Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Don't Give Up On Biofuels

Today's guest writer is Tom Leonard, former executive director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council and all-around cool human being. Enjoy!

GRAND RAPIDS---Will America's Biofuel Boom survive the decade?

It may sound counterintuitive to some, drawing attention to the cloudy future of biofuels in the midst of what seems a massive global biofuels pep rally. Worldwide, biofuels are greatly on the upswing, with major programs proceeding in Indonesia, Brazil, and the European Union among others.

Even here in the suspicious and slow-moving USA, the President has signed a bill that will increase our biofuels production by a factor of six in the next 15 years.

But there are growing pockets of disquiet in many quarters. Some forecasters have already pronounced a requiem for biofuels, while others are sounding alarms of urgent opposition. What's going on?

What's going on is the standard trajectory for good new ideas, from interest to excitement to mania, to disillusionment, and finally, to practical applications.

It's been hard not to get excited about biofuels---especially the petroleum substitutes ethanol and biodiesel. The basic technology is old, and easy. The products are home-grown, redounding to the benefit of local farmers. Biofuels are relatively clean-burning: the carbon dioxide that they release to the atmosphere in running our vehicles, they also strip from the atmosphere as their source crops grow in the fields.

U.S. farmers love ethanol, meaning especially corn ethanol, and U.S. politicians who love farmers love ethanol too. Love, love, love. San Francisco loves biodiesel and is running most of its fleet of vehicles on it. Here in Michigan, we love ethanol and we have five licensed ethanol refineries gearing up to produce it.

Biofuels are such a good idea in so many ways---so why are biofuels in trouble? Here are three reasons:

First, they compete aggressively with food production, raising food prices dramatically. The United Nations estimates that food prices worldwide rose a startling 40% last year. The price of corn was up 50% in 2007 from the prior year, while soybean prices are approaching their all-time high.

Biofuels can't be blamed for all the increases in the cost of our food---there are many factors contributing to that. But their impact is real and can be traced readily, especially here in America. The USA's soybean crop declined 19% last year, in direct response to the shift of farm acreage from the growing of soybeans to the growing of corn for ethanol.

Second, biofuels are not the broad answer to our fuel requirements. There is not remotely enough farm acreage in America to meet our transportation fuel requirements using ethanol, even if we converted all of our farm land from food to fuel. And even though the price of a gallon of E85 is currently running less than a gallon of gasoline, when you adjust for gasoline's greater energy kick, ethanol still does not compete.

Third, their impact on the environment, in the context of human economic behavior, is unsustainable and alarming. The New York Times recently reported on research showing that, once the impact of growing the source crops was taken into account, biofuels constituted a net loss in terms of impact on global warming "greenhouse" gases. Brazil noted last year a 10% spike in Amazonian rainforest destruction due to---you guessed it----new acreage being cleared to grow sugar cane, Brazil’s ethanol crop. In Indonesia, pristine forest is being exchanged for palm plantations, to produce palm oil for fuel. The current rate of forest destruction there is so huge, it virtually guarantees the disappearance of natural Indonesian forest in the next fifteen years.

Goodbye, orangutans.

It will be a remarkable irony if the rush to biofuels, which fundamentally exists to reduce the human impact on global warming, should indirectly accelerate the warming problem, while simultaneously extinguishing vulnerable wildlife species and adding to the risk of mass starvation among the world's human population.

Despite all this, I still see a role for biofuels---but perhaps on a more limited scale, from carefully-selected sources, and for carefully selected and specific purposes. Not the biofuels bonanza visualized by the industry’s cheerleaders up to now. We simply cannot toss the whole biofuels production problem into the free markets, and expect to get a sustainable result. That is how biofuels are being dealt with now, and it is only worsening our problems.

One thing that is heartening about the biofuels boom is that its difficulties relate not at all to the basic chemistry of the fuels. The biofuels problems are really problems of bad land use, inefficient transportation practices, and unsustainably large human populations. If nations like Indonesia can get their act together on forest and peatland protection, damage from palm oil production might be better contained. If we had fewer people to feed, or they were less protein-hungry, we might be less tempted to scavenge in rain forests for new farmland.

In theory, at least, they can still be a success.

On December 19th of last year, President Bush signed an energy bill that calls for a sixfold increase in biofuels in the next fifteen years. It's a good first step, but it doesn’t make biofuels practical in the world we know. We have reached a point where even doing the right thing will have its own dangers.

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