domingo, enero 03, 2010

Badass Rant on Biofools: The Fallacy of Biofuels

by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

The biofuels fantasy dies hard! Even today, a significant portion of the American environmental movement clings hard to the notion that fuels derived from farm crops, animal waste and the like can wean the world off fossil fuels and thus defeat the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

When I bring up the evidence that there are no sustainable biofuels, some of my American colleagues backtrack only slightly and switch to argument B: that while not perfect, biofuels can be a part of the solution. When I point out that such a statement is based on faith and not on reason, they take it personally and accuse me of being "uncivil."

So let's go over the basics again. According to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study, if all of the corn grown in the USA was used for ethanol and all of the soy in the country was turned into biodiesel, it would only displace 12% of national gasoline demand and no more than 6% of diesel fuel demand. But actual experience has shown that even the NAS's grim conclusions might be too generous to the industry. In 2006 20% of American corn was turned into 5 billion gallons of ethanol, replacing a measly 1% of US gasoline consumption. You do the math. It's not rocket surgery.

In 2006 20% of American corn was turned into 5 billion gallons of ethanol, replacing a measly 1% of US gasoline consumption.

If you still believe that biofuels could have a part in a carbon-free future, then take a look at these numbers from Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel: "All green plants in the United States - including all crops, forests and grasslands, combined - collect about 32 quads (32 x 1015 BTU) of sunlight energy per year. The American population today burns more than three times that amount of energy annually as fossil fuels."

Whether or not biofuels compete with food is no longer a serious subject of discussion. In July 2008 the UK Guardian revealed a World Bank confidential study that concluded that the push for biofuels is responsible for 75% of the sharp rise in food prices worldwide. If it takes 22 pounds of corn to make one gallon of ethanol (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), how could anyone possibly doubt that there is a food vs. fuel dilemma? Even without these data, it does not take a PhD to figure out that an acre of cropland devoted to biofuels is an acre of cropland that is not producing food.


It's really sad that so many US environmentalists have bought into the biofuels pipe dream. In order to believe that biofuels can be helpful, one has to assume an infinite planet with unlimited resources like water, land, organic matter and soil nutrients. It is not only sad but also disconcerting to see environmentalists thinking like Palin Republicans. It is odd for me to find myself telling environmentalists - not Cato libertarians or Bush voters - that our planet only has so much to go around, that it is not infinite. I thought environmentalists did not need to have that explained to them.

Pro-biofuel environmentalists rarely address energy demand, and thus accept it as a given. When they do touch on the subject, they do so in apolitical and value-neutral terms of efficiency, and refer to the work of eco-capitalist think tanks like the Rocky Mountain Institute and books such as Natural Capitalism. My response to those who think efficiency has no downside is that they should get acquainted with the Jevons paradox.

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