Ottawa orders study into environmental, health effects of making renewable fuels

OTTAWA — The Harper government is taking a harder look at an industry that has been a political and policy darling amid soaring fuel prices and fretting about greenhouse gases.

OTTAWA — The Harper government is taking a harder look at an industry that has been a political and policy darling amid soaring fuel prices and fretting about greenhouse gases.

A study has been ordered into the environmental and health effects of producing ethanol and biodiesel after other countries found facilities that make renewable fuels could be behind problems with air, water and human health.

“Based on global production levels from the past three years alone, there is now evidence of implications to the environment from biofuels-based ethanol production facilities,” says a government document released Wednesday.

“Biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) are still viewed as ’green’ energy sources by some, however criticism of biofuels has also grown remarkably throughout recent years. …

“Experiences in the U.S. and Brazil now suggest that existing biofuels production facilities are responsible for the generation of a range of new air- and water-related problems as well as recent concerns over human health.”

Environment Canada is now looking for a firm to come up with environmental benchmarks for biofuel production. A report is due by the end of March. The work is valued at up to $65,000.

It wasn’t clear what environmental or health problems were associated with biofuel production. No one from the department was available for an interview, and details were not provided in the document.

The department sent an email late Wednesday explaining the report is meant to “provide its scientists more comprehensive and detailed information to better identify, characterize and predict the environmental implications of biofuel production in Canada.”

“The commissioning of this study does not presuppose that there are any harmful effects from these facilities, nor does it change the government of Canada’s commitment to renewable fuels,” Paula Franchellini said in an email.

The head of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association declined to be interviewed.

Instead, Gordon Quaiattini pointed to a study on his group’s website showing the extent to which renewable fuels lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Renewable fuels offer demonstrated benefits both in terms of environmental performance and economic impact,” he said in an email.

“We welcome the opportunity to confirm those results and, provided the methodology is fair, we have no doubt the advantages of renewable fuels will again be demonstrated.”

The timing of the government’s report had at least one expert scratching his head.

“I’m a little surprised it’s coming now,” said Alfons Weersink, a professor with the food, agricultural and resources economics department at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

“Some of these questions were debated more in the peak of the food-versus-fuel debate, which would have been a year and a half ago, when people were blaming renewable fuels as part of the reason for the spike in crop prices.”

Biofuels have long been a key plank in the Conservatives’ environmental platform. In the summer of 2007, the Tories pledged $1.5 billion over nine years to boost biofuel production.

The government now expects biofuel production in Canada to grow 76 per cent by the end of next year.

Ottawa has also required that gasoline contain five per cent ethanol as of this year.

South of the border, the Obama administration has also sought to widen ethanol production. Last spring, the U.S. president ordered his officials to spend heavily on alternative fuels.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he sees biofuels as a means of weaning Americans off foreign oil and securing the country’s energy supply.

But the Environment Canada document notes there have been 394 reports in the U.S. over the last six years of biofuel plants running afoul of environmental and health rules.

The department says much of the criticism directed at renewable fuels has been on so-called “first-generation” biofuels, which are derived from food crops.

The document says not enough is known about the potential fallout from ethanol made from sugarcane and cellulose, or of biodiesel made from oil palms, soybeans and other crops.

Ethanol, which has traditionally been made by fermenting corn, wheat, or sugar cane, was seen as a way to help keep prices down at the pumps while extending the global energy supply and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The industry was battered last year by the slumping world economy. Some Canadian producers shelved plans to build or expand plants, and some U.S. companies idled their facilities.