The Opinion Piece that California Media Will Not Publish: Moving Beyond High Carbon Bioenergy

The short text below was submitted as a commentary op/ed style piece to both CalMatters and the Sacramento Bee, two of the foremost media outlets covering political and environmental issues in the California state capitol, and across the state. Both platforms declined to publish the piece, though future submissions from Biofuelwatch were invited. Neither of these outlets have provided any coverage of the recent court decision declaring the environmental review of the Phillips 66 biofuels refinery project to have violated bedrock California law. As grassroots organizing efforts to respond to the impacts from an expanding bioenergy sector struggle to get media coverage on critical issues such as the conversion of refineries to liquid biofuels it is sobering that an opinion piece such as this would not be accepted for publishing on the editorial pages of prominent media platforms in the state capitol. We share this piece now, self-published on our website.

Living on a Land-Constrained Planet: The Imperative of Moving Beyond High Carbon Bioenergy

California is at a cross roads when it comes to making decisions about the future of policy and mechanisms that have been developed in the pursuit of decarbonization. As the California Air Resources Board endeavors to amend the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), one of the most important yet lesser understood climate programs in the state, many civil society and community-based organizations are raising alarms about the risks and dangers embedded in the increasingly aggressive pivot to promote bioenergy options like liquid biofuels.

Sufficient evidence has accrued to conclude that the moment has passed for assuming that bioenergy is inherently an option for supporting climate stability. The opposite is true. Though there do exist some industrial efficiencies, processing technologies and feedstock streams that offer bioenergy products that might have a climate ‘benefit’, the scale of these options is extremely limited. Bioenergy must be scrutinized with skepticism, as much bioenergy does not support climate stability and actually presents severe threats to food security, forest protection, public health, air quality, ecosystem protection, and social justice.

Unfortunately, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is in many instances inaccurately categorizing high carbon bioenergy as low carbon, due largely to embedded archaic assumptions, flawed carbon accounting, out of date climate science, and a failure to adequately assess impacts on public health, biodiversity, water resources and ecological integrity from both the production of feedstocks and the refining processes necessary for these energy products.

Some of the most common forms of bioenergy incentivized by the LCFS are not only associated with significant increases in food prices, but also with deforestation, industrial pollution, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, degraded water resources, biodiversity loss and increased overall greenhouse gas emissions. These trends are at risk of continuing unabated due to well-intentioned but poorly conceived clean energy targets, public subsidies, and markets-based mechanisms.

Because of the public relations spin, economic opportunism and political convenience of replacing the production and distribution infrastructure of petroleum-based liquid fuels with bioenergy options, there is a tendency to overlook the growing evidence of the impacts of high carbon biofuel products and continue to treat them as sources of renewable energy. A course correction is needed. Pivoting strongly to convert emissions intensive petroleum infrastructure to function as emissions intensive bioenergy infrastructure, as we see happening in the refinery corridor of the North San Francisco Bay Area, will prove to be a climate dead end.

To achieve the core objective of renewable energy policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to protect air quality, greater efforts are needed to exclude high-carbon forms of energy from climate action plans and incentives mechanisms. What is required are policies to avoid infrastructure ‘lock-in’ and the extension of the economic life of toxic ‘stranded assets’ like refineries and to instead move away not only from fossil fuels but to also move away from land and emissions intensive bioenergy.

It is this kind of deep structural change that is most needed in the LCFS. At this crucial moment the staff and members of the Air Resources Board must have the courage to stand up to the wealthy and powerful interests pushing for bioenergy false solutions. California is indeed at a crossroads. The temptation for decision makers to ignore the evidence about the harms of industrial-scale bioenergy is tremendous, but we do no one any favors by falling for the traps of political convenience. The time is now to promote alternatives that will protect public health and secure advances in the stewardship of the environment while centering equity and social justice.