Gauging the biofuels backlash

Some would have you believe that making fuels from crops and other biomatter is responsible for food shortages. Probably not, but there are legitimate questions about the net gain — is there one? — of producing and using biofuel versus conventional petroleum.
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Some would have you believe that making fuels from crops and other biomatter is responsible for food shortages. Probably not, but there are legitimate questions about the net gain — is there one? — of producing and using biofuel versus conventional petroleum.

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.

But the allure has dimmed amid growing evidence that the kind of goals proposed by the European Union are contributing to deforestation, which speeds climate change, and helping force up food prices. "I think when we will look back we will say this was the beginning of a turning point for Europe on biofuels," said Juan Delgado, a research fellow specializing in energy and climate change at Breugel, a research organization in Brussels.

Elizabeth Rosenthal reported earlier this year in the Times that almost "all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these 'green' fuels are taken into account, two studies being published [in Science] have concluded."

What are those "full costs?" Here are some basics: Green plants use sunlight to fix carbon. Burn a dead plant and the carbon combines with oxygen to release energy and form carbon dioxide. The energy can drive an automobile engine. The carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. Hence global warming.

You can burn anything that has ever grown. People have burned wood forever. Farm families in the northern plains burned corn cobs. Coal and petroleum are just plants that died a long time ago. If you burn plants that are grown sustainably, new plants will take as much carbon from the atmosphere as the burning puts into it, so the combustion itself will be — or can be — carbon-neutral. If you burn coal or petroleum products, on the other hand, you'll release a lot of carbon that has been locked underground for millennia, so you'll increase the amount of atmospheric carbon.

But the equation isn't that simple. How much energy does it take to produce, refine, and transport a gallon of ethanol or biodiesel? Do you get out more energy than you put in? You have to calculate the amount of petroleum burned in driving a tractor through the fields and the natural gas used to make nitrogen fertilizer.

And what are the indirect effects? If you cut down a forest or even plow up grassland to plant corn or soybeans or sugar cane, you lose the carbon-fixing ability of the trees or grass. You also release the carbon that they have already sequestered, plus carbon that has been sequestered in the soil.

There are trade-offs. The net energy value of ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane, for example, is much higher than the net energy value of ethanol made from American corn. But growing sugar cane or soybeans in Brazil usually requires or leads to cutting down tropical rainforest, which has huge negative impacts on biodiversity and the ability of all those fast-growing trees to capture carbon. (Brazilian politicians insist on their right to do whatever they damn well please with their own rainforest.)

German Marshall Fund researcher Tim Searchinger has found that if the impacts of converting forest or grasslands to crop production are taken into account, only some kinds of biofuels produce a net carbon benefit. "[C]orn ethanol will eventually pay back the carbon debt — the initial increase in emissions from land use change," Searchinger wrote, "— but only after 167 years."

Responding to such findings, a group of scientists recently urged the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to ignore the land-use-change impact of biofuel production, arguing that current ways of modeling carbon impacts aren't yet precise enough. On the Natural Resources Defense Council's Web site, NRDC expert Nathanael Greene commented that

The tremendous complexities around biofuels are often painted with too broad a brush — this approach is evil, that approach will save the world. My friends [among the scientists who wrote to the CARB] have fallen into this trap by calling, even temporarily, for taking our eye off the actual performance of each type of biofuel as best as we can possibly measure it. Others have looked at the uncertainty around measuring land-use change emissions and argued that we should simply have a moratorium on all biofuels.

Greene himself argued that the California board and the federal Environmental Protection Agency

have the obligation to ... put a value on the indirect land-use emissions of different feedstocks grown on different types of land. These values will be wrong. ... However, the carbon stores in forests and grasslands around the world are so large and clearing practices are so destructive that I'm convinced that for the most part these values will move the industry in the right direction. There will be plenty of feedstock for the advanced biofuels industry to launch while CARB and EPA refine their numbers, and this much needed industry won't start down the path of doing more harm than good.

Greene is a principal author of an NRDC report [PDF] that suggests "[b]iofuels could virtually eliminate our need for gasoline by 2050." But this looks feasible only if we produce "cellulosic" biofuels — i.e., use wood wastes and agricultural residues, rather than corn starch — build more fuel-efficient vehicles, and create communities that don't require much driving. In other words, even in a best-case scenario, biofuels aren't a magic bullet.

Of course, most politicians like magic bullets. Obama backs ethanol subsidies. (Of course he does. His home state of Illinois trails only Iowa in corn production.) McCain opposes them. (Of course he does. They don't grow a whole lot of corn in Arizona.) Congress has showered ethanol subsidies on farm states since 1978. Virtually no one talks seriously about conservation. Nobody wants to be President Jimmy Carter, virtuously putting on a cardigan sweater rather than turning up the White House thermostat. But someone has to do it. Without curbing future demand, future production — even if it's based on switchgrass or wood waste rather than offshore oil — won't get us where we need to go.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.