Cellulosic Ethanol: A Bio-Fool’s Errand?

Cellulosic Ethanol: A Bio-Fool’s Errand?

The good news is that the cellulosic ethanol industry—turning trees and woody plants into liquid fuels—has yet to take off. And without an endless stream of taxpayer handouts to develop this polluting and environmentally destructive energy source, it probably never will.

Under the guise of taking action on climate change, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, expanding it under the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007.

According to Institute for Energy Research, the RFS "mandates the production of ethanol to the level of 36 billion gallons by 2022, where 15 billion gallons is to be corn-based and the remainder is to come from advanced forms of biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol. 

"The advanced biofuel contribution starts at 0.6 billion gallons in 2009 increasing to 1.35 billion gallons in 2011, 2.0 billion gallons in 2012 and eventually to 21.0 billion gallons in 2022." 

At first, the advanced biofuels component was set at an optimistic 0.6 billion gallons by 2009, 1.35 billion by 2011, 2.0 billion by 2012, and an obscene 21.0 billion by 2022. Yet the industry’s repeated botched attempts to break down wood cellulose into a usable fuel combined with overwhelming investor uncertainty—in the wake of corn ethanol’s recent fall from grace—meant refiners weren’t able to get their hands on anywhere near the EPA’s desired amount.

"Because cellulosic ethanol was not yet commercial, EPA issued changes to the original act that requires four separate standards including 1.0 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel by 2012 and 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2022." 

The requirement for motor fuel from cellulose was initially set at 250 million gallons by 2011 and 500 million by 2012. When that proved impossible, the EPA lowered the bar to 6.6 million gallons by 2011 and 8.65 million by 2012.

When big biofuels still couldn’t make the cut in 2011, the EPA fined refiners $6.8 million. Yet in January 2013, the DC District Court of Appeals struck down the mandate, ruling that it was unfair of the EPA to put refiners in an “impossible position” by punishing them for not buying and blending biofuels that didn’t exist. The EPA repaid the fines.  

Wally Tyner, agricultural economist at Purdue University, claims in a Science Insider article that the court decision doesn’t entirely gut the RFS. Tyner concludes that if more cellulosic ethanol comes online in the future, the EPA will then be able to issue their beloved “blending mandates.”

Which won’t happen anytime soon. In 2012 the entire US biofuels industry brewed up only 20,069 gallons of cellulosic ethanol, according to Climatewire.

But the elusive nature of the magic tree gas hasn’t stopped some of the more enterprising bio-profiteers from cashing in. Rodney Hailey, owner of Maryland-based Clean Green Fuel, LCC, sold $9 million in “renewable fuel credits” for biofuels his company never even produced. In February 2013, a US District Court Judge sentenced Hailey to twelve years in the slammer for his sins.

Florida, Georgia, and Oregon have been the site of the industry’s latest casualties. Even the heaping fortunes of fossil fuels giant British Petroleum (BP) weren’t enough to make a go of a $350 million forest-to-fuels facility in Highlands County, Florida—which went belly up in 2012.  

A $37 million federal grant and $235 million loan guarantee couldn’t prevent major financial difficulties that ultimately forced ZeaChem, a cellulosic ethanol company in Boardman, Oregon to “scale back plant operations…and let go a number of our valued employees” in March 2013. Only a few weeks before, the company had produced its first and only batch of ethanol. While ZeaChem insists they’re not throwing in the paper towel yet, a recent Oregonian article suggests otherwise.

Perhaps the highest profile bio-failure to date—dubbed the “Solyndra of biofuels” by some—is the shuttering of Range Fuels’ wood-to-ethanol factory in Treutlen County, Georgia. The corporation broke ground in 2007 with promises to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol, seducing the US Department of Energy (DOE) to fork over a $76 million grant. As one of his final acts as president, George W. Bush also doled out an $80 million loan guarantee. The facility was completed in 2010—after having absorbed $46.3 million of the DOE grant and $42 million of the loan—when Range Fuels jumped ship and sold the facility in 2011 for a mere $5.1 million—without having brewed up a single tank of gasoline.

Range Fuels and the company that snatched it up for pennies on the taxpayer subsidized dollar, LanzaTech, are financed by investment company Khosla Ventures. “Billionaire Vinod Khosla, who is known for investing in so-called black swan ideas and innovation that could disrupt markets, also sits on the LanzaTech board,” according to Smart Planet.

Despite the industry’s repeated losses right out of the gate, investors like Khosla keep betting on the same horse. In a fit of either desperation or supreme optimism, Khosla is also backing a Columbus, Mississippi cellulosic ethanol factory that produced its first shipment in March 2013, with plans to build another plant in Natchez, Mississippi later this year.

More ominously, Khosla invested through Mascoma Corporation in a proposal to build a cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Kinross, Michigan, in the state’s Upper Peninsula. When Mascoma struggled to find sufficient funding, Valero—the largest US refiner of traditional gasoline and the company that would process the dirty tar sands oil at the end of the yet-to-be-constructed Keystone pipeline in Texas—dropped $50 million into the project while agreeing to purchase up to 40 million gallons of the stuff.

Even with Khosla’s millions, in March 2013 Mascoma withdrew its registration for a $100 million initial public offering (IPO)—when a company goes from private to publicly trading on the stock market—blaming “market conditions.” Now the facility is being solely managed by Valero and its disturbingly long track record of Clean Air Act violations.

Pat Egan, area resident and former owner and publisher of the local daily newspaper, is fearful that with Valero acting as sugar daddy the Kinross facility stands a fairly good chance of creating a “commercial and viable product.” Add to this a $26 million grant from the feds, $80 million from DOE and $26 million from the state of Michigan, the facility is certainly a contender.

Before jumping ship, Mascoma conjured up a process called consolidated bioprocessing (CBP) to “develop genetically-modified yeasts and other microorganisms to reduce costs and improve yields in the production of renewable fuels and chemicals.” It’s evident that commercial scale cellulosic biofuels can’t happen without the equally controversial—if not more so—practice of genetic engineering.  

Perhaps the unholiest of marriages between the biofuels and genetic manipulation industries involves ArborGen, the progenitor of genetically modified freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees to convert into paper pulp and biofuels. The US Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments until April 29  in its consideration whether or not to allow the Franken-company to sell hundreds of millions of the experimental life form across Texas, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia.

In order for the Kinross project to work, according to Egan, the facility has to cut all its wood within a 150 mile radius. If you look at a map and draw a circle around the facility, Egan points out that one-third of it is water, including Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, and one-third of it is Canada. Egan believes a significant portion of the grant and development money will migrate north to Canada.

The facility would require a “phenomenal” amount of wood—1.1 million green tons per year to produce 20 million gallons, according to Egan. In comparison, a 50 megawatt biomass power incinerator burns about 500,000 green tons per year. The wood for Kinross would come primarily from pulpwood or whole trees in Michigan and Ontario, sixty to seventy cordwood trucks a day, said Egan.

Upper Peninsula-based Longyear Forestry, a partner in the project, is slated to be providing many of the trees to chip and convert into ethanol and has provided the land to site the facility. 56% of the wood would come from private land owners and the rest from public land, cutting down wild forests and monocrop tree plantations alike, including willow and aspen, explained Egan.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is “already changing their ten year forest plan to create more fast growing use of land,” said Egan. Two national forests, the Hiawatha National Forest and the Superior National Forest are within 150 miles. “All the state and federal sustainable cuts would still offer less than half of the wood supply the project may need.”

A Michigan State University Department of Forestry study acknowledged a limited woodshed in the region, admitting that already “wood-fired electric power plants consume large quantities of wood throughout Michigan and in the Kinross supply region.”  

The Kinross biorefinery would provide about fifty to sixty five jobs, said Egan. Yet those numbers don’t include the loss of jobs from businesses competing for the same wood source—that don’t have the taxpayer subsidies to pay top dollar—such as fiberboard.

Not long ago, Pat thought the “bottom” use of wood was for electricity, but now believes “this ethanol thing can be even worse on per job basis.” He points to an area paper mill that employs 1,100. “All of a sudden the paper industry is looking like the good old days,” he said, worried that the refinery’s commandeering of local wood could knock the mill out of business. It’s a perfect example of the government “picking winners and losers.”

Egan refers to the potential biomass boom as the “third big cut”—the first cut being the initial land clearing by settlers in the 1800’s and the second cut taking place in the 20th century for lumber to build houses. Instead of trees growing to 80 to 120 years for high quality lumber, Egan warns that the biomass industry will only be waiting ten to twenty five years between cuts.

“People die” in refinery accidents, said Egan, including Valero’s refinery explosions in March 2012 in Memphis, Tennessee that killed one and injured two. It’s ironically cheaper to pay those fines—$63,000 in the case of Memphis—than make the preventative safety changes, said Egan. Though asked for an emergency plan, the developers have yet to deliver. The ethanol plant would be located within a few hundred yards of a Sioux Tribal Housing facility, with hundreds of residents living across the road. Down the road a couple miles are three state prisons with their captive population of thousands.

Egan is worried that, while so many other ethanol plants have gone bust, Kinross just might make it. He points to Mascoma’s experimental plant in Utica, New York where they claim to have “perfected” the process—burning through 25 million taxpayer dollars in the process. “As soon as they figure out non-food source ethanol and make it saleable and gasoline prices stay high,” warned Egan, they’ll be putting up “cookie cutter plants” all around the country.

So who would buy the ethanol? “If somebody can crack this nut and find the holy grail of commercial cellulosic biofuels, they have a ready made customer in the military,” said Egan. The US Department of Defense is aiming for 40% of their energy to come from biofuels by 2023. In 2012, the US Air Force tested its first ethanol in jets.

“Taking carbon traps, trees that grab carbon out of the air and grow and do so much more in terms of biodiversity,” Egan cautioned, “taking those down and releasing carbon is doing two horrible things.”

Kinross resident Larry Klein—who lives two miles from the proposed refinery site—is fighting the refinery in the courts, with the help of the Sierra Club of Michigan, suing through the NEPA process in regards to the Department of Energy’s $80 million grant. In November 2012, a judge threw out the case, which is now in appeals court in Cincinnati.