- Biofuels include ethanol and biodiesel
- Ethanol is made from corn, sugar cane, switchgrass.
- Biodiesel is made from soybeans, hemp.
In a new report [pdf file] released at noon today, three environmental and research organizations raise serious questions about the future of corn ethanol, a fuel that Congress has invested subsidies in already, and which is often viewed as a silver bullet solution to the nation’s energy and environmental problems.
Corn-based ethanol would, contrary to that belief, add pollution and contribute to other environmental problems — including the Gulf of Mexico dead zone that a separate report released yesterday showed could reach its largest size ever, due in part to the record acreage of corn planted in the Midwest this year, and the attendant runoff of fertilizer.
The key findings from the report, as defined by the groups releasing it:
- Not all bio-fuels are equal. Corn, which is the source 95% of ethanol in the U.S., is among the least efficient, least sustainable biofuels. Cellulosic ethanol, while not yet ready for market, has more favorable energy ratios than corn and presents more room for productivity gains, making it appealing to investors, farmers, and refiners. Yet, most biofuels policies being debated in Congress would primarily benefit corn ethanol refiners in the near future.
- Corn ethanol has little promise of reducing U.S. fossil fuel emissions. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop was dedicated to ethanol, it would displace less than 15 percent of national gasoline use. But a modest increase in auto fuel efficiency standards, such as those passed by the Senate last month, would cut petroleum consumption by more than all alternative fuels and replacement fuels combined.
- The current path of corn-ethanol based biofuels is unsustainable. Using coal to power ethanol refineries can increase emissions in comparison to the gasoline fuel replaced. And since corn production uses more than twice the amount of pesticides than any other major U.S. crop, uncontrolled ethanol industry growth could exponentially increase environmental toxins.
- Even large-scale development of cellulosic ethanol is plagued by potential environmental problems. Turning cellulose into fuel, for instance, would require a huge expenditure of increasingly scarce water resources and the mass production of cellulosic ethanol would likely impact soil quality and convert land currently in conservation programs.
- Ethanol is not the solution to revitalizing rural America. While higher commodity prices and cooperatively owned ethanol refineries could be a boon to independent farmers, unregulated ethanol industry growth will further concentrate agribusiness, threatening the livelihood of rural communities.
Not surprising that neither the Reddit discussion nor the thedailygreen article mentions hemp as a biofuel option.
The 7-page PDF report, however, makes one mention of "hemp."
2006 Cornell study
- corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
- switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
- wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.
In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:
- soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
- sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.
The Cornell article also does not mention hemp.
10 anti-ethanol highlights
Jul 18, 2007 Earth2Tech posting
- “The potential for corn ethanol to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil is limited. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop was dedicated to ethanol, it would displace only a small share of gasoline demand.”
- “The most favorable estimates, which already include cellulosic feedstocks, point out that fuel made from biomass can replace only a fourth to a third of transport-related oil consumption.”
- “The Congressional Research Service has estimated that even if 100 percent of the U.S. corn harvest was dedicated to ethanol, it would displace less than 15 percent of national gasoline use.”
- “Although some farmers are excited by rising corn prices, the current ethanol boom is intensifying the concentration of ownership and the industrialization of agricultural lands, resulting in a revenue drain from rural communities.”
- “Corn is the single most subsidized crop in the United States, receiving more than $51 billion between 1995 and 2005.”
- “Gasoline refiners who add ethanol to their product are entitled to a $0.51 per gallon tax credit, amounting to nearly $2.5 billion in subsidies paid to refiners in 2006 alone.”
- “The most favorable estimates show that corn ethanol could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent to 28 percent, while cellulosic ethanol is estimated to offer a reduction of 87 percent compared to gasoline.”
- “Ethanol can actually increase emission of some kinds of pollutants. According to the Congressional Research Service, ethanol may cause higher ozone levels under certain atmospheric conditions.”
- “Coal and natural gas are commonly burned to run biofuel refineries, and emit many of the same pollutants that ethanol is intended to reduce, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter.”
- “The potential for ethanol to displace gasoline is limited — there is simply not enough land or water to produce ethanol in quantities that could significantly displace gasoline without unacceptable environmental impacts.”
Jul 27, 2007 Toledo Free Press story titled Corn-based ethanol presents problems
The Coming Biofuels Disaster
Jun 27, 2007 Rockridge Institute article
[B]iofuels are not renewable without dramatically changing the ways we grow crops and manufacture/distribute products. Large-scale agricultural practices deplete soils, contaminate water supplies, and are vulnerable to pests and disease when single crops (monocultures) are grown in large fields. The widespread use of pesticides – manufactured using fossil fuels – is also contributing to the cancer epidemic wreaking havoc on our communities. Current agricultural practices also require non-renewable resources and utilize vast distribution networks that are very high in resource demand - including the need for lots of energy.
In some areas, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, entire forests are decimated to grow biofuel crops. The plant life destroyed in this process releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide as the dead trees and undergrowth decompose, exacerbating the problem they are meant to address. Biofuels are not renewable! Soils are depleted. Water supplies are depleted. Highways and factories deplete mineral resources. Entire forests are depleted.
The natural frame leads to two false impressions:
1. Biofuels are presumed to be good for the environment
2. Biofuels are presumed to be better for us than manufactured fuels
First, the fuel is produced through an industrial refinement process where ethanol is extracted from plant materials. And second, there is considerable emphasis on genetically engineering plants to be grown as fuel sources. These plants – including corn, palm trees, switch grass, and algae – are not natural if they are the product of intentional design by genetic engineering.
With something like switch grass that grows quickly, the prospect of making it resistant to pests is a recipe for a super weed. The last thing we want is an aggressive weed that is immune to natural predators. We shouldn't call genetically engineered plants biofuels. They are frankenfuels. By tampering with plant DNA, we run the risk of getting further out of balance, possibly introducing new and unexpected harms like invasive species that take over croplands and natural ecosystems.
We are dependent on oil because the massive infrastructure of our societies is based on the use of fossil fuels. Changing over to a biofuel society involves building a similarly massive infrastructure. An honest account of this option includes this truth. In order to meet current energy demands, we must grow crops over huge areas, build factories and storage facilities, redesign automobiles to run on biodiesel, and more. We would be entrenched in a biofuel society as much as we are now in a fossil fuel society. Either way, we are still dependent on some kind of fuel.
Another kind of transition will happen if we invest significantly in biofuels. We will shift crop yields away from food production. Basic economics tells us that the cost of goods go up when supply decreases. The growing demand for grains to produce fuel has increased the cost of food.
The economic incentive to grow crops for fuels instead of food will drive down food production in the long run, permanently inflating the cost of food. At the same time, less food will be produced. This combination creates a situation where landowners are motivated by profits to grow fuel crops, which will lead to an increase in the number of hungry people in poor countries.
We are starving poor people to feed our cars!The family farm that supports life is inherently local and small. Introduction of an economic incentive to grow fuel crops will drive local farmers to grow ever larger biofuel crops, resulting in the pattern that is occurring now.
The Great Biofuel Hoax
Jun 8, 2007 The Independent article titled The Great Biofuel Hoax: Touted by Politicians and Industry, “Green” Energy Comes with a High Price Tag
Biofuels invoke an image of renewable abundance that allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to present fuel from corn, sugarcane, soy and other crops as a replacement for oil that will bring about a smooth transition to a renewablefuel economy. Myths of abundance divert attention from powerful economic interests that benefit from this biofuels transition, avoiding discussion of the growing price that citizens of the global South are beginning to pay to maintain the consumptive oil-based lifestyle of the North. Biofuel mania obscures the profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel systems — the agro-fuels transition.Myth #1: Agro-fuels are clean and green
Myth #2: Agro-fuels will not result in deforestation
Myth #3: Agro-fuels will bring rural development
Myth #4: Agro-fuels will not cause hunger
Myth #5: Better “second-generation” agrofuels are just around the corner
Blade Guest Column
Jul 3, 2006 Blade Guest column titled Bio-fuels are not the answer written by "Julia Olmstead a graduate student in plant breeding and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University and a graduate fellow with the Land Institute, Salina, Kan."
- The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy than all the energy produced in a year by the country's plant life, including forests and that used for food and fiber, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy and David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher.
- To produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet current U.S. demand for automotive gasoline, we would need to nearly double the amount of land used for harvested crops, plant all of it in corn, year after year, and not eat any of it.
Even a greener fuel source like the switchgrass President Bush mentioned, which requires fewer petroleum-based inputs than corn and reduces topsoil losses by growing back each year, could provide only a small fraction of the energy we demand.
- The corn and soybeans that make ethanol and bio-diesel take huge quantities of fossil fuel for farm machinery, pesticides, and fertilizer. Much of it comes from foreign sources, including some that may not be dependable, such as Russia and countries in the Middle East.
- Corn and soybean production as practiced in the Midwest is ecologically unsustainable. Its effects include massive topsoil erosion, pollution of surface and groundwater with pesticides, and fertilizer runoff that travels down the Mississippi River to deplete oxygen and life from a New Jersey-size portion of the Gulf of Mexico.
- Improving fuel efficiency in cars by just one mile per gallon - a gain possible with proper tire inflation - would cut fuel consumption equal to the total amount of ethanol federally mandated for production in 2012.
The focus on bio-fuels as a silver bullet to solve our energy and climate change crises is at best misguided. At worst, it is a scheme that could have potentially disastrous environmental consequences. It will have little effect on our fossil fuel dependence. Pushing bio-fuels at the expense of energy conservation today will only make our problems more severe, and their solutions more painful, tomorrow.Rather than chase phantom substitutes for fossil fuels, we should focus on what can immediately both slow our contribution to global climate change and reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels: cutting energy use.
Nov 29, 2007 Reddit post titled Ethanol is finally starting to be seen as a huge scam - (258 comments). Post points to a Nov 28, 2007 WSJ story titled Ethanol Craze Cools As Doubts Multiply
A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that biofuels "offer a cure [for oil dependence] that is worse than the disease." A National Academy of Sciences study said corn-based ethanol could strain water supplies. The American Lung Association expressed concern about a form of air pollution from burning ethanol in gasoline. Political cartoonists have taken to skewering the fuel for raising the price of food to the world's poor.
Last month, an outside expert advising the United Nations on the "right to food" labeled the use of food crops to make biofuels "a crime against humanity," although the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization later disowned the remark as "regrettable."
The fortunes of many U.S. farmers, farm towns and ethanol companies are tied to corn-based ethanol, of which America is the largest producer. Ethanol is also a cornerstone of President Bush's push to reduce dependence on foreign oil. But the once-booming business has gone in the dumps, with profits squeezed, plans for new plants shelved in certain cases, and stock prices hovering near 52-week lows.
The U.S. gives oil refiners an excise-tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of ethanol they blend into gasoline. And even though it's the oil industry that gets this subsidy, the industry dislikes being forced to use a nonpetroleum product. The U.S. ethanol industry is further protected by a 54-cent tariff on every gallon of imported ethanol.
Ethanol prices peaked at about $5 a gallon in some markets in June 2006, according to Oil Price Information Service. The price soon began to slide as the limited market for gasoline containing 10% ethanol grew saturated. New plants kept coming online, increasing supply and dropping prices further. Today, the oil refiners that purchase ethanol to blend in need pay only about $1.85 a gallon for it.
This year, even as the production glut was driving down ethanol's price, critics and opposing lobbyists were turning up the heat. Environmentalists complained about increased use of water and fertilizer to grow corn for ethanol, and said even ethanol from other plants such as switchgrass could be problematic because it could mean turning protected land to crop use. Suddenly, environmentalists, energy experts, economists and foreign countries were challenging the warm-and-fuzzy selling points on which ethanol rose to prominence."Our love affair with ethanol has finally ended because we've taken off the makeup and realized that, lo and behold, it's actually a fuel," with environmental and various other drawbacks, says Kevin Book, an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc.
Scientists warn against biofuel
Mar 25, 2008 Guardian story :
But scientists have increasingly questioned the sustainability of biofuels, warning that by increasing deforestation the energy source may be contributing to global warming.
"What is absolutely desperately needed within government are people of integrity who will state what the science advice is under whatever political pressure or circumstances," he said.
But the report on biofuels, to come from the head of the Renewable Fuels Agency, Professor Ed Gallagher, may be used to challenge the more ambitious target for 2020, which is not set in law.John Beddington, the government's current chief scientific adviser, has already expressed scepticism about biofuels. At a speech in Westminster this month he said demand for biofuels from the US had delivered a "major shock" to world agriculture, which was raising food prices globally. "There are real problems with the unsustainability of biofuels," he said, adding that cutting down rainforest to grow the crops was "profoundly stupid".