Late last summer, when we drove southeast from Seattle, we were pretty sure we saw corn growing in fields where we'd never seen it before. Turns out we were right. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, Washington farmers planted 73 percent more land in corn last year than they did in 2006. All over the country, farmers have been taking advantage of booming biofuel markets — and subsidies — by planting more corn, soybeans, and oilseed crops. Just drive around farm country, and the biofuels boom becomes visible.
Is that a good thing or not? Over-hyped as a solution to our energy problems — three years ago, Robert Bryce wrote in Slate that "[f]or the last generation, ethanol has been America's fuel of the future" — then over-bashed as a cause of high food prices and illusory carbon savings, biofuels now hover in a kind of public policy limbo: Do they represent salvation or just another scam?
The best answer is probably some of each. And despite their ambiguous status, they still provide business opportunities. Just look around:
- Propel Biofuels has just opened its first stand-alone Seattle biodiesel station at Broad Street and Westlake Avenue North. (The company was already selling biodiesel at a handful of regular gas stations in the Seattle area.)
- Up north of Seattle, a "small group of Snohomish County farmers will soon receive federal funds to boost its ability to grow and store large quantities of crops for use in making biodiesel," Jerry Cornfield reported recently in the Everett Herald. "The Sno/Sky Agriculture Alliance of Monroe will spend its $96,806 grant on constructing facilities for canola, mustard and other oilseed crops harvested by its six members. ... [T]he dollars will cover about a third of the cost to build up to six silos ... next to the old Honor Farm in Monroe and a new biogas digester plant now under construction."
- In February, as part of a joint project by Boeing, Virgin Atlantic, GE Aviation, and Seattle-based Imperium Renewables, a Virgin 747 flew from London to Amsterdam using biofuels in one of its engines.
- Last year, Imperium opened the nation's largest biodiesel plant at Grays Harbor. The plant processes canola and other oil crops grown in the Northwest.
- South of the Columbia River, the Oregon Environmental Council has issued a report saying that biofuels still make sense. It says that biofuel production contributes very little to the rise in food prices, is only one of many factors driving land-use changes, and should be compared not simply to petroleum from conventional sources but from environmentally worse future sources, including tar sands.
Not everyone agrees. The New York Times editorialized recently about the world food crisis as a man-made phenomenon, conceding that some causes were beyond governments' control but insisting that "[w]rongheaded policies among rich and poor nations are also playing a big role. Of those," the Times argued, "perhaps the most wrongheaded are the tangle of subsidies, mandates and tariffs to encourage the production of biofuels from crops in the United States and the European Union. According to the World Bank, almost all of the growth in global corn production from 2004 to 2007 was devoted to American ethanol production — pushing up corn and animal feed prices and prompting farmers to switch from other crops to corn."
Be that as it may, dramatic rises in wheat and rice prices can hardly be blamed on the new market for biofuels. And it turns out that no one is taking corn from the mouths of babes to squeeze it into our gas tanks. Most corn diverted to ethanol production is feed corn. We're taking it from the mouths of cattle.
Nevertheless, the European Union, formerly gung-ho about biofuels, is having second thoughts. "Until recently, European governments had sought to lead the rest of the world in the use of biofuels, aiming to derive 10 percent of Europe's transportation fuels from biofuels by 2020," James Kanter wrote in The New York Times on July 8.
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