BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European biofuels could receive a boost from a change in the way the European Union calculates their impact on the environment, a document shows, angering environmentalists who think they do more harm than good.
The European Council document seen by Reuters on Wednesday also annoyed European biodiesel producers who see a bias toward bioethanol.
New figures on how biofuels can help cut greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change follow swiftly after the European Parliament proposed clamping down on their use, fearing negative side effects such as deforestation.
The EU's final stance will be decided in negotiations in coming weeks between the European Parliament and member states, who are discussing the new data this week.
"The timing and lack of transparency surrounding these new figures raises serious questions about how the biofuel lobby has been able to influence the debate," said Nusa Urbancic of environment group T&E.
The European Union's executive has proposed that 10 percent of all road transport fuel comes from renewable sources by 2020, as it seeks to heed U.N. warnings that climate change will bring more extreme weather and rising sea levels.
Much of that 10 percent would come from biofuels, creating a huge potential market that is coveted by exporters such as Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as EU farming nations.
But environmentalists charge that biofuels made from grains and oilseeds have pushed up food prices and forced subsistence farmers to expand agricultural land by hacking into rainforests and draining wetlands.
The European Parliament has responded by agreeing to limit fuels from food such as Brazilian sugar to 6 percent of EU fuel.
It has demanded that from the outset biofuels cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent compared to petrol and diesel, an increase on the 35 percent saving originally proposed by the European Commission, which would have ruled out some EU biofuels.
Member states are now considering reclassifying European biofuels to give new values for the greenhouse gas savings they can achieve, according to the European Council document.
Among the new figures, sugar beet ethanol is given a new greenhouse gas saving of 52 percent, up from 35 percent in the European Commission's initial calculations, bringing it back into line with parliament's recommendation.
"This has been done without any transparency," said a spokeswoman for European Biodiesel Board. "Maybe this can be used as a starting point, but in no way can this be used in the longer term without more scientific work and input from biofuels producers."
T&E's Urbancic said the figures appeared to ignore the damage biofuels can cause by using vegetable oils that would otherwise have been used in foods -- thereby creating fresh demand that encourages farmers to expand farmland into forests.
"The Commission and Council are still ignoring the absolutely critical issue of indirect land use change," she said. "They are being selective about the science they take on board."
Reporting by Pete Harrison, Editing by Peter Blackburn