Effects of U.S. Biofuel Policy

Technician pretreating ground wheat straw for biofuel production, USDA Agricultural Research Service photo by Peggy Greb

To encourage the production of clean renewable fuels and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, Congress set ambitious mandates in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act for the domestic consumption of biofuels. The mandates specify amounts of different types of biofuels to be consumed by 2022.

Renewable Fuel Standard: Potential Economic and Environmental Effects of U.S. Biofuel Policy says an adequate volume of corn-grain ethanol is expected to be produced to meet the consumption mandate for conventional biofuels. However, for cellulosic biofuels -- those produced from wood, grasses, or non-edible plant parts like corn stalks -- the consumption mandate of 16 billion gallons is not likely to be met without any major technological innovation or policy changes. Even if the consumption mandate is met, the extent to which using biofuels will reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared with using petroleum is uncertain, the report adds.

Cellulosic biofuels will only be competitive economically in an environment characterized by high oil prices, technological breakthroughs, and a high implicit or actual carbon price. Unless agricultural yields and the efficiency of converting biomass to fuels improve substantially, increasing U.S. biofuel production is expected to create competition among different land uses, raise cropland prices, and increase the cost of food and feed production.

The National Research Council study was funded through the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Health Effects of Formaldehyde

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Formaldehyde is an important industrial chemical used in a wide array of products. The chemical is emitted from many sources, including power plants, cars, gas and wood stoves, and cigarettes, and it is also present naturally in some foods and in the human body. In June 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft health assessment of formaldehyde and asked the National Research Council to assess the draft.

Review of the Environmental Protection Agency's Draft IRIS Assessment of Formaldehyde found that EPA's draft adequately supported its conclusions that formaldehyde can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat; lesions in the respiratory tract; and genetic mutations at high concentrations. Furthermore, the evidence is sufficient for EPA to conclude that formaldehyde exposures are a cause of cancers of the nose, nasal cavity, and upper throat. However, the draft assessment did not adequately support its conclusions that formaldehyde causes other cancers of the respiratory tract, leukemia, or several other noncancer health outcomes.

Overall, the report concludes that EPA's draft needs substantial revision. The draft was not prepared in a consistent fashion, lacks clear links to an underlying conceptual framework, and does not clearly explain EPA's methods and criteria used for selecting and evaluating studies or for assessing the weight of evidence.

Many of the problems are similar to those noted in previous Research Council reviews of other chemicals assessed by EPA. Issues with clarity and transparency of methods have occurred over the last decade, even though the documents have grown considerably in length. If the methodology issues are not addressed, future assessments may suffer from the same general problems. The report provides basic guidance for addressing the fundamental problems.

Since the report was released, Congress required EPA to follow the Research Council's recommendations not only for the formaldehyde assessment but also for the agency's future health assessments. The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

America's Climate Choices

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In one of its most comprehensive examinations of climate change to date, the National Research Council produced a suite of reports called America's Climate Choices. More than 90 experts -- not only climate scientists but also economists, business leaders, engineers, sociologists, former public officials, and many others -- were brought together for the effort.

The risk of dangerous climate change impacts is growing with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, says the final report in the series. The preponderance of scientific evidence points to human activities -- especially the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere -- as the most likely cause for most of the global warming that has occurred over the last several decades. The report reiterates the pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts.

A coordinated national response to climate change is required, and substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions should be among the highest priorities in this effort. Yet even with aggressive cuts in emissions, the nation still needs to mobilize to reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts. While adaptation planning largely occurs at the state and local level, the federal government should help coordinate and inform these efforts, and it should take the lead in collecting and sharing climate change information to ensure that pertinent knowledge is used to inform decisions. The series of studies by the National Research Council was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Review of California's Bay Delta Conservation Plan

California's Bay Delta region, photo courtesy California Department of Water Resources

The California Bay Delta region is a large, complex ecosystem that has been substantially altered to supply water for urban and agricultural use for the region and much of the state. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) aims to gain authorization for a project that would divert water from the northern part of the delta to the south, while simultaneously protecting the region's ecosystems. The National Research Council was asked to examine a draft of the plan, which is slated for completion by 2013 and would be implemented over the next 50 years.

A Review of the Use of Science and Adaptive Management in California's Draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan says that the plan has critical missing components, including a scientific analysis or "effects analysis" of the proposed project's potential impacts on delta species. Without this analysis, which was still being prepared at the time of the Research Council's examination, it is hard to evaluate alternative mitigation and conservation actions. The BDCP lacks clarity in its purpose, which makes it difficult to properly understand, interpret, and review the science that underlies the plan, stated the panel that wrote the report. Specifically, it is unclear whether the BDCP is exclusively a habitat conservation plan to be used as an application to "take" -- meaning to injure, harass, or kill -- listed species incidentally or whether it is intended to be a plan that achieves the co-equal goals of providing reliable water supply and protecting and enhancing the delta ecosystem. The Research Council study was funded by the U.S. departments of the Interior and Commerce.