The Fine Print And Critical Thinking Do Matter

t rudnicki

By Tim Rudnicki, Esq.

Let’s not confuse testing models with the real issues of the day, namely, the adverse effects of oil, a finite fossil fuel.  By the time you read this piece, several days will have passed since the study on biofuels from crop residue was released and many other commentators have written about their points of view that challenge the science behind some questionable assumptions in the study.  The operative word in all of this is science.  Science is important in the day-to-day production of biofuels just as science is important in other aspects of life.  Science is especially important when dealing with long-term energy and climate issues that will have a profound effect on humanity and the rest of the planet far into the future.

In this short piece, I attempt to unpack a few complicated issues with you and shift the spotlight to where I think it can do the most collective good.

We often hear the word “science” bandied about.  What is science?  Science, as defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is: “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.”  This rich definition suggests science is rather substantive.  How can we tell if an investigation or report uses the scientific method?

If, for example, I merely attempt to describe how biofuels are made, is that science?  Probably most of us would conclude the description of the biological process for making biofuels is not in and of itself science.  The reasoning behind that conclusion is simple: we are missing the other four essential elements of the definition which are observation, identification, experimental investigation (test, controlled conditions, demonstrate a known truth, examine the validity of a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy of something previously untried) and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.  In short, we can determine whether an investigation or report is credible science by testing it against apolitical elements.

Interestingly, despite sound science that passes all the tests to be science, Greenwire news service from April 28, 2014, reports “polls show that significant swaths of the American public distrust climate science, even though scientists have been warning about the risks of climate change for several decades.”  Science is not about winning a popularity contest.  Remember, at one time, contrary to scientific findings, people believed the sun revolved around the earth.  So what can possibly explain the distrust some people have of climate science?  Could it be due to the way some scientists are vilified or how some critics cloud science with uncertainty?  More importantly, if we were to collectively embrace the climate science, as a people, state, nation and global community, we would be racing to further reduce our use of high carbon fuels such as oil.  We would be racing to find ways to be even more fuel efficient and indeed use a higher percentage of renewable biofuels since these fuels are derived from plant ingredients that work with the cyclical natural systems to absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.

Now for some cloudiness.  Without going too deep into the merits, or soundness of science, behind the crop residue study done by the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, University of Nebraska, it seems this study gives critics of biofuels and proponents of oil just what they wanted.  With media attention focused on one part of a study that relies on 39 other studies instead of in the field measurements, it can create confusion and cloud the broad range of science on this complicated issue.  The crop residue study examines other reports and data and tests models and the effects of removing extremely high levels of corn residue from fields to make biofuels.  In fact an environmental team leader at the Argonne National Laboratory said the study looked at “extreme levels of corn stover removal — up to 100 percent.”  In the real world, however, stover removal ranges from 10% to 25%, well within the range required to replenish the soil.

The crop residue study itself does acknowledge its focus is on the removal of high levels of crop residue without any mitigation actions.  On the other hand, within the same study, specific mitigation factors and management options are suggested as actions that can be taken to balance soil carbon dioxide emissions.  In other words, the study tests what appears to be the absolute extreme effects associated with removing virtually all the crop residue and yet it does suggest ways to avoid the extreme so as to keep a balance between soil carbon and emissions.  Confusing, or confusing enough to take the spotlight off petroleum for a brief time?

Let’s take a look at the fine print of other studies and apply some critical thinking.  In the study Well-to-wheels energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of ethanol from corn, sugarcane and cellulosic biomass for US use, Argonne National Laboratory determined that ethanol made from corn starch reduces lifecycle GHG emissions from 48% to 57% below emissions from petroleum.  This study examined the full spectrum of emissions for fertilizer, farming, production of biofuels and combustion in vehicles.  Biofuels, such as ethanol, produced in Minnesota unequivocally reduce GHG emissions.

In the same study by Argonne National Laboratory, the use of corn stover, the material in the crop residue study done by the University of Nebraska, was examined.  Here is the finding from Argonne’s examination of the issue:  using the corn stover increases the GHG reductions to approximately 103% better than petroleum!  The critical factor that differs between the Nebraska study and Argonne is this: management of corn stover removal.  The Nebraska study is based on removing virtually all the stover whereas Argonne’s position was “The general consensus has been that we would manage corn stover removal to avoid adverse impacts to soil health, including a decline in soil organic carbon.”  

If we go back to the real issue of the day, it is GHG emissions and how to significantly reduce them.  Biofuels, including from corn stover (crop residue), is part of the solution.  The sound science we have, based on countless studies done over the years, should be enough to remove any clouds of doubt.  Those studies demonstrate that biofuels, including advanced biofuels that use crop residue, are indeed a solution to our climate change challenge because their lifecycle GHG emissions are far below those for petroleum.

Furthermore, renewable biofuels produced in Minnesota provide some solid economic benefits.  In a recently released comprehensive economic study conducted by John Dunham & Associates, we learn the production of biofuels in Minnesota injects $11.7 billion annually into the economy.  This same economic analysis finds the Minnesota biofuel producers help support 48,506 jobs (direct, induced and supplier), pay $3 billion in wages annually and contribute $1.1 billion annually in combined state and federal taxes.

While the fine print does matter, we should be clear about the issues.  The high carbon emitter in town is oil.  On the other hand, biofuels, for today and tomorrow, are an important renewable, low carbon emitting energy source.  Biofuels do, and will, continue to drive down GHG emissions to help stabilize the climate.  Biofuels do, and will, continue to be a big economic boost for Minnesota as well as the consumers who benefit from having a higher octane fuel that holds down the price of gasoline.  By keeping the focus on the real issues and applying science to further enhance the production of biofuels, we can indeed displace at least 30% of petroleum use in Minnesota by 2025 and be on a truly sustainable, low carbon biofuel cycle.

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