to compensate for your conversion of corn to ethanol, it negates some of the positive impacts in your country,” he said, describing a recent trip to Mexico where local forests are being cut to grow corn for tortillas because American corn has become too expensive.

Asked to speculate on the implications of the U.K.’s potential findings, Parton was cautious. “It’s certainly something that needs to be looked at, but I’m not sure we should be reversing our positions based on that.”

The biofuels industry has attacked the studies, questioning the work and the findings.

“This is a very important issue that’s been on the fringes of analysis for some time,” Brian Turner, a policy analyst with the International Council on Clean Transportation, told

Not all biofuels are bad, he said, but some of them may cause the indirect land use change discussed in the Science papers.

Though the Science papers had drawn attention to the land use change question, he also noted that the true size of the problem remains unclear. “No one knows how big the problem is,” he said.

European nations aren’t the only ones reviewing their biofuel policies following critical comment (see’s Not everyone applauds new U.S. biofuel research centers and Arthur D. Little questions sustainability of biofuels). Turner also noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently doing its own analysis.

A preliminary draft of the U.K.’s biofuel policy inquiry is expected to be complete by early summer.

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