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date: 23 February 2018

Communicating about Biofuels and Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Biofuels are produced from biomass, which is any organic matter that can be burned or otherwise used to produce heat or energy. While not a new technology—biofuels have been around for well over 100 years—they are experiencing something of a renaissance in the United States and other countries across the globe. Today, biofuels have become the single most common alternative energy source in the U.S. transportation sector with billions of gallons of the fuel produced annually.

The expansion of the bio-based economy in recent years has been intertwined with mounting concerns about environmental pollution and the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere. In the United States, for example, biofuels mandates have been championed as key to solving not only the country’s increasing energy demand problems and reliance on foreign oil, but also growing fears about global climate change.

Of course, the use of biomass and biofuels to combat global climate change has been highly controversial. While proponents argue that biofuels burn cleaner than gasoline, research has suggested that any reductions in CO2 emissions are offset by land use considerations and the energy required in the biofuels-production process. How publics perceive of climate change as a problem and the use of biomass and biofuels as potential solutions will go a long way toward determining the policies that government’s implement to address this issue.

Keywords: biofuels, policy, risk, climate change, public opinion, knowledge, media


Across the globe, governments and private industry are investing in the development of “biofuels”—fuels manufactured from “biomass.” The term biomass refers to any renewable organic matter, including wood, plants, other forest products, human and animal waste, and agricultural crops (United States Energy Information Administration, 2012). In public discourse the term biofuels is most often linked to the transportation sector and, specifically, the fuels ethanol and biodiesel. In the United States and other countries, ethanol is often combined with petroleum-based fuels to produce blends like E10 (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline), or E85, an 85% ethanol blend used in specially manufactured vehicles (United States Energy Information Administration, 2007).

Biofuels are not a new technology, having been around since the advent of the automobile. The Model T was designed to run on several different fuel types, including a hemp-based ethanol (, 2010). However, inexpensive petroleum made ethanol unfeasible as a fuel source, and biofuels fell out of favor in the United States and other Western nations for the bulk of the 20th century. But today, due in large part to concerns about the impacts of fossil fuel use on the natural environment—including their relationship with global climate change—biofuels are experiencing something of a renaissance around the globe. Biofuels have become the single most common alternative energy source in the U.S. transportation sector (Delshad, Raymond, Sawicki, & Wegener, 2010). In 2015 alone, the United States produced nearly 15 billion gallons of ethanol (Renewable Fuels Association, 2016). And it isn’t just the United States that has become excited about the prospects of bio-based fuels powering automobiles and the transportation sector. During that same year, biofuels production in Brazil exceeded 7 billion gallons, while production in the European Union approached 1.5 billion gallons (Renewable Fuels Association, 2016).

Proponents of biofuels have argued for the alternative fuel source on a number of grounds. First, they have contended that biofuels are a boon for economic development, particularly in rural environments. For instance, growing crops for biofuel production on marginal or underdeveloped land has been characterized as a means to stimulate local economies and bring jobs to communities both inside and outside of the United States (Bringezu et al., 2009; Content, 2010; Lane, 2011; Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, 2012). The production of biofuels in local communities brings the added benefit of lessening reliance on foreign oil. Indeed, the U.S. federal government has made extensive investments in biofuels infrastructure with an expressed goal of reducing oil imports from the Middle East for meeting American energy demands (Lane, 2011).

Outside of the economic and energy security benefits, biofuels have been championed as a renewable and environmentally friendly form of energy. Research published in Science, for instance, has suggested that the use of corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by about 13% (Farrell et al., 2006). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted that corn ethanol provides between 21% and 52% direct reduction in GHG emissions when compared to gasoline (Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, 2012). Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of organizations and industries, including several airlines and the U.S. military, have started testing a variety of biofuels in their ships and planes in an attempt to reduce not only their carbon footprint but also their dependence on foreign oil (Biello, 2009; Krauss, 2008).

Despite the arguments noted above and the widespread availability of ethanol-based fuels, the biofuels industry is not without its critics. First, the growth of the biofuels industry has been spurred in large part by the implementation of controversial mandates and subsidies from federal governments (Runge, 2010; United States Department of Energy, 2009). In the United States, not surprisingly, mandates for ethanol production have come under fire. Part of the concern is from audiences, often Republicans, who are skeptical of government intervention in a free-market economy (Mitchell, 2009). An additional, less partisan concern is that the mandates were written prior to the shale boom in the United States, which resulted in increased domestic oil and gas production. The concern is that the mandates are outdated as they were formulated without knowledge of the energy environment that the country has since entered (Wolfgang, 2015). Related to this issue is the so-called “blend wall,” which refers to the inability for most current vehicles to operate on gasoline with more than a 10% ethanol blend. The blend wall has led some to question whether mandates and subsidies are appropriate for the biofuels industry when so many vehicles are not equipped to handle more substantive blends of ethanol (Parker, 2015).

Outside of mandate and subsidy concerns, several prominent figures have questioned the energy source on moral grounds (Runge, 2010). One of the harshest critics has been Jean Ziegler, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, who has called it a “crime against humanity to divert arable land to the production of crops which are then burned for fuel” (Mathews, 2008). Jeffrey Sachs, former Director of the United Nation’s Millennium Project and co-founder of the Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending extreme poverty and hunger, has expressed similar concerns over biofuels production. Specifically, Sachs has questioned the morality of “putting food in our gas tanks” while people around the globe struggle with food scarcity and hunger (Melander, 2008).

There is also mounting evidence that biofuels may not actually be better for the environment than the traditional fossil fuels that they are designed to replace, including concerns about water shortages due to the amount required to grow the crops and then process them into fuels, fertilizer runoff, and indirect land use impacts (Goldenberg, 2011; Runge, 2010). Notably, Searchinger and colleagues (2008) have argued that, once indirect land use changes are taken into account, biofuels have a net negative impact on GHG emissions. The land use changes the authors refer to include, among others, the removal of forests to produce farmland for growing biofuel crops. Clearing forests, the authors argue, releases already sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. They also note that the popularity of biofuels drives up crop prices, which in turn, results in greater deforestation as farmers work to cash in on the most profitable crops. Once these factors are taken into account, the authors contend, biofuels might actually be worse for the environment than petroleum-based fuels, including exacerbating rather than attenuating global climate change.

Previous scholarship has convincingly established that the media acts as the most accessible source for audiences to learn about science, technology, and risk issues (Friedman, Dunwoody, & Rogers, 1986; Gregory & Miller, 1998; National Science Board, 2010; Nelkin, 1995). And, as the arguments noted above make clear, the topic of biofuels lends itself well to media coverage. It is a controversial energy source that is tied to some of the most heavily covered news topics of the day, including government spending, energy policy and security, and global climate change. Bioenergy is also characterized by strong groups of proponents and opponents, many of whom, given subsidies and mandates, have a financial stake in the topic and in selling their position to the public. Such groups will rely on the media to relay their message to the widest possible audience. Perhaps most important, the science on biofuels is still uncertain, or at least conflicting. Depending on which study one consults or trusts, different members of the population will come away with very different views on the viability of biofuels as a transportation fuel and as a means of combatting global climate change. In short, the issue is one of perception, the battle over which will be fought through media depictions of the topic. Not surprisingly, a number of scholars have explored mediated content surrounding biofuels issues. Prior to examining this literature, however, it is helpful to first get a sense of how and when media cover issues related to science, technology, and risk, more broadly.

Media Coverage of Science and Risk Topics

Media coverage of media-worthy scientific and environmental issues has been said to follow a cyclical pattern. This pattern is referred to as the “issue-attention cycle” (Downs, 1972). According to the issue-attention cycle, scientific and environmental topics typically move through several key stages during their time in the media spotlight. Issues begin in a pre-problem stage, where both public interest and attention is low. At this stage only a small portion of the population—namely, experts and select interest groups—are likely to even be aware of the issue (Downs, 1972; Shih, Wijaya, & Brossard, 2008). Biofuels likely occupied this pre-problem stage for much of the 20th century when fossil fuels were almost universally accepted as the energy source best suited for satisfying transportation needs.

Issues remain in this low-attention stage until a problem emerges to thrust the issue into public consciousness (Nisbet & Huge, 2006). Soaring oil prices, fears about energy security, and growing concerns about the impacts of fossil fuels on the natural environment and climate are all problems that have helped push biofuels content into mainstream media discourse. At this stage attention is drawn to the topic and public concern increases. Simultaneously, this period is accompanied by a growing sense of efficacy among lay audiences and an overall feeling that measures can be taken to limit the scope of the problem (Shih et al., 2008). In the United States, large swaths of usable farm land, particularly in the rural Midwest, coupled with advances in both farming practice and biofuels development likely served to increase public efficacy toward using biofuels as a solution to the problems noted above. In the United States and other countries around the globe, governments invested heavily in biofuels infrastructure and produced mandates and subsidies. The goal of these governmental interventions was to fuel the development of a biofuels industry that would help deal with the problems associated with a fossil fuel–based economy and reliance on oil produced overseas. At this time, biofuels were likely viewed as a viable solution to a number of different social, economic, and environmental problems.

Over time, however, publics become aware of the financial and social costs of addressing the problem and interest wanes. Declines in public interest are often accompanied by the emergence of a new issue that can take the spot of the old issue in the media spotlight (Nisbet & Huge, 2006). Concerns about diverting crop land for fueling cars, worries that biofuels may not be economically viable in a free-market economy, and research about the indirect land use impacts on GHG emissions are just some of the costs that have emerged in media discussions of biofuels during the 21st century. These concerns likely paved the way for new issues to emerge in the media, including an emphasis on alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and natural gas collected through hydraulic fracturing, as a means of combatting global climate change and of reducing dependence on foreign oil.

The place of an issue in the issue-attention cycle is related to the discussion of that issue, including how that issue is framed. For instance, Nisbet and Huge (2006) note that early news items about biotechnology and stem cell research tended to focus on new research and novel discoveries—indicative of the types of frames audiences are most likely to encounter during the pre-problem stage of a scientific issue. However, over time, new frames emerge that typically coincide with the increases in public attention. In particular, frames highlighting the ethical or moral components of an issue are more likely to dominate as an issues moves outside of the pre-problem stage (Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, 2003; Nisbet & Huge, 2006). Finally, strategy and conflict frames are usually most common when news media coverage reaches its peak (Shih et al., 2008). The general pattern is one where coverage evolves from being largely positive when attention levels are at their lowest to being increasingly more negative and conflict-driven as public awareness increases.

Media Coverage: Depictions of Biofuels in the United States

Scholars have closely monitored the biofuels debate in media through content analysis work. One notable pattern is that content analysis work has not typically differentiated between the terms “biofuels” and “biomass,” choosing instead to treat the two terms interchangeably despite the subtle differences between them.

Second, research tracking American media coverage of biofuels has typically focused on large-circulation or national newspapers. For instance, Delshad and Raymond (2013) employed a qualitative content analysis approach to better understand the most prominent themes in media coverage of the topic. The authors examined New York Times and Washington Post coverage of biofuels across the following eight content categories: “National security,” “Environmental costs,” “Environmental benefits,” “Unfair (suggests the primary beneficiaries of biofuels policies disproportionately benefit agri-business, automakers, and wealthy investors),” “Fair (suggest the primary beneficiaries of biofuels policies are deserving rural citizens and farmers),” “Economic benefits,” “Economic costs,” and “Food vs. fuel debates.” Of these eight potential frames, “National security,” “Environmental benefits,” “Fair,” and “Economic benefits” discussed the issue in positive terms, whereas “Environmental costs,” “Unfair,” “Economic costs,” and “Food vs. fuel debates” depicted the issue in a negative light.

Delshad and Raymond (2013) found significant shifts in the depictions of biofuels in the popular press, with mediated content becoming decidedly more negative over the duration of their analysis. The authors broke their analysis into two 5-year time frames: 1999 to 2003 and 2004 to 2008. They found that content between 1999 and 2003 was decidedly more likely to focus on the benefits of the alternative fuel as compared to the risks, with 97% of all articles analyzed making mention of at least one of the four positive frames of interest. Conversely, 65% of all articles contained at least one mention related to one of the four negative frames. These early, positive depictions of biofuels appear consistent with the early stages of the issue-attention cycle where biofuels would be expected to be cast as a potential solution to various environmental and economic problems. On the other hand, while the content produced between 2004 and 2008 contained similar levels of benefit information (at least one of the four positive frames was present in 96% of all content), it also was decidedly more likely to include information about the risks associated with biofuels (one or more of the four negative frames was present in 89% of all content). Again, their findings are consistent with the issue-attention cycle and the tendency for coverage to become more conflict-driven the longer an issue remains in the media.

The increase in negatively framed information was largely due to two shifts in coverage. First, the food vs. fuel debate was entirely absent from New York Times and Washington Post coverage before 2004; however, the argument was cited in more than one-quarter (27%) of all articles from 2004 to 2008, including 40% of all articles in 2008 alone. The prevalence of information about the economic costs of biofuels also increased during the latter half of the 2000s. While economic cost arguments were present in 24% of all content between 1999 and 2003, that number rose to 47% between 2004 and 2008. Once again, these findings are consistent with the issue-attention cycle and the tendency for optimistic depictions to give way to acknowledgment of the costs or limitations of techno-scientific solutions.

Overall, information about the environmental benefits of biofuels, including as a means of combatting climate change, was largely consistent across the two time frames and was also the most common benefit frame employed by journalists for the issue throughout. Between 1999 and 2003, 42% of all articles made mention of the environmental benefits of biofuels. While that number dropped to 36% between 2004 and 2008, it still remained the most common benefit frame employed. “National security” was the next most commonly cited benefit about biofuels across the two time frames, with 26% of all content between 1999 and 2003 and 30% of all content between 2004 and 2008 noting the national security benefits that biofuels development bring to the United States. Together, this suggests that journalists were more likely to focus on the environmental benefits of the biofuels industry, including the potential for the alternative fuel source to mitigate global climate change, and that this consideration would be especially salient among audiences throughout the 2000s.

Wright and Reid (2011) more narrowly focused their analysis on New York Times content between the dates January 1, 2006, and May 11, 2008, a time frame characterized by heightened attention to biofuels in media. The authors coded a total of 432 news articles during that time and a total of 722 positive or negative claims within those articles. Their analysis examined three frames: “economic development,” “the environment,” and “national security.” The economic development frame was most common, with 355 claims across all the articles. The environment frame was next most common, with 242 references, followed by the national security frame with 125 claims.

The frames were each characterized by different degrees of positive and negative sentiment. Eighty percent of the national security claims portrayed biofuels in a positive light, depicting the alternative fuel as a means strengthening the security of the United States. The remaining 20% of such claims challenged the capacity of biofuels to strengthen U.S. security. Fifty-eight percent of the environmental claims focused on the positive impacts biofuels can have on the environment—depicting the fuel as cleaner burning than gasoline and as a means of slowing global climate change. The remaining 42% of the claims outlined the detrimental impacts of biofuels on the planet. The bulk of these negative environmentally focused claims began appearing in early 2008 and focused largely on issues of deforestation, carbon sequestration, and a growing belief that biofuels were actually part of the problem rather than the solution to environmental threats like global climate change.

Feldpausch-Parker and colleagues (2015) moved away from national-level newspapers, instead choosing to examine biofuels and biomass content within a single state. Their work explored newspaper coverage in New York State and focused on the highest circulation newspapers in the four counties with the most woody biomass research and development projects between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2013. The six-year period resulted in a total of 114 news articles, distributed relatively evenly across newspapers and years, with a peak of 29 total articles in 2012 and 14 total articles in each of 2009 and 2011.

The authors relied on the Socio-Political Evaluation of Energy Deployment (SPEED) framework in order to assess media coverage of the topic. The framework is based on the theory of social function systems by Luhmann (1989) and is specifically designed for examining considerations of emerging energy technologies at the state-level. Their use of SPEED involves classifying media content into the following set of categories or frames: technical, political/legal, health/safety, environmental, economic, and aesthetic.

Overall, the authors found a heavy emphasis on the benefits of biofuels/biomass. More than 80% of the 114 articles were coded as having a benefit-focused outlook. Across all four county newspapers the most commonly employed frame focused on the economic issues surrounding biofuels. Twenty-eight percent of all articles analyzed employed this frame in the discussion of the topic. The economic frame was more likely to highlight the benefits of biofuels, with 24% of such articles containing benefit information. Job creation and the monetary savings that could result from a shift from energy produced from fossil fuels to energy produced from biomass were the most commonly cited economic benefits. Conversely, only 6% of the economic-focused articles focused on the economic risks associated with the alternative fuel source. Economic risks were most frequently cited in areas of the lack of markets for biofuels and their viability when government subsidies and mandates are removed from the equation.

The technical and political frames were the next most likely to be employed in the analyzed newspapers. Articles employing a technical frame did so exclusively in terms of benefit information, focusing primarily on farmers’ ability to grow biomass crops on marginal land that is otherwise not suitable for food crops. Articles framed in terms of politics were largely benefit-focused as well, although not exclusively so. Twenty-one percent of all articles focused on the political benefits associated with biofuels, with most highlighting the competitive advantage that the state of New York could gain over other states in the area of renewable energy or the contributions biofuels/biomass could have on achieving energy independence for the country as a whole. Political risk information was found in only 4% of all articles and focused solely on a New York State Supreme Court case concerning the value of a biomass facility in the state.

Interestingly, environmental frames were employed in only 20% of all articles. However, the environmental frames focused solely on the benefits of biomass/biofuels to the environment, including numerous depictions of the technology as both green and sustainable. Additional environmental benefits were focused on the carbon benefits associated with the use of biofuels and the positive impacts that growing biomass can have on soil quality. No articles framed the issue in terms of aesthetics or health and safety.

Dyer, Singh, and Bailey (2013) examined how state, regional, and national newspapers covered biofuels development between 2007 and 2009. Focusing specifically on the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and three Alabama newspapers (The Birmingham News, the Press-Register, and The Huntsville Times), the authors found a clear trend in the number of publications over time. They found 250 articles containing the words “biofuel,” “ethanol,” or “biodiesel” in 2007, a number that peaked a year later when 266 such articles were published. In 2009, however, there was a dramatic decline in publications on the topic, with only 89 articles generated by their search terms. During the peak year of 2008, approximately one-third of all content was editorial news, a number that dipped to 13% in the year that followed.

The authors also found that the focus of the article—whether on ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic biofuels, third-generation biofuels, or biofuels in general, without specifying a specific type—influenced the tone of the writing. Biodiesel and cellulosic biofuels were most positively covered, while the tone around coverage of third-generation biofuels and biofuels in general was largely neutral in tone. Ethanol received the least favorable coverage, with nearly half of all content negative in tone and such coverage often depicting the food vs. fuel debate, as well as the policy and environmental concerns associated with the fuel. When environmental concerns were cited in the examined articles, it was typically in areas of air and water pollution, deforestation, or negative land use changes. While all of these have ties to the larger issue of global climate change, such ties are not often made explicit in the articles examined here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, their analysis revealed that how biofuels was framed was also contingent on the geographic scope of the issue. When biofuels was discussed at the local or even state level, the depictions were more likely to be positive, often focusing on the benefits that biofuels development would bring to the local or state economy—a finding that was consistent with the New York State–focused work of Feldpausch-Parker and colleagues (2015), who found a strong emphasis on local economic considerations in their analysis of newspapers in the state. At the national-level, Dyer and colleagues (2013) found biofuels depictions to be largely neutral in tone, while at the international level the tone was decidedly more negative, with food vs. fuel arguments, land use changes in developing nations, and international relations emerging as particularly prominent.

Media Coverage: Depictions of Biofuels Outside of the United States

The work noted above has focused largely on American media coverage of biofuels. However, the issue has been covered in countries outside of the United States. Eklöf and Mager (2013), for example, explored biofuels media coverage in the Swedish press and based on search results collected between April and June of 2011. Their analysis brought not only an international perspective to this topic but added nuance regarding how the biofuels debate has been covered in traditional and online media. Their analysis revealed that actors are not typically universal in either their support or their opposition toward biofuels. Rather, they might express support for one or two particular types of biofuel while opposing others. Similarly, Swedish media portrayed a wide variety of opinions concerning subsidies and regulatory actions, even while portraying general agreement that such policies were necessary to help the biofuels industry and protect the environment.

Eklöf and Mager (2013) found news pieces to be generally neutral in tone, with editorial or debate articles more combative and negative. The general pattern, however, was one of agreement that biofuels have both positive and negative implications and that work should be focused on leveraging or supporting the good qualities of the energy source, as well as those specific sources with the greatest environmental and economic upside. All articles typically relied on quotes from politicians, academics, and industry experts while refraining from reporting the opinions of lay publics. In contrast to their expectations, the authors found minimal differences between the results of their analysis and their investigation of the traditional Swedish press, noting that many of the same actors were present across both sources. Their Google analysis did reveal, however, that general biofuels search terms typically returned neutral and positively framed content, often content that outlined policy stances and collaborative efforts within the country aimed at making biofuels a sustainable alternative to fossil-based fuels. More critical viewpoints on biofuels typically only emerged beyond the first page of results or when very specific (and negative) search queries were employed (e.g., “food vs. fuel”). Moreover, much of the negative content that emerged in the Google analysis was several years old. Finally, their analysis revealed a heavy journalistic reliance on press releases. They found that close to 50% of all content they examined could be traced back to press releases written by companies and public institutions attempting to promote their own agenda. These press releases often placed a strong emphasis on biofuels as a means of combatting global climate change while at the same time highlighting the potential for economic growth as a result of biofuels development.

Sticking with an international focus, Skjolsvold (2012) compared biofuels newspaper coverage between 2007 and 2009 in Sweden with coverage in Norway, arguing for such a comparison on the grounds that bioenergy is much more prominent in the former country than the latter. His analysis revealed different patterns in the newspaper coverage of bioenergy across the two countries. In Norway, ambivalence was quite common. Articles often noted that bioenergy was a positive environmental development but that it was neither economically competitive nor the best alternative energy approach for the country. In Sweden, portrayals were more favorable. Articles cast Sweden as a technological leader in bioenergy and espoused the virtues of green energy. Other patterns were consistent across countries, most notably an emphasis on the food vs. fuel debate. Nevertheless, the two countries differed in how the media depicted the controversy, with Norway’s coverage especially negative and Sweden’s coverage typically positive, but also focusing on the issue as a challenge for Swedish innovation to address.

Sengers, Raven, and Venrooij (2010) conducted a textual analysis of content in the five largest Dutch daily newspapers between January 2000 and December 2008. Their analysis revealed decidedly more coverage dedicated to biofuels between 2004 and early 2008, before falling off again during the latter part of that year. Throughout the time frame of their analysis, the authors identified six thematic clusters capturing the nature of biofuels content in Dutch print media. The “Environment” cluster, aside from a focus on environmental issues like pollution and global climate change, was decidedly political in tone, focusing on political efforts to replace fossil fuels with biofuels to improve the overall quality of the environment. While this cluster focused on the environmental benefits of biofuels during the early to mid-2000s, it became much more negative in tone in later years, peaking in 2008 when the food vs. fuel debate and the environmental side effects of biofuels cultivation emerged as major hurdles to the viability of biofuels.

A “Biodiesel” cluster, devoted to this one specific form of biofuel, also emerged in their analysis. Biodiesel is the most popular form of biofuel in the Netherlands, which helps explain the prominence of this cluster. A third cluster focused on the practical use of biofuels, including a focus on those cars that can run on biodiesel and the car companies making investments in biofuels. A “Food” cluster emerged as the most dominant cluster in the overall analysis. This cluster was driven in large part by discussions of biofuel contributions to increased food prices and the global food crisis that dominated media coverage for much of 2007 and 2008. Not surprisingly, this cluster emerged as the most negative cluster in the analysis. “Ethanol” was a fifth cluster, which was largely international in scope given that ethanol is the most common biofuel in use across the globe. This cluster was largely consistent, with few peaks and valleys in coverage over the years investigated by the authors. Finally, the authors identified a sixth cluster, which they referred to as the “Generation” cluster. The “Generation” cluster focused largely on discussions of technological innovation around biofuels, including explaining the differences between first- and second-generation biofuels. This cluster was largely positive in tone, with articles focusing on how technological innovation can create better, cleaner, and more efficient biofuels. This cluster maintained a consistent presence in Dutch newspapers during the time frame of the research.

Qu and colleagues (2009) took a slightly different approach in their analysis of biofuels and bioenergy content in China. The authors focused their analysis on one website dedicated to the “sustainable development of China’s economy, energy, and environment,” looking for trends in coverage between 2001 and 2007. They found that the number of articles specifically dealing with bioenergy increased over the time frame of the study, with a major increase beginning in 2004. The tone of the content was overwhelmingly positive, with nearly 97% of articles about biodiesel, more than 88% of articles about ethanol, and nearly 98% of the articles about biogas focusing on the positives of the alternative fuel. While the absolute number of negatively framed articles was low, they did tend to increase over the time frame analyzed. The authors did not specifically look at the issue of climate change in their approach, although they did note increases in bioenergy coverage around key climate change–related events, most notably the formation of China’s National Climate Change Program in 2007.

How these mediated accounts of biofuels might have translated into public attitudes is the next focus of this article.

Public Opinion of Biofuels and Biomass in the United States and Canada

How publics form opinions about emerging science and technology topics has been a topic of frequent debate (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2007). The traditional approach, known as the “scientific literacy model” or “familiarity hypothesis” (Falk & Dierking, 2010; Scheufele, 2006), privileged knowledge in the opinion-formation process (Miller & Kimmel, 2001). More recently, attention has been turned to the role of heuristic cues in this process (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). These cues, which may take the form of different value predispositions, trust in social institutions, or signals from media, to name just a few, have been linked to opinions across a broad spectrum of scientific topics (e.g., Brossard, Lewenstein, & Bonney, 2005; Brossard & Nisbet, 2007; Cacciatore, Binder, Scheufele, & Shaw, 2012a; Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Corley, 2011; Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Shaw, 2012b; Lee, Scheufele, & Lewenstein, 2005; Nisbet, 2005; Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005).

A number of scholars have analyzed public opinion of biofuels in the past decade, with some of this work more closely following a “scientific literacy” approach and other work taking into consideration a broader set of predictors of public opinion. Wegener and Kelly (2008) were among the first to take a granular look at public perceptions of this often controversial energy solution. Their analysis of nationally representative survey data revealed an American audience that was largely supportive of biofuels, with more than 75% of those surveyed agreeing that the use of biofuels was a good idea. The highest levels of support were associated with the use of corn and switchgrass (approximately 70% agreed that using corn and switchgrass to produce ethanol was a good idea), while the use of wood products garnered the lowest levels of support (barely over half agreed that using wood or wood chips to produce ethanol was a good idea). General support for biofuels was found to be higher than support for a variety of other sources of energy, notably, those produced from coal and oil (where support was between 55 and 60%).

However, the authors also found evidence that the support for biofuels may not be particularly strong. Nearly a quarter of all people surveyed reported being “not at all informed” about biofuels, a number that increased to more than 70% when they were asked specifically about biofuels produced from non-corn sources, like switchgrass. Finally, the authors included an open-ended item in their survey that asked respondents to report the type of energy source that came to mind when they heard the term “renewable energy.” While more than one in five responded “solar,” only 5% mentioned some version of biofuel. While biofuels impacts on climate change were not specifically investigated in the Wegener and Kelly (2008) study, this work serves as a nice baseline for understanding public biofuel attitudes.

The works that followed began to focus more directly on biofuels and links to global climate change issues. Delshad, Raymond, Sawicki, and Wegener (2010) took a more granular look at the topic by conducting 34 focus groups and surveys in Indiana, a major corn-producing state in the United States. They found high levels of awareness concerning of biofuels (92%), ethanol (99%), and E85 (74%). Interestingly, across the surveys, only 20% reported hearing about E10—the most common ethanol-based fuel—and less than half were aware that the fuel they currently purchased most likely contained ethanol. Similarly, less than half were aware that the U.S. government had enacted policies to support biofuel development. Support for biofuels was somewhat divided among the participants, with 60% either “somewhat” or “strongly” supportive of biofuels in general and 40% not supportive. Respondents seemed less enthusiastic about biofuels relative to other environmental solutions, such as energy conservation (82% support), or alternative energy approaches, including wind and solar energy (97% support). As with the work of Wegener and Kelly (2008), support for biofuels varied based on the source associated with the fuel. However, in this work respondents were significantly less supportive of biofuels produced from corn as compared to biofuels produced from genetically modified crops, grass, and corn stover (the leaves, stalks, and residue that remain following a corn harvest). This finding is illustrative of a shift in biofuels attitudes and likely has to do with the food vs. fuel debate that emerged in media coverage of the issue around that time.

Environmental arguments, including those related to pollution and climate change, were the most commonly referenced reasons for supporting biofuels, with greater than 40% of respondents citing some form of environmental reason for their support. Economic arguments were next (24.4%), followed by arguments tied to civic duty and national security (16.8%). Economic reasons were commonly cited for opposing biofuels, as well. Nearly 50% of respondents reported some form of economic reservation about biofuels, with many reporting concerns that the development and production of biofuels will increase food prices. While the impact on the environment was the most frequent justification for supporting the use of biofuels, it was also a primary reason that respondents opposed the alternative fuel, with 40% of respondents indicating at least one environment-focused reason to doubt the potential of biofuels. Chief among the environmental concerns was the argument that biofuels are not energy efficient and that they fail to reduce pollution once indirect land use factors are taken into account. Finally, approximately 18% of respondents cited fairness or equity arguments for opposing biofuels. The bulk of these concerns centered on the belief that the global poor would suffer disproportionately from the higher food prices that might accompany increased biofuel development.

Cacciatore and colleagues (2012a) examined the benefit vs. risk perceptions of Wisconsinites across four different domains related to biofuels: environmental impacts, economic consequences, ethical/social implications, and political ramifications. This analysis revealed a general pattern whereby males, older respondents, and Republicans were less supportive of biofuels. Media played a relatively small role in predicting biofuel benefit vs. risk perceptions, although this is perhaps best explained by the fact that media impacted the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans differently, with increased media attention leading to more favorable attitudes among Democrats and less favorable attitudes among Republicans. Contrary to a knowledge deficit approach, increased factual knowledge about biofuels was associated with a tendency to see fewer benefits as compared to risks from the alternative fuel source. Of note, this study was one of very few to link factual knowledge, rather than perceived knowledge or familiarity, to large biofuels attitudes.

In a second study, relying on a separate data collection, Cacciatore, Scheufele, and Shaw (2012b) again examined Wisconsinite attitudes toward the topic. This time the authors employed a labeling manipulation in their survey that randomly asked half the respondents about “biofuels” and the other half about “ethanol.” Their analysis revealed that Wisconsinites were generally more supportive of the general term “biofuels” than the more specific term “ethanol,” rating biofuels as more environmentally friendly than ethanol and as better for the U.S. job market. As in their previous Wisconsin survey, Republicans and older respondents were generally more cynical toward biofuels and ethanol than their Democratic and younger counterparts.

Dragojlovic and Einsiedel (2015) embedded an experiment in an online survey of 1,300 Canadian adults. Their experiment tested for the impacts of randomized pro- and anti-biofuels arguments on public opinion. Specifically, they tested the impacts of a climate change argument that outlined the potential benefits of biofuels for reducing GHG emissions, a food price argument that explained how increased biofuels production could also increase the cost of basic food staples, and later, a deforestation argument focusing on unintended consequences associated with growing crops for biofuels production. Their experiment revealed that Canadians are significantly more supportive of biofuels produced from waste than those produced from either corn or commercial timber. In fact, there was near-universal support for biofuels produced from agricultural or wood processing waste. They also found that support for biofuels policies were directly tied to concern about climate change, with those perceiving a greater risk from climate change scoring higher on support for renewable fuel mandates and biofuels subsidies measures. While exposure to the climate change argument failed to impact attitudes toward biofuel policy, regardless of one’s level of climate change risk perceptions, exposure to both the food price argument and the later deforestation argument did significantly reduce policy support, but only among those who did not view climate change as a serious risk. Given these findings, the authors conclude that potential to reduce GHG emissions is already a salient consideration to Canadians when they consider the topic of biofuels.

Raymond and Delshad (2016) found that American respondents were supportive of general policies to spur biofuels production, including a cellulosic ethanol subsidy, but they showed greater opposition to alternative fuel standards mandating production of specific types as well as subsidies for traditional corn-based ethanol. Respondents cited economic arguments as most important in shaping their biofuels policy attitudes, followed by arguments related to environmental protection. However, a second set of analyses tested the potentially unconscious influence of different frames on policy attitudes and found that attitudes were driven primarily by normative considerations related to the environment and the fairness of policy rather than arguments related to the economics of biofuels.

Global Opinions of Biofuels and Biomass

Savvanidou, Zervas, and Tsagarakis (2010) looked outside of the United States, exploring biofuel attitudes in Greece through more than 500 face-to-face interviews. While the authors found that nine in ten respondents believe that changes to the earth’s climate are the result of fossil fuel use, only half thought that biofuel use and development can serve as an effective solution against global climate change. Rather, three-quarters of respondents believed that efforts at energy conservation should precede any attempts to change the sources of energy that people rely upon. Nevertheless, 80% of those surveyed reported a willingness to use biofuels—particularly those who agree that there is a link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change—and 45% were willing to pay an extra 0.06 €/L for biofuels. People who think that biofuels can be an effective approach to combat climate change were willing to pay beyond an extra 0.06 €/L for biofuels. Overall, however, biofuels were not viewed as the most appropriate renewable energy source for dealing with energy concerns and shifts in climate. Only 27% of those surveyed believed biofuels should be given priority over other renewable energy sources, with those who believe biofuels can effectively combat climate change more likely to voice such an opinion.

Halder, Pietarinen, Havu-Nuutinen, and Pelkonen (2010) examined youth perceptions about bioenergy in Finland, one of the leading countries in terms of the use of bioenergy sources. Within their sample of 14- to 17-year-olds, the authors identified overall low levels of knowledge about biofuels and bioenergy, including when compared to understanding of related renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro. Students were similarly lacking in knowledge of specific types of bioenergy, including biofuels and wood pellets. Low levels of knowledge, however, did not prevent the students from having rather strong opinions about bioenergy. The students were most negative on the ability of bioenergy and biofuels to mitigate global warming—more than 70% of the students reported either disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that that would be the case. Similarly, students were not optimistic that bioenergy would be able to replace fossil fuels in the future, with just over 10% of the sample agreeing that was a possibility. It is hardly surprising, then, that less than 10% of the Finnish students felt that politicians should support research into and development of bioenergy.

A Hungarian study recruited respondents from an online magazine about automobiles in order to understand perceptions about the topic in that country (Balogh, Bai, Popp, Huzsvai, & Jobbagy, 2015). The respondents, all automobile enthusiasts, reported overall high levels of self-assessed knowledge about biofuels, a finding that is not necessarily surprising given the surveyed population, but one that still represents a departure from much of the other work on the topic. The analysis revealed that respondents’ self-assessed knowledge levels were generally correlated with factual knowledge scores, suggesting that the Hungarian respondents are generally aware of what they know and do not know about the topic. The Internet was noted as the most helpful source for biofuels information, followed by car-themed magazines. The sample was generally favorable toward biofuels, particularly in terms of impacts on jobs and the reduction of GHG emissions. Nevertheless, three clusters of respondents emerged. The first, consisting of just over 50% of the sample, was most positive toward biofuels, reporting the highest levels of interest in the topic and the greatest willingness to purchase the alternative fuel. The second cluster was more average in their levels of support—neither fully embracing nor condemning biofuels. The third cluster was the smallest in terms of size and was the most skeptical toward bio-based fuels. They reported concerns about biofuel impacts on the natural environment, and this translated into an overall lower willingness to both purchase biofuels and work in the bio-economy.

A Delphi approach with bioenergy researchers from areas ranging from biology to forest products and economics provides an understanding of expert opinion on the topic in China (Qu, Ahponen, Tahvanainen, & Pelkonen, 2010). Those surveyed identified China’s need to reduce CO2 as the most important advantage of developing forest bioenergy in the country—a finding that was consistent regardless of the academic discipline of the respondent. Woody oil plants and glucose plants were viewed as the most promising source for accomplishing this task. The experts also assessed potential hurdles to the development of a bio-based energy economy. While there was some disagreement about which hurdles were most problematic, scattered biomass resources and the lack of national and industry standards emerged at the top of the expert’s list. The experts were in agreement, however, about the need for the Chinese government to play a pivotal role in ensuring the future of bioenergy in the country. They specifically cited the need to promote basic research around forest bioenergy, to improve energy policy, to strengthen forest planning, to develop pilot projects, and to improve public awareness of the issue. Finally, the experts believed that the future of bioenergy would be directly tied to oil prices but that bioenergy could replace oil within 10 years.

Zhang, Yu, Li, and Zou (2011) focused on perceptions of biofuels implementation in the road transportation sector through a survey of respondents in Nanjing, China. Their results suggest low levels of biofuels awareness, a finding the authors tie to the lack of fueling stations in Nanjing offering E10 or other bio-based fuels. Nevertheless, the respondents were optimistic about biofuels. More than 80% believed biofuels would help manage energy crises, with nearly the same percentage reporting that the alternative fuel source would reduce GHG emissions. While the respondents were optimistic about the environmental impacts of biofuels, those impacts were not of primary importance when determining use of biofuels. Rather, economic considerations were identified as paramount for driving biofuels use.

Kraxner, Yang, and Yamagata (2009) examined bioenergy perceptions among rural respondents in a small Japanese mountain community where 80% of those surveyed were identified as owners of forested land. Their survey work focused largely on how respondents viewed the forest land and less on the role of forests for biomass production or as a means of dealing with climate change. Perhaps most importantly, the authors showed that attitudes toward sustainable biomass production were highly malleable. Survey respondents were provided a brief and neutral explanation of forest certification focusing on harvest yields, sustainability, and pricing. Prior to receiving such information, approximately one-third of forest owners were interested in increasing harvests in domestic forests. After receiving the information, nearly two-thirds were interested in such information.

Raza and colleagues (2011) further expanded the context to India, due in large part to the heavy reliance on bioenergy sources in the country where anywhere from 80 to 90% of rural and 20 to 40% of urban households rely on biomass for their energy requirements. However, the key takeaway from the author’s investigation of the topic was that systematic data collections of biofuels public opinion are lacking in the country. While work has focused on the issues biofuels are designed to address—climate change and various types of environmental pollution—there is a dearth of studies linking these issues specifically to bioenergy.

Public Opinion and Biofuels: Linking Media to Public Attitudes

A handful of studies have attempted to link content analysis work with public opinion data. For instance, Delshad and Raymond (2013) combined a content analysis with survey research to try to better understand media impacts on public biofuels attitudes. Consistent with the findings from their content analysis, which showed nearly equivalent amounts of positively and negatively framed depictions of biofuels between 2004 and 2008, their survey work revealed relatively modest support for biofuels (average score of 3.31 on a 5-point scale). The authors also linked their survey work to previous work done in the field, illustrating the declines in public confidence in biofuels over time. For instance, while Wegener and Kelly (2008) found that four in five survey respondents agreed with the statement “using biofuels, such as ethanol, is a good idea,” agreement with that statement dipped below 40% in Delshad and Raymond’s later survey.

The authors also noted several other patterns in their survey work consistent with the shifts in media frames. Consistent with the rise of food vs. fuel discussions in the popular press, the survey revealed substantively higher levels of support for biofuels produced from corn stover (78% support) than for those produced from the edible parts of corn (46% support). Similarly, respondents were more optimistic about the environmental benefits associated with cellulosic biofuels relative to corn-based biofuels.

The authors then ran a series of logistic regression models to better understand what drives public attitudes toward biofuels. Notably, they found that greater levels of attention to news was associated with lower levels of support for corn-based and cellulosic ethanol as well as several policies that are favorable toward biofuels development. The authors argue that the findings are indicative of the negative shift in media framing toward the issue. Outside of media attention, regionalism played a role in predicting biofuels support. Respondents from the Midwest, as compared to those living outside of the Midwest, were approximately 1.5 times more likely to support both corn-based and cellulosic ethanol. Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans and Independents to support pro-biofuel policies, including subsidies for corn-based ethanol, while environmentalists were also more supportive of both cellulosic and corn-based ethanol.

Sengers, Raven, and Venrooij (2010) examined both media depictions and practitioner opinion of biofuels in the Netherlands. As noted, their analysis revealed six clusters of biofuels-focused content in prominent Dutch media. However, they also interviewed several practitioners who worked in various positions within and outside the biofuels industry to get a sense of how different publics viewed the topic. The interview participants echoed the authors’ own content analysis findings, with each reporting that media coverage of biofuels first began to increase around 2005 before peaking a few years later and then dropping off at the tail end of 2008. The interviewees were also able to accurately describe the patterns of media coverage, noting that the tone of coverage went from almost universally positive at the start of the 21st century to decidedly more pessimistic just a few years later.

The participants had categorically different outlooks on the viability of biofuels in the future, and their viewpoints, perhaps not surprisingly, appeared directly tied to their occupation. The entrepreneur in the study, for instance, focused most directly on the financial opportunities associated with biofuels, particularly second-generation biofuels produced from sources like algae. The scientist in the group was more pragmatic, arguing that is naïve to expect algae to be a cure-all for the ills facing the large-scale development and implementation of biofuels. The nongovernmental organization lobbyist expressed concerns about European trade decisions imposing conditions on poorer countries, while the policy officer often focused comments on how countries like the Netherlands can reap the benefits of biofuels through appropriate regulatory stances. The opinions expressed through the interviews often mirrored those expressed in media, with attitudes ranging from highly supportive to emphatically opposed to biofuels development and implementation.


While biofuels have become the single most common alternative energy source in the transportation sector, their continued use and the growth of the industry remains in a perilous position. The content analyses discussed in this article have examined media coverage of biofuels across different countries, cultures, and forms of media, revealing several consistent patterns in coverage. Most notably, virtually all of the studies have noted shifts in the tone of biofuels media coverage from the early 2000s through the second half of the decade. As would be expected given our understanding of the issue attention cycle, the tone shifted from early optimism about biofuels as a solution to environmental, political, and economic problems to more frequent discussions of the limitations of the alternative fuel source for combatting such issues. Regardless of where the content analyses took place, environmental discussions of biofuels were quite prominent, although again, the tone of these discussions varied from positive to negative the longer the issue remained in mediated discourse.

Other patterns were unique to specific countries and media. For instance, American media coverage did not typically differentiate between specific types of biofuels, whereas some European work revealed a clear distinction between ethanol and biodiesel and different generation biofuels. The tone and themes surrounding biofuels were also tied to the scope of the media in which the issue was communicated. Local- and state-level media were generally more positive in tone, with a focus on the economic advantages of biofuel development for the local community or state. As the scope widened to national or international discussions of the energy source, the tone shifted, with neutral and negative portrayals more likely to dominate.

Moving forward, there are several gaps to be filled in the literature surrounding biofuels media coverage. Most notably, the bulk of the content analysis work has focused on the first decade of the 2000s, almost completely ignoring media coverage after the year 2010. This is not particularly surprising given the prominence of the issue in the early 2000s, but it leaves questions about how advances in bioenergy technology, including areas like cellulosic biofuels, are being framed in the press. Moreover, the bulk of the work to date has been focused on newspaper depictions of the topic, leaving opportunities to explore television, online, and social media depictions of the topic. Further, work in this area has also been largely confined to the United States and a few developed economies in Europe—leaving an understanding of coverage in developing economies noticeably absent.

Patterns in the public opinion data around the topic are more difficult to diagnose, in part because of the diverse methodologies, measures, and sampling techniques that have been employed. Nevertheless, some commonalities have emerged. First, publics are not particularly knowledgeable about biofuels, even when compared to other forms of renewable energy. Where studies show a knowledgeable population (e.g., the work of Balogh and colleagues in Hungary), it appears to be more the result of sampling than an indication of a knowledgeable general population. This pattern of low knowledge levels seems to be the case whether publics are asked to self-assess their knowledge or are posed a series of factual knowledge items about the topic. It might also indicate that opinions are more malleable as they are not based on a solid understanding of the issue. Additional research is needed in this area, however. Second, opinions have become decidedly less supportive over time, reflective of the media coverage that has characterized the issue both in the United States and abroad. However, the more supportive opinions expressed toward cellulosic biofuels and biofuels produced from non-food sources, like algae, open the door for public opinion to rebound around this important issue.

Around the globe, biofuels are currently buoyed by government mandates and subsidies that are increasingly coming under attack. This has likely served to increase the partisan divide around the issue, particularly in the United States, where Democrats are generally more supportive of biofuels and the policies designed to spur biofuels development, while Republicans have shown greater skepticism in these areas.

The alternative fuel source is also being criticized on ethical and financial grounds (Runge, 2010). Perhaps most importantly, the environmental benefits of biofuels have been called into question (Runge, 2010). Much of these criticisms can be traced back to research suggesting that the land uses changes required to facilitate crop growth for biofuels development will release large amounts of sequestered carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The concern is that this release will offset and exceed any reductions in GHG emissions that result from replacing fossil fuels with bio-based fuels or biofuel blends (Searchinger et al., 2008). Some of the public opinion research in this area suggests that these criticisms have influenced publics and translated into higher levels of public opposition to this alternative fuel source.

Finally, the public opinion around this issue, both in the United States and abroad, has tended to rely on cross-sectional and correlation-based research, rather than more systematic longitudinal trackings of opinions or causal-focused research, such as experiments. As a result, relatively little is known about the stability of opinions or how different messages or frames impact public sentiment. Of course, the biofuels industry is continuously evolving. While the most well-known bio-based fuel in the United States is undoubtedly corn-based ethanol, research is exploring opportunities for biofuels made from less resource- and land-intensive sources, including non-food crops such as corn stover and algae. Research in this area is lacking, but the work that has been done suggests that publics are more favorable toward such sources, indicative of a more nuanced picture of the biofuels debate. With little doubt, how the issue is framed in media and other discussions moving forward will go a long way toward determining public acceptance of and governmental policy toward this once celebrated renewable energy source.

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