The Case Against Biofuels: Probing Ethanol’s Hidden Costs

c. ford runge, yale environment 360
In light of the strong evidence that growing corn, soybeans, and other food crops to produce ethanol takes a heavy toll on the environment and is hurting the world’s poor through higher food prices, consider this astonishing fact: This year, more than a third of the U.S.’s record corn harvest of 335 million metric tons will be used to produce corn ethanol. What’s more, within five years fully 50 percent of the U.S. corn crop is expected to wind up as biofuels.

Here’s another sobering fact. Despite the record deficits facing the U.S., and notwithstanding President Obama’s embrace of some truly sustainable renewable energy policies, the president and his administration have wholeheartedly embraced corn ethanol and the tangle of government subsidies, price supports, and tariffs that underpin the entire dubious enterprise of using corn to power our cars. In early February, the president threw his weight behind new and existing initiatives to boost ethanol production from both food and nonfood sources, including supporting Congressional mandates that would triple biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Congress and the Obama administration are paying billions of dollars to producers of biofuels, with expenditures scheduled to increase steadily through 2022 and possibly 2030. The fuels are touted by these producers as a “green” solution to reliance on imported petroleum, and a boost for farmers seeking higher prices.

Yet a close look at their impact on food security and the environment — with profound effects on water, the eutrophication of our coastal zones from fertilizers, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions — suggests that the biofuel bandwagon is anything but green. Congress and the administration need to reconsider whether they are throwing good money after bad. If the biofuel saga illustrates anything, it is that thinking ecologically will require thinking more logically, as well.
(11 March 2010)

Big Oil Behind Yet Another Biofuels Research Paper

Joanna Schroeder,
When discussing indirect land use it brings a popular saying to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Only in this situation the saying should be modified as follows: If a tree is cut down in a rainforest in Brazil to sell wood, should corn ethanol’s carbon footprint go up? Anyone with an ounce of commonsense would say no.

And here’s why: when a tree is cut down in Brazil, it is not to plant crops for biofuels, it is to sell the wood because the tree is of greater value as wood, then as part of the rainforest. Only then is the land converted to pasture and then to land for crops like soybeans. Sugarcane is rarely grown in the rainforest and Brazil doesn’t produce biofuels from corn. So what I just can’t seem to wrap my head around is what exactly does that tree have to do with corn ethanol?

So what has caused today’s diatribe on indirect land use? A new paper published this month in Bioscience Magazine titled, “Effects of US Maize Ethanol on Global Land Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Estimating Market-mediated Responses.” The paper was authored by Thomas W. Hertel of Purdue University and five co-authors. In a nutshell, the authors argue that the greenhouse gas emission reductions from corn-based ethanol are canceled out when factoring in the increased carbon output from indirect land use change. Therefore, their contribution to California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard is negligible, even when compared to conventional petroleum based fuels.

There are so many things wrong with this paper that I had a hard time deciding where to begin. I’ll dive right in with the authors’ assessment of the number of acres used to produce corn in our country (they use yield numbers from 2001 when yield numbers for 2009 are already available).

They argue that land is going to need to be converted to crops and that this land will come from virgin land such as tearing down a forest. They also assume that current cropland will be converted to produce corn (most commonly away from soybeans). What they don’t factor is is this: In 2009, American farmers produced 13.2 billion bushels of corn, similar to the production numbers reported in 2007. The difference –this yield was produced using 7 million, yes million, less acres of land…
From the website:
Chuck & Cindy are the writers for Domestic Fuel. This husband and wife reporting team have covered all facets of agribusiness for over 20 years. They’ve followed the development of domestic fuels like ethanol and biodiesel since so much of the work has been funded by various agricultural organizations with whom they’ve worked throughout their career. Chuck & Cindy have direct contact with people at all levels of the domestic fuel chain. This includes commodity growers, plant developers, researchers and the people who are marketing the products and working to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while helping producers and consumers “domestically.”

Harrabin’s Notes: Battle over biofuel strategy

Roger Harrabin, BBCNews
Legislate in haste, repent at leisure: is that the syndrome afflicting the EU’s biofuels policy?

Environmentalists fear it is – and their latest manoeuvre to stem the biofuel tide is a legal action to force the European Commission to publish thousands of pages of evidence of the impacts of plant fuels on the environment.

The Commission’s evidence is being compiled as part of a cross-directorate investigation into the potential downsides of biofuels, which goes public later in the year.

Green campaigners want to see all the background research immediately because they believe that some of the papers already confirm that biofuels may do more harm than good.

The Commission says it has released more than 8,000 pages of evidence and is still sifting the rest for commercial confidentiality. A Commission spokesman said: “We are not stalling but trying to deal with a massive demand here.”

A Commission source speaking to me accused green groups of using the legal action as a publicity stunt. But he admitted that technically the Commission is in breach of its duty to provide information on time, so the demand has now entered the independent General Court – Europe’s second-highest court of appeal.

The environmentalists say they suspect that the Commission’s analysis contains explosive evidence that could blow the EU’s biofuels strategy apart…
(10 March 2010)