Biofuels have become a victim of own success, it appears: for the first time in a decade global production has dropped. Production in 2011 dropped a touch from 1.822m barrels a day in 2010 to 1.819m in 2011, according to IEA statistics (p30) highlighted by the Financial Times.
The key reason has been the rising cost of the feedstock for most biofuels, corn, sugar and vegetable oil. And the main reason for the rising food prices is, many argue, the huge quantity consumed by biofuels. It’s a big business. The global biofuels business would, if a nation, rank 16th in the world for oil production, just above the UK and Libya and a bit below Norway and Nigeria, all major oil producers. In the US, 40% of the corn crop now gets diverted into fuel tanks, giving the US 50% of global biofuel production.
On top of the peaking of production, the US has just phased out some fat subsidies and tariffs protecting the domestic biofuel industry from international competition. So is the biofuels boom over?
In a word, no. The key driving factor is the price of ordinary oil. In the medium and long term, crude prices seem very likely to remain high and vulnerable to shocks, such as the current Iranian situation. “Once oil is over $70 a barrel, conventional and new generation biofuels become cost competitive, certainly with tar sands and shale, and with oil from much of the Middle East and Brazil’s new offshore fields,” said Jeremy Woods, at Imperial College, when I spoke to him in March. Today, Brent crude is at $113. The IEA predicts a 20% rise in biofuel production to 2.2m b/d by 2015, although that is a slower rise than in the past.
This brings us to the environmental crux. “The less biofuel you have the more gasoline you need,” Amrita Sen, oil analyst at Barclays Capital in London, told the FT.