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White House pushes risky biofuels for military

Posted Jul. 3, 2012 / Posted by: Michal Rosenoer

This past week the Obama Administration announced $62 million in new funding for the advanced biofuels industry. The White House's goal is to jump-starting the commercial-scale development of drop-in biofuels – biofuels that do not require special infrastructure to be blended with gasoline or diesel - for  use by the U.S. Navy,  Air Force, and as a general transportation fuel for motorists. The funding is a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Navy, and Department of Energy. The money will be used to identify and finance new advanced biofuels projects and support biorefinery construction or retrofitting.

On a conference call yesterday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted that in the past three years alone, USDA has spent over $1 billion trying to jump start the advanced biofuels industry. However, despite their funding, a federal mandate, and decades of additional government subsidies, not a single gallon of cellulosic biofuels –a subcategory of advanced biofuels slated to overtake the corn ethanol market – has been commercialized or is ready for sale. In fact, the entire advanced biofuels industry has continuously under-produced for the last seven years. Moreover, a recent study commissioned by the Department of Defense actually notes that biofuels will offer the military almost no competitive advantage in spite of their exorbitant cost to taxpayers.

On top of their lack of return on investment, many advanced biofuels also pose serious risks to the environment. Several studies, including a recent National Academy of Sciences study, have found that bringing many advanced biofuels to commercial scale could actually increase air pollution, drive soil erosion, degrade water sources, and damage biodiversity.

Similarly, the technology used to break down plants into advanced biofuels also poses a massive risk to the environment. Synthetic biology, used to engineer the enzymes that break down the cellulose of plants into sugars which can then be processed into fuel, is an extreme form of genetic engineering that is developing rapidly and yet is largely unregulated. With synthetic biology, instead of swapping genes from one species to another (as in traditional genetic engineering), scientists write entirely new genetic code on a computer, "printing" it out and then inserting it into organisms, or even trying to create life from scratch. If these organisms get into the natural environment, they could easily swap genes with other organisms and would likely be impossible to recall.

The U.S. government is a big financier of both synthetic biology and advanced biofuels, having provided billions to start-ups over the last decade.  The federal government should not be subsidizing or mandating the production of biofuels, conventional or advanced, before we fully understand the risks they pose to our natural resources and global communities. We cannot afford another disaster like corn ethanol, and neither can the environment.

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