Biofuel is a Lie

Biofuel has been presented to the public as a green alternative to petroleum-based fuels. The public has been led to believe that alcohol and biodiesel are good fuels that should be encouraged in the same way that wind and solar energy should be encouraged as good energy alternatives.

However, the public has been misled. Biofuel is neither green nor good. It is a lie.

1. Biofuel is a lie because the production of biofuels causes vast amounts of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere - from the burning and clearing of land for biofuel crops, and from the fuel burned by the agricultural equiment in planting and cultivating the biofuel. (This is in addition to the carbon dioxide that is released when the biofuel is burned in number 5 below).

2. The biofuel corn ethanol is a lie because it does not make economic sense. That is, the energy required to produce the corn ethanol is roughly equal to the energy that is later produced when it is burned. The energy contained in the carbon-based fuels used to grow and dry the corn is about the same as the energy contained in the the corn ethanol produced from that corn! Except for the federal money incentives (our tax money) paid to the processors (farmers and plant owners) there is no profit in the manufacture of corn ethanol.

3. Biofuel is a lie because its production drives up the price of food. The same land that is used to grow corn or sugar cane or oil palm for biofuel, can be used to grow food. As more land is cultivated for biofuel, less land is cultivated for food, and the law of supply and demand drives up the price of food.

4. Biofuel is a lie because virgin tropical rainforest is burned to make more land available to grow biofuel plants such as sugar cane and oil palm. The burning of the rain forest destroys a complex and valuable ecosystem, displaces and destroys native human cultures, and releases -the already mentioned- enormous volumes of carbon dioxide and ash into the atmosphere.

5. Biofuel is a lie because it produces carbon dioxide when it burns, in exactly the same way that the other carbon-based fuels produce carbon dioxide when they burn. However, it is also true that the biofuel plants remove an equal amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - so in the long term, this last point is not a valid objection.

David Pimental, a leading Cornell University agricultural expert, has calculated that it takes more energy to make ethanol from grain than the ethanol’s combustion produces. He says, "Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning." Pimentel chaired a U.S. Department of Energy panel that investigated the energy, economic and environmental aspects of ethanol production several years ago.  He subsequently conducted a detailed analysis of the corn-to-car fuel process.  He found that:

131,000 BTUs of energy are needed to make 1 gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTU; so 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that is actually in the ethanolEvery time you make 1 gallon of ethanol, there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTU".

In 2001, ethanol from corn cost about $1.74 per gallon to produce, compared with about 95 cents to produce a gallon of gasoline.  This is why fossil fuels – and not ethanol – are used to produce the ethanol. The growers and processors can’t afford to burn ethanol to make ethanol.  U.S. drivers couldn’t afford it either, if it weren’t for government subsidies.

Corn production in the U.S. erodes soil about 12 times faster than the soil can be reformed, and irrigating corn mines groundwater 25 percent faster than the natural recharge rate of ground water. The environmental system in which corn is being produced is being rapidly degraded. Corn should not be considered a renewable resource for ethanol energy production.

Billions of dollars per year in federal and state subsidies – to large corporations such as Archer, Daniels, Midland – for ethanol production are not the only costs to taxpayers.  Subsidized corn also results in higher prices for meat, milk and eggs because increased ethanol production inflates corn prices, and about 70 percent of corn grain is fed to livestock and poultry in the United States.  In addition to paying tax dollars for ethanol subsidies, consumers pay significantly higher food prices in the marketplace.

The average U.S. automobile, traveling 10,000 miles a year would need about 852 gallons of the corn-based ethanol. This would take 11 acres to grow, and this happens to be the amount of cropland required to feed seven Americans.

If all the automobiles in the United States were fueled with 100 percent ethanol, 97 percent of U.S. land area would be needed to grow corn – and nothing else. Corn would cover the total land area of the United States.

In 2004, approximately 3.57 billion gallons of ethanol were used as a gas additive in the United States, according to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA). During his February State of the Union address, President George Bush urged Congress to pass an energy bill that would pump up the amount to 5 billion gallons by 2012. UC Berkeley geo-engineering professor Tad W. Patzek thinks that's a very bad idea.   For two years, Patzek has been analyzing the environmental ramifications of ethanol. According to Patzek, ethanol does more harm than good.  "In terms of renewable fuels, ethanol is the worst solution," Patzek says. "It has the highest energy cost with the least benefit."

Patzek published a fifty-page study on the subject in the journal Critical Reviews in Plant Science. He factored in the myriad energy inputs required by industrial agriculture, from the amount of fuel used to produce fertilizers and corn seeds to the transportation and wastewater disposal costs. In contrast to Pimental, he believes that the total energy consumed in corn farming and ethanol production is six times greater than what the end product provides to your car engine

He is also concerned about the sustainability of industrial farming in developing nations where sugar cane and trees are grown as feedstock for ethanol and other biofuels. Using United Nations data, he examined the production cycles of many large plantations.  "One farm for a local village probably makes sense," he says. "But if you have a 100,000 acre plantation effectively exporting thousands of tons of biomass on contract to Europe, that's a completely different story.  One of the prices you pay, for example, is that – in Brazil alone – you annually damage a jungle the size of Greece."

If ethanol is as much of an environmental Trojan horse as Patzek's data suggests, what is the solution? The researcher sees several possibilities, which can be explored in parallel. First, divert funds earmarked for ethanol to improving the efficiency of fuel cells and hybrid electric cars.  "Can engineers double the mileage of these cars?" he asks. "If so, we can cut the petroleum consumption in the US by one-third."

For generating electricity on the grid, Patzek's "favorite renewable energy" for the replacement of coal is solar.  Unfortunately, he says that solar cell technology is still too immature for use in large power stations. Until it's ready for prime time, he has a suggestion that could raise even more controversy than his criticisms of ethanol additives: "I've come to the conclusion that if we're smart about it, nuclear power plants may be the lesser of the evils when we compare them with coal-fired plants and their impact on global warming," he says. "We're going to pay now or pay later. The question is, what's the smallest price we'll have to pay?"

Ethanol production from corn consumes large quantities of unsustainable petroleum and natural gas.  Even the most optimistic energy-return-on-investment claims suggest that,

In order to use 100% solar energy to grow corn and produce ethanol (fueling farm-and-transportation machinery with ethanol, distilling it with heat from burning crop residues, and using no fossil fuels), the consumption of ethanol to replace current U.S. petroleum use alone would require about 75% of all cultivated land on the face of the Earth, with no ethanol for other countries, or sufficient food for humans and animals.

According to a leaked April 2008 World Bank report, biofuels have caused world food prices to increase by seventy-five percent (75%) in the past year.  In 2007, biofuels consumed one third of America's corn harvest. Filling up one SUV fuel tank one time with 100% ethanol uses enough corn to feed one person for a year.  Thirty million tons of U.S. corn going to ethanol in 2007 greatly reduced the world's overall supply of grain.  (However, it is also true that 31% of the corn put into the process comes out as “distiller's grain,” sometimes called DDGS – which is fed to livestock and is very high in protein.)

Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production to halt the increasing catastrophe for the poor. He proclaimed that the rising practice of converting food crops into biofuel is "A Crime Against Humanity," saying it is creating food shortages and price jumps that are causing millions of poor people to go hungry.   The European Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development warns, “The push to expand biofuels is creating tensions that will disrupt markets without generating significant environmental benefits.”

When all 200 American ethanol subsidies are considered, they cost about $7 billion USD per year (equal to roughly $1.90 USD total for each a gallon of ethanol).  When the price of an agricultural commodity such as corn increases, farmers are motivated to quickly shift finite land and water resources to it, and away from traditional food crops.  The 2007-12-19 U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires a fivefold increase over current levels, to 36 billion gallons of ethanol in 2022.

Increasing production of corn-based ethanol to meet alternative fuel goals is increasing the "dead zone" that plagues the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new study, adding to the growing list of concerns over the fuel.  Each year, spring runoff washes nitrogen-rich fertilizers from farms in the Mississippi River basin and carries them into the river and the streams that feed it. The nitrogen eventually empties out of the mouth of the Mississippi (left) and into the Gulf of Mexico, where tiny phytoplankton feed off of it and spread into an enormous bloom.  When these creatures die, they sink to the ocean floor, and their decomposition strips the water of oxygen. This condition, called hypoxia, prevents animals that depend on oxygen, such as fish or shrimp, from living in those waters. In recent years, the "dead zone" has grown to the size of New Jersey — about 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) — each summer.

Corn ethanol is not the only biofuel.  There are more acceptable alternatives.  Online, the National Geographic compares five biofuels: corn ethanol, sugar cane ethanol. biodiesel, cellulose, and algae.

Source of biofuel

Energy balance

CO2 emissions

Geographic area

Corn

1:1.3

22% less

Midwest U.S.

Sugar Cane

1:8

56% less

Brazil

Biodiesel

1:2.5

68% less

Germany

Cellulose

1:2

91% less

no data

Algae

no data

no data

Arizona

Bacteria

no data

no data

Maryland

In the table above, Energy balance is the ratio of energy required –energy in– to energy produced –energy out.  (National Geographic seems to be much more optimistic than Pimental or Patzek were!)  CO2 emissions is the net reduction in CO2 produced per gallon burned, compared to fossil fuel.  A quick study of the table suggests that corn ethanol is the worst choice from either point of view.  Ethanol from corn or sugar cane, and biodiesel from canola or palm oil – all threaten to take away from land that could grow food crops.  However, cellulose, algae, and bacteria all promise to produce biofuels from land that would otherwise be unusable.

1. Expanded biofuel production is already increasing starvation of millions of people world-wide because land that once grew food is now growing biofuel.
2. Some believe that expanded biofuel production is actually increasing carbon emissions.  When the loss of carbon-sequestering grassland, rain forest, or crop land is added onto the carbon emissions resulting from planting, cultivating, harvesting, processing and transporting the biofuel, the total carbon emissions are worse than they are for fossil fuels.
3. Some believe that when the lower efficiency of alcohol and government price supports are factored in, the cost of biofuel exceeds the cost of fossil fuel. 
4. Biofuel is not needed because the electric car technology needed to replace fossil-fuel burning cars, already exists.  The electricity to charge the cars will come from nuclear energy, which produces no greenhouse gasses.