Apr 22 2008

Biofuel Solves the Wrong Problem (and Creates Others)

Today is “Earth Day.” In honor of that, I am posting the following exposé on biofuels. I originally wrote this last year, before the looming global food shortages threw the whole biofuels question into the spotlight. I didn’t post it, however, as I wanted to do more research. But perhaps today is a fitting day to expose my thoughts on the biofuel fraud. My only regret is that I didn’t post this earlier, when fewer people were talking about it. It would have given me serious “told ya so” points. But I’ve been saying this privately for more than five years, so it’s time to get it out there.

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Years ago, when people first started talking about “biofuel” as a “green” fuel source for cars, I responded with skepticism. My basic idea at the time was that food should be used to feed people, not cars (biofuel is made from plants, usually grains such as corn). Now, with biofuel being pumped from many gas stations across North America, my position has changed – I am no longer skeptical; I’m flat out against it.

Biofuel is popular among a lot of ecologically minded people because it is touted as “green” due to its being renewable. Every year, with every harvest, a new batch of biofuel is cooked up to drive our cars, which is supposedly much better than pulling oil – a limited and rapidly depleting resource – out of the ground to do the job. The fact that biofuel comes from plants makes it seem highly ecological.

Not so. Ecology is a complicated science, and one that is interwoven with other sciences. Just because something is “green” (read: comes from plants) doesn’t mean it is a desirable solution to our complicated ecological problems.

What it comes down to is this: biofuel addresses one problem, does nothing for another problem, and makes a third problem even worse. That’s not a very impressive resumé, especially since the one problem it does address (but does not even solve) is a political problem not an ecological one.

Biofuel Addresses One Problem

The only real problem than biofuel addresses is the problem of depleting oil reserves and the associated problem of U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East. It’s no coincidence that ethanol production gets more attention – and financial backing – from the U.S. Government and oil companies than any other ecological initiatives. The corn-based biofuel business is really just a home-grown replacement for oil from abroad, and by painting it green the government(s) can do it with full buy-in from the public.

Biofuel Does Nothing for Another Problem

From an ecological point of view, the primary reason for using alternative fuel methods is to cut down on pollution and greenhouse gases. Pumping biofuel into your Hummer’s gas tank does nothing to address this concern. Burning fuel is burning fuel, whether it comes from a Saudi oil field or a Nebraska corn farmer. Combustion of oil creates polluting smoke and gasses. Full stop. (More on this below, under “Further Reading.”)

Biofuel Makes a Third Problem Worse

Above, I mentioned that my early concerns about biofuel were based on the idea that food should feel people, not cars. My worries were not groundless. Due to the huge amount of corn that is being diverted into biofuel production, the cost of corn for food on the market has risen significantly. People in Mexico, in particular, are feeling this, as corn-based products are a staple of the Mexican diet. In the past two years, the price of corn-based food products in Mexico has shot up dramatically at the supermarkets. According to this Washington Post article, the price of tortillas has tripled or even quadrupled in some areas. (According to Marginal Revolution, tortillas provide about half of the calories and protein for poor people in Mexico.)

Then there is the matter of food aid for the developing world. It used to be that surplus grain from Canada and the U.S. was sold to their respective governments and used as food aid for poor people around the world. But the rise of biofuel has corresponded to higher food costs and less food for developing world food aid. It’s a classic supply-and-demand thing – supply is up, but demand is even “upper.” As a result, prices go up and the grain goes to the highest bidder – the biofuel producers. In other words, food aid is taking second place to biofuel production.

So there you have it. The business of biofuel production is ecological tricksterism that causes hardship among the poor people of the world. That doesn’t mean we should just keep on driving our cars and fueling them with petroleum-based fuels. Rather, we should address the real problem: the heavy and prolific use of the internal combustion engine. Specifically, the dwindling resource and the pollution its consumption creates.

Dwindling Oil Reserves

Personally, I think the fact that we’re running out of oil is a good thing. It means we’ll finally stop burning that oil and clogging up our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. We’re being forced to consider other energy sources, but we should focus on sustainable and non-polluting ones.

Pollution

The solution is to move towards engines that do not rely on internal combustion. Basically, that means electric. Partnered with this is the need to generate electricity via methods other than coal- and oil-fired generating plants. Wind, tides, water; there are many renewable and sustainable resources that can be exploited.

Short Term

In the short term, pumping biofuel into your car does nothing other than maintain the status quo of our reliance; not so much on oil as on internal combustion. Instead, the short term solutions are to (a) drive more fuel efficient cars, and (b) drive them less, (c) encourage investment in alternative, non-combustion based transportation.

Further Reading

The American Coalition for Ethanol claims that ethanol (a commonly used biofuel for cars) creates 29% fewer greenhouse emissions than does regular gas, but according to this CBC report, scientists at Environment Canada say the difference is insignificant. Quoted in the article is Bill Rees, a professor of ecology at the University of British Columbia:

“People are being conned into believing in a product and paying for it through their tax monies when there’s no justifiable benefit and indeed many negative costs.”

Rolling Stone magazine did a big exposé on the issue last year: “The Ethanol Scam: One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles.”

GlobalResearch.ca really tears the cover off ethanol with this article: “Corn-to-Ethanol: US Agribusiness Magic Path To A World Food Monopoly.” To quote the opening paragraph:

“Eight years of Biofuels policy and legislation has cemented in place the first world wide food cabal, which promises a humanitarian disaster, a famine more serious than those caused by any tsunami, earthquake or drought. This crisis is not in the dim future, it is here.”

The article is somewhat bombastic in some of its claims, but it lists some of its sources at the end. There’s a lot of talk about costs, subsidies, and other numerical stuff, but it’s a worthwhile slog.

Regarding the question of food aid, the New York Times has a good story; “As Prices Soar, U.S. Food Aid Buys Less.” AllAfrica.com has similar news in this awkwardly titled story: “Africa: Food Prices Buoyed By Biofuel Affect Aid.” The Cherry Creek News takes a kick a the story here: “More Ethanol, Higher Food Prices.”

More:

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales says biofuels are a serious problem for poor people (Reuters).

Oxfam and Greenpeace say that biofuels cause more harm than good (Bloomberg).

GreenEcoFriend says “Biofuel Production Starves the Poor.

Market Research Analytics: “Biofuel Production Affecting the Price of Food.”

Happy Earth Day!

Categorized under Environment,Society

11 comments so far

11 Comments on “Biofuel Solves the Wrong Problem (and Creates Others)”

  1. Michael Blackon 22 Apr 2008 at 2:42 pm

    It’s right there in your “Ecology is a complicated
    science”. Ecology is about how things interrelate.
    But all these “green minutes” are about isolated
    points, that are presented as absolutes.

    Using used cooking oil for running cars is probably
    great, right up until the time demand is more than
    supply, at which point the price rises and the limit
    of the process has been reached.

    Some group wants to ban plastic bags, or at least put
    a 20 cent deposit on them. Places like HMV retaliate
    by using biodegradable bags (I got one about a month ago).
    But the latter really depends on my tossing the bag on the
    sidewalk or the side of the road in the country, where it
    will decompose rather than be an eyesore. Then the group
    that doesn’t like bags becomes more obvious, they don’t like
    that eyesore that isn’t actually the final destination of
    most plastic bags.

    Nobody is questioning why stores put things in bags in the first
    place, or why in 1990 when it all rose up the last time, it was
    easy to bag your own groceries because the stores had cut back on
    baggers, but now they’ve rearranged things so the cashier just
    puts the items directly in the bag after scanning. They want those
    bags because it helps them to tell who is stealing and who isn’t,
    but they also want you to buy those permanent shopping bags rather
    than a non-standard bag that might be most convenient to the buyer.
    Meanwhile, a lot of those bags do have a very short life, since so
    many people use cars to shop and just need the bags for a few steps
    to and from their cars.

    Didn’t you mention “Earth Hour” a few weeks back? It’s the same
    thing. Most people Jump on a bandwagon without questioning how our
    locale is different from elsewhere. The CBC started their
    “environmental minutes” with a bit about composting toilets, ignoring
    the fact that we don’t suffer from lack of water, we suffer if the
    filtering system is overloaded. Like your “earth hour” post, there
    are good reasons to limit water useage here, but because of the load
    on infrastructure not because of too little water. Meanwhile, there
    are places where a composting toilet, hardly a new thing since I have
    books from thirty years ago telling you how to make your own, but no
    word on that.

    One big problem is that people are consumers. Not just consuming
    the latest fashion, but consuming ideas. They don’t interpret those
    ideas and create something new, they just too often follow what’s being
    said. SO someone can lead them to unending consumerism, and someone
    else tries to lead them out of consumerism, but so long as it’s “follow
    me” little changes. Look at all the fashion magazines, full of “green”
    things that may be better for the environment but are about buying
    more things.

    Michael

  2. blorkon 22 Apr 2008 at 4:32 pm

    You make some good points, Michael. People should remember that the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” is intended to define a way of living, in that order. As in, reduce first. Reduce everything; the amound you drive, the amount you consume, etc. Then reuse things instead of simply throwing them away and buying new. Finally, and in THIRD place, recycle when it really is time to get rid of things.

    Regarding the shopping bags, you’re right that making disposable shopping bags that are “biodegradable” doesn’t amount to much. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed at the rate at which the re-usable bag has been adopted. The key there is REUSABLE instead of disposable. Even way over there in the ‘burbs, most people at the grocery store seem to be bringing their own bags.

    The question of why we put things in bags in the first place is valid, although in many cases it’s self-explanitory. You can’t carry $80 worth of groceries in your arms.

    On the other hand, it is very wasteful when people go shopping for clothes, etc., and then use a separate enormous bag from each store when all the stuff they’re buying could fit in one bag. There’s no reason why you can’t put your Store B purchase in the bag you got from Store A.

    Personally, I always carry a small nylon re-usable bag in my shoulder bag. When I buy something (not just groceries, but anything really) I use that bag instead of taking a bag from the store. I’ve been using it for more than two years and it only cost something like $4. I wish more people would do that kind of thing.

  3. Jonon 23 Apr 2008 at 9:20 am

    I completely agree with you, Blork, but i have a couple of points to make.

    For one, pollution from ethanol and biofuels are NOT the same as those from fossil fuels. This is mainly because the CO2 emitted is part of the current carbon cycle. That is, the corn (or whatever is the source of the biofuel) has absorbed an amount of CO2, and that same amount will be emitted once fully burned. This cycle would result in absolutely no increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels however, are emitting CO2 that corn (to use the same example) has absorbed and stored over the last 20 million years.

    One other thing that i wanted to mention is that some biofuels (for example those that Maple Leaf Foods has developed recently) don’t come from crops or sources grown specifically for the fuel, but are made instead from waste. Maple Leaf Foods does this with carcasses and others wastes from their meat processing. I believe that was the source of the STM’s first Biofuel pilot project, although i’m not sure if it is now their supplier.

    These are just some points that i think change your argument just a little, but i still believe that you’re completely in the right by suggesting biofuels are nothing but prolonging the bad news.

  4. GPon 23 Apr 2008 at 11:56 am

    Another point which might interest you is that plants are actually terrible in terms of efficiency. Corn is just a battery for sunlight energy, but a really crummy one. http://cosmicvariance.com/2008/04/10/energy-doesnt-grow-on-trees/

  5. blorkon 23 Apr 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Jon, that carbon cycle thing is an interesting perspective, but a bit of a stretch. How about using the corn to absorb CO2 and then NOT putting it back into the atmosphere? Also, it doesn’t address the food shortage issue.

    It is true, as you point out, that biofuels can be made from a variety of sources, but the reality is that if the demand for it continues to rise, the creators of biofuels will buy from whereever they can get a cheap and plentiful supply. This introduces another problem that I didn’t mention in my post: huge tracts of the Amazon rainforest are now being cleared to grow soy and similar products specifically for the biofuel industry. I suspect Amazonian soy biofuel is probably cheaper than Maple Leaf waste product biofuel.

    Thanks for that link, GP.

  6. blorkon 23 Apr 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Ack! I accidentally deleted a comment for this post that was being held as suspect comment spam. I don’t know if it was a legitimate comment or not, because I clicked “Delete” too quickly.

    Damn!

    If you’ve left a comment here and it hasn’t appeared, I apologize sincerely. Please post it again. Thanks.

  7. ajon 25 Apr 2008 at 9:26 pm

    On a larger scale this crisis shows the problem with our current living arrangements: low-density suburbia, non-local economies, outsourced manufacturing, and a profound disconnect between communities and agriculture.

    It also shows the kind of magical thinking people have when it comes to scientific realities. We’ve enjoyed an incredibly high standard of living for so long, thanks to fossil fuels and petrochemicals, that we have come to view it as a right.

    What no-one is talking about is the idea that our planet has physical limits and we should try to stay within them. To suggest that infinite growth isn’t possible is simply taboo. As another commenter said, we don’t question what we do: instead, we’re looking for magic bullets that will allow us to continue some very unsustainable living arrangements.

    Look at all the attention paid to alternative-fueled or hyperefficient vehicles, when there is so little attention paid, by contrast, to things like Traditional Neighborhood Development, urban densification, changing zoning codes and tax codes to make it affordable to build and to to live in denser towns and cities. In short, we’re desperate not to give up our cars, when in fact we ought to think about doing just that.

    On the plus side, the Internet has shown that we can “disintermediate” a good chunk of things. Why pay to ship atoms around when you can download bits? I would say take that even farther — we can re-localize manufacturing while keeping design global. Instead of going to an Ikea in the suburbs and fighting for parking — usually to purchase something that you then have to go get delivered anyway — you’ll download plans from them that you get fabricated with sustainable local materials and delivered.

    I do enjoy going in to the office and working with my colleagues, but think of how much energy would be saved by working from home 1-2 days a week and teleconferencing when you have to.

  8. Nicholas Robinsonon 02 May 2008 at 7:14 am

    Michael Black

    Can it really be you, from Babylon in 1995? Sorry, Blork, to jump into a comment on your blog but I remember this guy from a LONG way back

    Cheers

    //Nick

  9. Nicholas Robinsonon 02 May 2008 at 7:23 am

    I’m just totally perplexed by a dilemma . . . if they ban plastic bags from the grocery store, what are you going to put your garbage in? Cloth bags? You’re going to have to BUY garbage bags as opposed to getting them for free, thus contributing to the extra trucking and carbon emissions, not to mention that the ones you buy will be much less biodegradable (but it’s just me talking–polymers are polymers and no doubt they’re all the same).

    But it just seems to me to all be quite hypocritical. How on Earth can banning bags at the grocery store help the Earth? Just creates a host of new problems

    I see where people are coming from but I just don’t see the logic yet. Give me cold, hard logic–please.

    Nick

  10. blorkon 02 May 2008 at 9:58 am

    Nick, I think the cold, hard logic is that the amount of plastic bags dispensed from grocery stores outweights the amount used for kitchen garbage bags by a huge factor. I don’t know the number, but I think I read somewhere that it’s somethign like 20 to one. In other words, the vast majority of those bags are just thrown away, which is wasteful.

    Plus, there’s the idea that we should be throwing less away. At chez nous, we use the few grocery bags we get for the cat’s litter, but not for garbage. We have a larger garbage can that takes bigger bags (about a third the size of a standard green garbage bag). We dump that about every five days, so that’s less than two bags a week. It will be even less when we start composting.

    So yes, we do buy bags for throwing away garbage, which seems ironic, but the quanitity of plastic we throw away is far, far less than if we were not using re-usable cotton grocery bags.

    It’s just one thing in a far bigger process of trying to cut back on the amount of resources we use.

  11. [...] Corn-to-Ethanol: US Agribusiness Magic Path To A World Food Monopoly The Ethanol Scam: One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles Biofuel Solves the Wrong Problem (and Creates Others) [...]