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Measuring and moderating the water resource impact of biofuel production and trade

  • Author(s): Fingerman, Kevin Robert
  • Advisor(s): Kammen, Daniel M;
  • Torn, Margaret S
  • et al.

Energy systems and water resources are inextricably linked, especially in the case of bioenergy, which can require up to three orders of magnitude more water than other energy carriers. Water scarcity already affects about 1 in 5 people globally, and stands to be exacerbated in many locales by current biofuel expansion plans. This dissertation engages with several of the analytical and governance challenges raised by this connection between bioenergy expansion and global water resources.

My examination begins with an overview of important concepts in water resource analysis, followed by a review of current literature on the water impacts of most major energy pathways. I then report on a case study of ethanol fuel in California. This work employed a coupled agro-climatic and life cycle assessment (LCA) model to estimate the water resource impacts of several bioenergy expansion scenarios at a county-level resolution. It shows that ethanol production in California regularly consumes more than 1000 gallons of water per gallon of fuel produced, and that 99% of life-cycle water consumption occurs in the feedstock cultivation phase.

This analysis then delves into the complexity of life cycle impact assessment for water resources. Despite improvements in water accounting methods, impact assessment must contend with the fact that different water sources are not necessarily commensurable, and that impacts depend on the state of the resource base that is drawn upon. I adapt water footprinting and LCA techniques to the bioenergy context, describing comprehensive inventory approaches and developing a process for characterizing (weighting) consumption values to enable comparison across resource bases. This process draws on metrics of water stress, accounting for environmental flow requirements, climatic variability, and non-linearity of water stress effects.

My assessment framework was developed in hopes that it would be useful in managing the risks and impacts it describes. The primary actors in this governance effort are government regulators, whose policies and incentives continue to drive and to shape the expansion of the bioenergy industry. However, the ability of governments to manage the impacts of biofuels is severely constrained by their obligations under international trade law. This dissertation concludes, therefore, with a detailed investigation into relevant precedents under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). I use these precedents to identify the policy tools that governments would be able to bring to bear in moderating the water resource impacts and myriad other environmental and social concerns raised by bioenergy expansion.

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