The last thing anyone expected from President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address was a proposal for the largest-ever cut in the nation’s use of gasoline. The president was no climate champion — he had backed out of the Kyoto Protocol shortly after taking office in 2001 — but he did favor what he called “energy independence.” He had declared the United States “addicted” to foreign oil, yet dependence on Middle Eastern fuel continued. Hurricane Katrina, and the lingering damage it did to oil pipelines and refineries, had pushed up gas prices, renewed fears of global warming and kept a firm thumb on the economy.
Now, Bush proposed, homegrown energy could be drawn from the rural places most in need of an economic boost. Clean-coal initiatives would generate the electricity of the future, but it was biofuels — in particular ethanol, which is largely distilled from corn, and biodiesel, made with vegetable oil — that would power the vehicles of the future. Within 10 years, the country would replace 35 billion gallons of petroleum, or one-fifth of all the gas and diesel burned, with fuel made from plants. The measure, as he put it, would confront “the serious challenge of global climate change.” Unsaid, but clear to anyone paying attention, was that it would also please America’s agriculture industry, which had been lobbying for ethanol and advanced biofuel research for years. The House chamber erupted in applause.
On the night of the president’s address, Timothy Searchinger sat on his couch in Takoma Park, Md., just a few miles from the Capitol, and watched on television, struck by what seemed to him a glaring lapse in logic. “Oh, my God, what the hell is happening here?” he recalls wondering aloud.
Searchinger wasn’t a scientist; he was a lawyer, working with the Environmental Defense Fund. But he saw a serious flaw in the claim that the president’s proposal would ameliorate climate change. Searchinger knew that cropland had already consumed virtually every arable acre across the Midwest. Quintupling biofuel production would require a huge amount of additional arable land, far more than existed in the United States. Unless Americans planned to eat less, that meant displacing food production to some other country with unused land — and he knew that when forests are cut, or new land is opened for farming, substantial new amounts of carbon can be released into the atmosphere. Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.
Scientists and lawyers who study environmental impact often deploy “carbon-life-cycle analysis” to determine just how much carbon a given product is removing from, or introducing to, the environment over the course of its production and consumption. When a truck burns biodiesel, the carbon emissions that come from its tailpipe aren’t much different from those of a truck burning petroleum. But a part of the biodiesel emissions aren’t counted, because — in theory — they have been balanced out: Plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere when they grow, and fuel experts subtract that sequestered carbon from the tailpipe emission, completing a transaction that they say balances at zero.
In ideal circumstances — unvegetated land planted for the first time — this balancing out really happens. When corn grows, it soaks up carbon, and when it is consumed (whether as food or fuel), it releases that carbon back into the air. But the analysis breaks down when faced with the reality of land use. Almost everywhere in the world, planting more corn or soy for biofuel would involve creating more farmland, which in turn would involve cutting down whatever was already growing on that land. And that would mean releasing a huge amount of carbon into the air, with nothing to balance the books. As Searchinger watched Bush’s call for an unprecedented increase in biofuel production, his hunch was that the biofuel balance sheet would turn out to be tragically shortsighted.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, at the time a powerful 16-term Democrat from California who had presided over several failed efforts to pass climate legislation, was also skeptical about Bush’s plan. But he knew that one of the most vexing aspects of global emissions reduction was the question of how to replace transportation fuels. It was hard enough to upgrade several thousand electrical power plants to draw on wind or solar or even nuclear power. That would take years. But transforming the more than 100 million cars and trucks on America’s roads would take far longer, decades even, and in the meantime those vehicles were producing 28 percent of carbon emissions in the United States. Waxman thought a biofuel requirement could be a turning point in climate legislation, a moment when Washington stopped pretending.
Within months of Bush’s speech, the House and the Senate were reconciling a draft of a sprawling omnibus bill that would eventually be called the Energy Independence and Security Act, or EISA. In addition to requiring carmakers to improve fuel standards, a longtime priority for Democrats, the bill updated and expanded renewable-fuel standards, requiring fuel producers to mix in soy, palm and other kinds of vegetable oil with diesel fuel and to use ethanol from corn and sugar in gasoline. The bill also set tough standards for how much cleaner, in terms of carbon, each of those categories of fuel had to become — 50 percent for diesel, 20 percent for gas — and empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to judge what qualified.
The expected gains were enormous. The switch to biofuels, the E.P.A. would later calculate, promised to stop the release of 4.5 billion tons of carbon over three decades, the equivalent of parking every single American automobile for more than seven years. Before the bill passed in December 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “the shot heard round the world for energy independence.”
The law had a profound effect. Biodiesel production in the United States would jump from 250 million gallons in 2006 to more than 1.5 billion gallons in 2016. Imports of biodiesel to the United States surged from near zero to more than 100 million gallons a month. As fuel markets snatched up every ounce of domestic soy oil to meet the American fuel mandate, the food industry also replaced the soy it had used with something cheaper and just as good: palm oil, largely from Malaysia and Indonesia, which are the sources of nearly 90 percent of the global supply. Lawmakers never anticipated that their well-intentioned plan — to help the climate by helping American farmers — might instead transform Indonesia and present one of the greatest threats to the planet’s tropical rain forests. But as Indonesian palm oil began to flood Western markets, that is exactly what began to happen.
“We saw great promise,” Waxman told me recently, sitting in a glass conference room at Waxman Strategies, the Washington lobbying firm of which he is chairman. But he is no longer so hopeful. He is now also the chairman of the environmental organization Mighty Earth, which lobbies food and agriculture companies to deploy more climate-friendly production methods. In 2007, he and other lawmakers were focused on the benefits of biofuels and the bridge they promised to even greener technologies. Now the soft-spoken Waxman is far more concerned about the other side of the equation. “We didn’t think we were going to pay such a heavy price,” he said.
Bush knew exactly what he was doing, creating a new US fuel industry that didn't have to depend on digging holes in the ground, rather that it used massive amounts of farmland and meant the stripping of forests, and whoever controlled that land was going to be ridiculously wealthy.
And all that greed destroyed millions of acres of rain forest, accelerating our path to climate catastrophe that will render the earth unfit to sustain life. "We did this to ourselves" is what our descendants will say a century from now, that is if there are any human beings left.