NEW YORK — The first trickle of fuels made from agricultural waste is finally winding its way into the nation's energy supply, after years of broken promises and hype.
But as refineries churn out this so-called cellulosic fuel, it has become clear, even to the industry's allies, that the benefits remain, as ever, years away.
The failure so far of cellulosic fuel is central to the debate over corn-based ethanol, a centerpiece of America's green-energy strategy. Ethanol from corn has proven far more damaging to the environment than the government predicted, and cellulosic fuel hasn't emerged as a replacement.
“A lot of people were willing to go with corn ethanol because it's a bridge product,” said Silvia Secchi, an agricultural economist at Southern Illinois University.
But until significant cellulosic fuel materializes, she said, “It's a bridge to nowhere.”
Cellulosics were the linchpin of part of a landmark 2007 energy law that required oil companies to blend billions of gallons of biofuel into America's gasoline supply. The quota was to be met first by corn ethanol and then, in later years, by more fuels made with non-food sources.
It hasn't worked out.
“Cellulosic has been five years away for 20 years now,” said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now the first projects are up and running, but actually it's still five years away.”
Cellulosic makers are expected to turn out at most 6 million gallons of fuel this year, the government says. That's enough fuel to meet U.S. demand for 11 minutes. It's less than 1 percent of what Congress initially required to be on the market this year.
Corn ethanol is essentially as simple to make as moonshine but requires fossil fuels to plant, grow and distill. For that reason, it has limited environmental benefits and some drastic side effects.
Cellulosic biofuels, meanwhile, are made from grass, municipal waste or the woody, non-edible parts of plants — all of which take less land and energy to produce. Cellulosics offer a huge reduction in greenhouse gases compared with petroleum-based fuels and they don't use food sources.
In Vero Beach, Fla., for example, agricultural waste and trash are being turned into ethanol. In Columbus, Miss., yellow pine wood chips are being turned into gasoline and diesel. In Emmetsburg, Iowa, and Hugoton, Kan., construction is nearly complete on refineries that will turn corncobs, leaves and stalks into ethanol.
But despite the mandate and government subsidies, cellulosic fuels haven't performed. This year will be the fourth in a row the biofuels industry failed by large margins to meet required targets for cellulosic biofuels.
“Has it taken longer than we expected? Yes,” acknowledges Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The Obama administration's annual estimates of cellulosic fuel production have proven wildly inaccurate. In 2010, the administration projected 5 million gallons would be available. In 2011, it raised the projection to 6.6 million.
Both years, the total was zero.
The administration defended its projections, saying it was trying to use the biofuel law as a way to promote development of cellulosic fuel. But the projections were so far off that, in January, a federal appeals court said the administration improperly let its “aspirations” for cellulosic fuel influence its analysis.