The EU Commission has lost the Plot on Biofuels

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dick-roche-460_1206076cBy Dick Roche, Special to The Digest

Just as the EU institutions were shutting up shop for the long summer break the EU Commission issued its strategy to reduce transport emissions in the post 2020 period, ‘European Strategy for low Emission Mobility’. The strategy will ‘axe’ any support for conventional biofuels.

This should come as no surprise: for years a section of the Commission bureaucracy has been waging a relentless campaign against ‘conventional’ biofuels.

In that campaign they have breached every tenet of good public administration, demonstrated a cavalier disregard for fact or science, effectively ignored the text of the laws they have been instructed to implement and demonstrated a willingness to distort or to withhold material information from stakeholders that would be regarded as politically intolerable in any of the 28 EU countries.

Changes to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) which the Commission introduced in 2012 have been a ‘train wreck”. They have caused plant closures and led to projects being dropped, caused job losses, denied farmers access to a valuable income stream, robbed rural communities of much needed development and killed investor confidence. Having created mayhem these same mandarins now want to go further.

Before EU Governments commence the next rounds of discussions on biofuels they need to take a long hard look at the Commission’s track record.

The guerilla war on conventional biofuels

The Commission’s guerrilla war on conventional biofuels was launched in 2012 when Commissioner Connie Hedegaard released proposals to reverse the positive policy on biofuels adopted by the EU Parliament and by the member states only three years earlier in the RED.

Ms Hedegaard spoke of some biofuels being worse than fossil fuels, of carbon sinks being destroyed to grow biofuel feedstock and of concerns about global land conversion impacts – ILUC.

The Commissioner omitted to mention that EU produced biofuel feedstock does not involve carbon sink destruction, that the European norm is to produce biofuels in a way that is sustainable with negligible or zero ILUC implications and, crucially, that all ethanol produced from European feedstock is superior to all fossil fuels,: Hedegaard’s undifferentiated approach swept inconvenient truths under the carpet.

While Commissioner Hedegaard has moved on the authors of the disastrous policy she fronted remain at their posts, continue to peddle myths and to poison the water for conventional biofuels and to adopt a spectacularly closed minded to anything that clashes with their preconceived views.

An extraordinary compendium of myths, distortions and inaccuracies

A 2015 report on biofuel production produced for the European Parliament by staff of the Joint Research Centre, the EU Commission’s ‘science and knowledge service’ illustrates the point. It is an extraordinary compendium of the myths, distortions and inaccuracies.

Prior to producing this report the JRC team has ‘form’ in biofuels debate. Tasked under the RED with updating default values of biofuels resulting from “technical progress” the team adopted an approach that has been described as making a mockery of the requirement that the Commission use best available science to drive its biofuel regulatory responsibilities.

The same approach is all too evident in its work for the EU Parliament.

In its analysis of EU ethanol production the JRC team selected data drawn from a single and troubled ethanol plant, ignored data from better performing plants producing an inaccurate, skewed and biased analysis.

In dealing with agriculture dubious self-generated data, out of date figures on fertilizer inputs, basic errors on feedstock moisture content, questionable assumptions on cultivation emissions and modeling that had not been independently reviewed all feature.

The report’s treatment of job creation lacks objectivity and at key points is based on ludicrous assumptions. The authors assume, for example, that on-farm jobs from biofuels would “probably have existed if the alternative to biofuels is more EU crop exports”. There is no hint as to where the untapped export markets are to be found. At another point the JRC argues that job creation in biofuels should be ‘discounted’ by any job reductions in fossil fuels a line missing when the Commission considers the benefits of electric cars.

Overall the “jobs analysis” lacks credibility, downplays the job creation potential of biofuels and ignores damage already done by the Commission in the jobs area.

The report makes ludicrous points on taxes and ‘subsidies’ ignoring the fact that most EU states had abolished biofuel excise tax exemptions and removed subsidies on biofuel production prior to the report being drafted.

On the technical side the JRC uses an incorrect fossil fuel comparator skewing the resulting analysis away from biofuels. Significantly it fails to use the best available science on fossil fuel GHG emissions underestimating the GHG savings from biofuels in general and from ethanol in particular.

Overall the report is so littered with inaccuracies, questionable analysis and downright distortions that it raises fundamental questions about the motivation of those who produced it: incompetence alone seems an inadequate explanation.

Withholding critical material

In addition to inserting material that is less than objective into the debate the Commission has a record of withholding material from stakeholders including the EU Parliament.

In 2014 2016 for example, the Commission delayed completion and then refused to make public an ILUC quantification study that was produced by three respected consultancies, IIASA, Ecofys and E4Tech appointed by the Commission.

On key issues the consultants’ findings run directly counter to the line promoted by the Commission.

They conclude that increased demand for ethanol produced from sugar, starch crops and cellulosic biomass can be met with low impacts on land use change and low resultant land use change emissions.

They find that ethanol produced from sugars or starch have little if any impact on food prices and conclude that the risk of land use change impacts tend to zero where abandoned land is available and the potential for higher productivity exists.

The Commission received the completed study in August 2015 but refused to release it for seven months justifying its actions on the ludicrous basis that releasing the document would damage the Commission’s ability to conduct foreign relations.

Under pressure the Commission promised that an open meeting would be held in November 2015 to discuss the study’s results – the meeting was cancelled without explanation.

From December 2015 through March 2016 a string of Parliamentary Questions (PQ) about the study were lodged by MEPs. The PQs were left unanswered for months and, when eventually reached, received risible responses.

By March 2015, a number of MEPs annoyed at the Commission’s delaying tactics, wrote to Commission President Juncker on the matter.

With a formal appeal to the EU Ombudsman from industry underway, the Commission finally capitulated and released the study on 16 March 2016.

Reading the ILUC Quantification Study it becomes obvious why it was suppressed: its findings run directly counter to the direction of travel taken by the Commission for years.

Pinged by the European Court of Auditors

Another dimension of the Commission’s performance is raised in Special Report No 180/2016 from the European Court of Auditors [ECA] that was released on 21 July last. This examines how the Commission has dealt with the sustainability certification of biofuels a ‘cornerstone’ requirement of the RED. It highlights a woeful list of shortcomings, including a failure to cover key aspects of sustainability, over reliance on ‘voluntary certification schemes’ that are not transparent, the use of “inadequately supervised” schemes, a failure to properly incorporate indirect land-use change (ILUC) in the assessment process and a failure to properly verify the origin of waste used for the production of advanced biofuels.

The pattern of behavior that emerges from even a cursory examination of the manner in which the Commission has handled the biofuels dossier points to very serious problems within the Commission administration.

Far from producing a policy in which the citizens of Europe could have confidence, Commission officials have produced a shambles that have done untold damage.

Unless the Commission is ‘reigned in’ communities in the most vulnerable parts of the EC will suffer further, opportunities that sustainable biofuel production could deliver to rural communities will be lost, farmers will be robbed of a valuable income stream, jobs will be lost and opportunities to create jobs will be squandered, the EU as a whole will remain overly reliant on imported fossil fuel and Europe will find it that much more difficult to meet the required targets in terms of GHG savings in transport.

None of this makes any sense.

Dick Roche is the former Irish Minister for the Environment and former Minister for European Affairs. He formally lectured on Public Administration and Public Finance in University College Dublin. Mr Roche is an advisor to the Hungarian ethanol producer, Pannonia Ethanol.