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Clarifications in relation to Hartmund Michel's declarations (El País, 12th September 2007) and Messrs. R. Doornbosch and R. Steenblik's Report (OECD, September 2007)

September 24, 2007

1. Introduction

Biofuels are the most promising alternative to reduce the transport sector impact on the environment. In fact there is no real viable alternative which could generate similar benefits in 20-30 years’ time.

However, lately we can find several reports and opinions against biofuels based on the non-availability of enough raw materials, on non sustainability production; on its effect on the food market, on the fossil energy used in the biofuel production, on low GHG savings, and on several additional arguments.

Nevertheless, according to rigorous evaluations, reasons for biofuel supporting as the main and better measure enabling greenhouse gas reduction in the transport sector, and increasing energy safety due to autochthonous production potential, have been confirmed.

Life cycle analyses and more recent studies performed by independent or governmental organisms, support biofuels as observed in the life cycle analysis developed by Ciemat, or even the Joint Research Centre (JRC), organization ascribed to the European Commission that provides support for their policies definition in different fields, including among others the biofuel promotion policies. JRC analyses are being performed with the participation of Concawe, an association comprising the major oil companies, which is in no way suspected of favouring biofuels.

In addition exist additional reasons (externalisms) which even increase the number of reasons in favour of biofuels such the reduction of local contaminating emissions (particles and NOx), which likewise enable health improvement in the population, the supporting of rural populations economy, that find an option both as raw material producers and joining industries for their transformation.

Therefore it is necessary to clarify the claims that are currently appearing lately that present neither references nor indicate on which contrasted information they are based, and apparently respond to commercial interests rather than realities.

2. Transport sector and energy safety

The main actors related to biofuels (farming sector, biofuel producers, oil companies, automotive sector, universities and research centres), brought together by the European Commission to draft a document that could define the expectations which biofuels might represent beyond 2030, concluded that in transport ‘liquid hydrocarbons will dominate the market until 2030’ (‘Biofuels in the European Union, a Vision for 2030 and Beyond’, Biofuels Research Advisory Council, Biofrac).

To this vision document we must add the European Environmental Agency forecasts, which in their document “EU-25 Energy and Transport Outlook to 2030” states:

  • The transport sector will increase its energy demand 1% per annum between 2000 and 2030
  • Over 98% of the energy used in the transport sector in 2000 comes from oil based liquid fuels
  • Dependence on liquid fuel imports will increase from 76.5% in 2002 to 88.5% in 2030

Secure supply is another critical issue to be considered on biofuels evaluation due to the transport sector dependence on liquid fuels, that in Europe and US has to be covered by means of imports from third countries. This picture defines a highly vulnerable scenario and instabilities in oil producing countries may considerably affect the current economic situation.

In the Biofrac document (“Biofuels in the European Union, a Vision for 2030 and Beyond”), and based on the European Environmental Agency assessments (“How much biomass can Europe use without harming the environment”), we can conclude that Europe has potential to maintain a biofuel production between 126 and 174 Mtoe on a sustainable way in 2030.

Thus, biofuels represent the unique alternative existent in Europe to reduce energy dependence in the transport sector, critical in the current economic system; moreover, accounting that it is, after tertiary sector, which presents greater growth expectations in its energy demand.

3. Transport sector and CO 2 emissions

CO 2 emissions from the transport sector worldwide exceeded 5,600 Mt per annum in 2002, of which over 4,200 corresponded to road transport (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), and it’s expected to exceed 8,500 in 2030 (Laura Cozzi, International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook, Energy and CO2 Emissions Trends in the Transport Sector”), moreover the European Environmental Agency (“EU-25 Energy and Transport Outlook to 2030”) forecasted an increase in Europe emissions from 970.6 to 1,261 Mt per annum between 2000 and 2030.

Only biofuels, in conjunction with an increase in vehicle efficiency, can reduce these expectations and even support reduction on GHG emissions.

Therefore, we may consider the following aspects referred to the transport sector and its CO 2 emissions:

  • Existing forecasts indicate considerable increase in CO 2 emissions in the transport sector
  • Substantial technological changes are not expected to lead to energy sources other than liquid fuels
  • Unique viable reduction alternatives pass through biofuels and improvements in vehicles energy efficiency

4. Bioethanol life cycle

Different papers and opinions are being published indicating that reductions in CO 2 emissions associated with biofuel use are minor, and that the fossil fuel consumptions in their production exceed the energy available in fuels.

Its necessary to review rigorous analyses carried out by independent centres, where one can find assessments on both CO 2 emissions and energy consumptions, to claim against opinions not supported on this kind of evaluations.

The Energy, Environmental, and Technological Research Centre (Ciemat, Spain) has developed a rigorous life cycle analysis for bioethanol (‘Analysis of alternative Transport Fuel Life Cycle. Phase I, Analysis of Comparative Cereal Ethanol and Petrol Life Cycles’), where following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Fossil energy used in production and distribution of bioethanol blends is:
    • E85: 1.778 MJ/km
    • E5: 2.747 MJ/km
    • Gasoline 95: 2.778 MJ/km
  • Energy ratio of fossil fuel/energy consumed in its production is (MJ fuel/ MJ fossil energy):
    • Pure ethanol: 1.49
    • Gasoline 95: 0.848
  • Savings in CO 2 emissions using ethanol blends are:
    • E85: 144 g CO2/km
    • E5: 7 g CO 2/km
    • Use of pure ethanol would obviously generate savings exceeding 144 g CO2/km journey

It is important to compare petrol and ethanol, since it is not only necessary to evaluate the net ratio between energy contained in ethanol and fossil energy consumed in its production and distribution; but rather we must also compare bioethanol with the product that it replaces.

Thus the benefit associated with bioethanol fits not only on the fact that the fossil energy consumption in its production is lower than the energy contented in the biofuel, but also petrol consumption without ethanol would be much greater, increasing strongly CO2 emissions. In fact per MJ of ethanol used 28 MJ of petrol are no longer consumed (“Thinking Clearly about Biofuels: Ending the Irrelevant Net Energy Debate and Developing Better Performance Metrics for Alternative Fuels”, B. E, Dale, Michigan State University), thus, not only do we improve the transport sector environmentally performance, but also increase the oil reserves over 28 times.

Therefore, its benefits should not only be assessed considering the fossil fuel saving against its energy content, but also bearing in mind the impact avoided.

Furthermore, comparisons with fossil fuels are based on crude oil currently used. However, the increase in oil demand and price evolution will bring into the market heavy crude oil exploitation in the short term, requiring very high energy consumptions in its extraction and refining, whereby bioethanol would generate even greater benefits as an alternative to highly contaminating fossil products.

Criteria used to assess savings in CO2 emissions and fossil energy consumptions are arguable and it is difficult to ensure a value is the right one; however, but more and more analyses among those published associate important savings in fossil energy and CO2 emissions with bioethanol. Whereas those that publish negative values have been discredited by subsequent studies like that of Farrel et al. (“Ethanol can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals”).

Moreover, the potential of new technologies to produce bioethanol from lignocellulose biomass, with even lower CO2 emissions, will enable biofuels to be boosted even more as an important tool to improve environmental behaviour in the transport sector. Creation of a bioethanol market, currently in its initial status, is critical for this technology evolution.

Attached find a table published by A. Farrell, that reflects the results of several evaluations where fossil energy consumption and reduction of GHG emissions for bioethanol production from cereal and lignocellulosic biomass were assessed.


Net Fossil Inputs

Net Fossil Ratio

Petroleum Input

GHG Emissions


MJfossil needed for each MJfuel

MJfuel produced for each MJfossil input

MJpetroleum needed for each MJfuel

g CO 2-equivalent per MJfuel






Ethanol Today





Cellulosic Ethanol





It demonstrates that biotheanol, using any of the evaluated production options, generates important benefits from the environmental point of view against petrol.

To this fact one must add that virtually pure CO2 is generated in bioethanol production from biomass (both starch or lignocellulosic) which could be captured or employed in alternative uses, with additional potential to generate a very high reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Bearing in mind the efforts of the electrical sector to develop CO2 separation technologies to make possible its subsequent capture; in the bioethanol production process the advance in CO2 capture technologies will greatly improve this biofuel environmental behaviour.

5. Other benefits

Biofuel production and uses include a series of externalisms not always correctly assessed, which include health benefits derived from a lower concentration of local pollutants, additional income from taxes associated with different production activities both of raw material and transformation. Thus, they globally compensate the costs currently represented by the fostering of its production and use.

6. Sustainable production

In Europe and the US, areas where use of biofuels is proposed to reach replacements of up to 30% with environmental and energy safety objectives, they have performed analysis on raw material production potential (‘How much bioenergy can Europe produce without harming the environment’, European Environment Agency. (‘Biomass as feedstock for a bioenergy and bioproducts industry: the technical feasibility for a billion ton annual supply’, US Departments of Agriculture and Energy) that determine enough raw material production capacity exists.

Beyond these areas, its risky to make global assessments without rigorous analysis, but however, pursuant to more reliable estimations, biofuel market share limitation due to raw material availability is over 50%, and sustainable market shares of 40% are possible with crude barrel prices in the range of $60 (‘Betting on Biofuels’, W. K. Caesar et al., McKinsey)

To guarantee sustainability and maximise environmental benefits, one must demand a sustainable land managing via certifications that will assured environmental performance. This certification systems are still under development and must guaranteed that the local market is served before allowing exports.

In their assessment the previous analyses include avoiding significant impact on the food market, but regarding this aspect, it is necessary to highlight that the price of energy has an influence in the cost of food much greater than the cereal or other raw materials. According to J. M. Urbanchuk (“The relative Impact of Corn and Energy Prices in the Grocery Aisle”, LECG) increases in oil price have a 2 to 3 times greater influence to equivalent increases in the price of corn.

Therefore biofuels cannot be considered as having a negative effect on the price of food, on the contrary, they help to hold back energy costs which produce a much more significant impact.

As a conclusion, both Europe and the USA can reach the targets set complying with sustainable environment and non-competition with food market criteria. In the rest of the countries there is sufficient potential to sustainable develop biofuels and cover a significant market share, however, the development of appropriate production systems is required.

7. Conclusions

  • Negative biofuel assessments are being published which are unsustainable based on rigorous analysis, those assessments are based on evaluations previously debated and overcome by subsequent studies.
  • Biofuel benefits are based on three main reasons:
    • Energy safety
    • Emission reduction
    • Generation of economic activity in rural areas
    All these aspects were analysed in the document and clearly biofuels are the best and almost unique alternative to enable a more sustainable transport sector.
  • Technological changes leading to non-use of oil derived liquid fuels are not expected in the transport sector, thus biofuels must be fostered as the unique real alternative to make this sector more sustainable.
  • Increase in oil demand may lead to exploitation of heavy crude oils requiring higher energy consumptions for their extraction and refinement increasing bioethanol benefits.
  • Production from sustainable obtained raw materials needs to be ensured, however existent potential may enable achievement of significant fossil fuel replacement percentages without affecting either the environment or food market.
  • Current publications against biofuels should be understood in a commercial struggle context for fuel market share, and have not a scientifically based assessments. In fact it is important to mention that biomass used for other energy purposes does not receive similar criticism.

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