Sustainable Aviation Fuel Critics Miss the Mark on Biofuel Innovation

Recently, the New York Times published a story – “Biden Outlines a Plan for Cleaner Jet Fuel. But How Clean Would It Be? – aimed at lending a voice to perpetual naysayers of biofuels’ role in the Biden Administration’s efforts to decarbonize aviation fuel. The article is once again full of outdated information and misleading claims perpetuated by the oil industry. With current technologies, farm-based feedstocks – including ethanol and corn oil – are the primary source of clean, renewable energy available in large enough volumes to meet the demand for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Production will need to ramp up quickly, and America’s ethanol producers are committed to making that clean energy vision a success.  

That’s why Growth Energy and other biofuel champions have pushed Congress and the administration to ensure that policies reflect the most updated and accurate science-based lifecycle carbon assessment (LCA) methods. In a letter to Congress this summer, we wrote, “As climate-smart agriculture practices continue to improve and expand and as new fuel production technologies for SAF are developed and scaled to market, a regularly-updated LCA is essential to the success of a SAF tax credit and its ability to incentivize new fuels and reduce emissions.” 

For the U.S. market, that science has been led by researchers at the Department of Energy (DoE), with real-world expertise examining both the domestic agricultural supply chain and the latest hard data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) each year. DoE’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Technologies (GREET) model is the gold standard for LCA, harnessing the latest data on everything from indirect land use change to fertilizer inputs. The same model serves as the basis for similar calculations by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). While some foreign entities, like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), have studied SAF, their models rely on decade-old information and ignore real-world data on U.S. production and farming methods.   

Unfortunately, the New York Times story did not include this relevant consideration of facts.. What emerged was a misleading piece on nearly all forms of biofuel. For example, the article cites a 2010 predictive model from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that estimates corn ethanol will be at least 20 percent less carbon emissions relative to petroleum next year. The Department of Energy estimates that number to be 40 percent. The story also claims that current estimates ignore land use change, which is completely inaccurate. EPA’s 2010 predictive model and DoE’s calculation both include land use change in their calculations. And USDA figures for “cropland used for crops” show a steady decline since mid-century, even after the expansion of biofuels over the last 20 years. As a result, ethanol reduces lifecycle emissions from motor fuel by an average of 46 percent, as demonstrated most recently in groundbreaking research led by David MacIntosh, Chief Science Officer of Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. (EH&E) and Adjunct Associate Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard.  

It’s unfortunate that the New York Times fell prey to the same, old misleading information pushed by well-funded oil industry surrogates and without contacting the biofuel industry for the opportunity to refute such outdated facts. The facts matter, and Growth Energy will continue to remind policymakers that the path to net-zero is fueled by American biofuels.