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Grist: What we’ve learned from the biofuels series

Tom Philpott, Grist
After spending much of the last several months thinking about the biofuels boom and its implications in preparation for this special series, we’ve come to a few conclusions.

Like other energy sources, biofuels have significant environmental liabilities. Boosters’ rhetoric about “renewable energy” aside, topsoil — from which biofuel feedstocks spring — is not an easily renewable resource. It takes centuries under natural conditions to replace an inch of topsoil lost to erosion. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute reckons that “36 percent of the world’s cropland is now losing topsoil at a rate that is undermining its productivity.”
(15 Dec 2006)
The conclusion of Grist’s well rounded series into the pros and cons of biofuels in the US is very critical of the industry and subsidies. See bottom of this page for final list of the Grist biofuels series. -AF

Growing corn for ethanol has limits

Ben Lilliston, The Mountain Mail
In the last few years, we’ve seen ethanol turn the U.S. agriculture market on its head. Production for ethanol in the United States focuses exclusively on domestic use. And, at least for the time being, it has sharply raised the price of corn, and had a similar domino effect on soybean and wheat prices. The result has been fairer prices for farmers and fewer farm subsidies.

Just how big is the ethanol boom? Corn-based ethanol production in the United States doubled between 2001 and 2005, and is likely to double again the next few years.

…According to a new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, if only 25 percent of proposed ethanol plants are built, the Midwest could see its corn exports cut in half. If 100 percent are built, Midwest ethanol would use up all the corn that currently goes for exports.
(18 Dec 2006)

China to limit use of grains for biofuels amid renewed worries over supply

AP via IHT
China will restrict the use of corn and other edible grains for producing biofuel, state media reports said Monday, noting concerns over surging prices despite expectations for yet another bumper harvest.

“We have a principle with regard to biofuel: it should neither impact the people’s grain consumption, nor should it compete with grain crops for cultivated land,” the state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted Yang Jian, director of the development planning department under the Agriculture Ministry, as saying.

It said Yang emphasized that his ministry opposes using edible grains as raw material for biofuel.
(18 Dec 2006)

Mergers create biofuel majors

Mergers in the booming palm oil sector are creating the biofuel industry’s own ‘Big Oil’ companies, but vertical integration and economies of scale may not be enough to make exports profitable or to replace crude.
(18 Dec 2006)

Final of the Grist biofuels special

Grist Magazine

Here’s the final list of articles in Grist’s impressive biofuels series:
Uh, bio-what? Explainers and resources

Count me in: Profiles of proponents

  • Small Potatoes, by Emily Gertz. Using grease and other goodies, small producers are making a big difference.
  • Trouble at Muscle Beach?, by Emily Gertz. Grassroots biodiesel operations contend with industrial sand-kickers.
  • The Doctor Is in … Your Tank, by Yolanda Crous. An interview with Seattle biodiesel distributor Dan Freeman.
  • Grease Be With You, by Yolanda Crous. An interview with Greasecar founder Justin Carven.
  • Strike It Richard, by Amanda Griscom Little. Richard Branson chats about embracing ethanol and slashing airplane emissions.
  • Something Ventured, Something Gained, by Amanda Griscom Little. Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla chats about the promise of ethanol.
  • Professor Cellulose, by Jennifer Weeks. Biofuel pioneer Lee Lynd points the way toward a “carbohydrate economy.”
  • It’s Happening in Ottawa, by Sharon Boddy. Grains become fuel at the world’s first cellulosic ethanol demo plant.
  • Miles to Go, by Yolanda Crous. An interview with Missouri farmer and ethanol co-op member Brian Miles.
  • Bio for All, by Kelly Hearn. A biodiesel entrepreneur in Argentina spreads seeds of wisdom.
  • FutureFlex/LoveSounds, by Yolanda Crous. An interview with Mary Beth Stanek, General Motors energy director.
  • When Dreams Become Reality, by Erik Hoffner. How a grassroots biodiesel group can show the way for others.

Not so fast: Issues and implications

(4-15 Dec 2006)