As EP Biofuel Vote Nears, Consider Again How the Issue Became Framed

The scheduled European Parliamentary vote Wednesday on biofuels boils down to a couple of main issues; there are others of course, but the two biggies are: to what extent to cap the use of first generation, food-based biofuels in Europe; and whether to legally require the EUR13 billion a year European biofuel industry to account for the potential indirect effects of producing biofuels (the so-called Indirect Land Use Change, or ILUC, issue).

Various Member States, fixated on jobs and economic growth because of the deep Eurozone recession, aren’t enthusiastic about the first issue and even fewer with the second issue (mainly because ILUC is only about trying to predict what could happen[many things in this world], or more aptly put: about non-empirical modeling based on whatever assumptions one wants to make about human decision-making, commodity prices and hundreds of other factors).

So what a final deal might look like on biofuels and ILUC, if one is reached, between the European Parliament and EU Member States, and whether this can be done before this parliament and the European Commission expire next year, will remain the big open questions after tomorrow’s vote.

There’s been a flurry of media articles in recent days recounting all the arguments, studies, and speculation around the EU biofuels issue. All interesting reads.

But more interesting, to detour here, is to briefly consider how the biofuel issue has become framed the way it has in Europe. That framing, a result of NGO doggedness the past several years, being a variant of: biofuels are “worse than oil,” they “jack up” food prices and “take away food from the hungry.” What sentient being, who knows nothing about biofuels, won’t sit up hearing that last line, right? (Even if that line, among others that NGOs peddle in their lobbying campaigns, is fundamentally false on many fronts.)

Early engagement with the policymaker (before an issue becomes an issue); frenetic repetition of messaging using all types of communication channels; tendentious use of academic studies; exploiting the public’s lack of knowledge about biofuels and agriculture issues; speaking with one voice and keeping an eye on the big goal despite disquiet on lesser issues; and always being available to push rent-a-quotes onto the deadline-pressed journalist. These have been among the host of tactical ingredients that NGOs have applied with aplomb to significantly shape what the European Parliament will be voting on tomorrow, and despite NGOs not having very deep pockets.

Such activities have been on display the past week, as NGOs moved into their final lobbying push on the matter.

Yes, industry is making its own push as well, but for them, the ILUC issue has been an uphill battle for several years. NGOs, as always, gained and held first-mover advantage on the issue; and the ethanol and biodiesel industries, fighting for market share, have been divided and have never really been able to forge a common and persistent position — as the NGOs have — and to bury their differences.

Some European producers have also lamely played the childish EU-produced vs non-EU produced biofuel card, apparently forgetting the EU’s own WTO commitments. Really, let’s compete and get on with it.

Industry, for sure, has fought back and that is probably why the EP vote outcome tomorrow will be less bad for them than if the vote had been held two or three  years ago (as NGOs had wished). Still, the important conceit remains. Biofuel producers face a smaller, legally designed market in Europe because of new EU policy.

Not addressing a policy issue in its infancy and in a sustained way with the proper strategy, tactics, and resources can often set up the day when you’re fighting to keep a market alive (or at least relevant), in the biofuel case, or fighting for other cherished goods, like your reputation.

By Spencer Swartz


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