Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Will Using More Biofuels Be Good for the Environment? Two Experts Square Off.

| Jan. 21, 2023

The Wall Street Journal asked Daniel Schrag, Co-Director of the Belfer Center's Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, and Carlisle Ford Runge, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, to comment on the debate around the use of biofuels. The following is an excerpt from the piece published on January 21, 2023.

In its push for greener energy, Washington is giving biofuels a boost.

But just how green are they?

Biofuels, such as corn ethanol, are made from plants or other organic matter, then mixed with conventional gasoline or diesel. The amount of fossil fuel used is reduced, and so the resulting mixture burns more cleanly. The more biofuel in the mixture, the cleaner it burns.

Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest proposal under the Renewable Fuel Standard program, 20.8 billion gallons of renewable fuel are required to be mixed with petroleum-based fuel in 2023, up less than 1% from 2022’s target. By 2025, the volume grows to 22.7 billion gallons.

The agency said that the regulations would reduce U.S. oil imports by up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day between 2023 and 2025, and save Americans between $200 million and $223 million a year.

Proponents of the biofuel standard argue that it has added to U.S. fuel supplies, decreased consumer costs—and is a powerful tool for helping the environment. But opponents say biofuel’s environmental promises are overblown, and that making biofuel from edible plants is a poor use of land and crops.

Daniel P. Schrag, professor of public policy, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University, argues the case for biofuels. Carlisle Ford Runge, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, argues against them.

YES: The fuel is low-cost, effective and beneficial

By Daniel P. Schrag

To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we must eliminate fossil fuels. Cheap wind and solar have started to bring emissions down. But one part of our energy system remains resistant to change: liquid fuels for transportation.

Even when all passenger vehicles are electric, this will only eliminate half of our current oil consumption. What do we do about fuel for ships, trucks, trains and airplanes?

To meet our ambitious goals for carbon emissions, biofuels are likely to be a critical part of our energy mix. They have the greatest likelihood of competing with oil on price; they require little new infrastructure; and they offer economic opportunities for developing nations that will incentivize them to participate in the global climate-mitigation effort. 

A larger share

Biofuels—today mostly ethanol and some biodiesel—represent 7% of U.S. liquid-fuel consumption. In the future, we should prepare for biofuels to take an even larger share—because they offer some strong advantages.

Unlike many other forms of green alternatives to oil, biofuels in some forms can be used in existing pipelines and storage tanks, existing trucks, ships and airplanes, and in some cases existing refineries. That means biofuels are likely to be cost-competitive—or close to cost-competitive—with today’s oil prices, and far less expensive than any other proposed solutions.

Yes, there are other possible substitutes, such as hydrogen made from renewable electricity, either directly or through other chemicals like ammonia. These options may have a role in a low-carbon future, but all depend on research and development to demonstrate their viability and bring costs down. The one technology that is already used at significant scale is biofuels.

What’s the problem, then? Some environmentalists and other critics make a number of complaints.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Schrag, Daniel and Carlisle Ford Runge.“Will Using More Biofuels Be Good for the Environment? Two Experts Square Off..” The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2023.

The Authors