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Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Energy Security Program (review)

Imagine if the US military developed a weapon that could threaten millions around the world with hunger, accelerate global warming, incite widespread instability and revolution, provide our competitors and enemies with cheaper energy, and reduce America’s economy to a permanent state of recession…. We are already building that weapon – it is our biofuels program. -Kiefer, p. 44.

Captain Todd “Ike” Kiefer, USN, is an instructor in the Strategy Department of the Air War College at Maxville Field, Alabama. Capt. Kiefer’s original paper (76 pgs) was published in January 2013 by the Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation (WICI). This institute is part of the University of Waterloo in Canada and is directed by Thomas Homer-Dixon.

Capt. Kiefer’s original paper was followed by an abbreviated version in the Spring 2013 edition of Strategic Studies Quarterly (“the strategic journal of the United States Air Force”). The SSQ version is titled, Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels (38 pgs). While the title and the style of the original version are provocative and hard-hitting, the SSQ version is more concise and its style has benefited from some thoughtful rewording.

Both versions are direct and unrelenting in their criticisms. Kiefer’s study is thorough, as indicated by this partial list of his subtitles: basic thermodynamics, EROI, parasitic dependence and hybrid EROI, peak ethanol, the real cost of biofuels, power density and capacity limits, the nitrogen problem, competition of food and fuel, the mineral problem, the water problem, etc.

Both versions end with a list of conclusions and recommendations, followed by extensive, detailed footnotes (182 notes in the original; 103 in the SSQ version).

Given that Kiefer’s original study has been available for several weeks, and given its damning evidence, one would expect a quick response from the biofuels associations. This reviewer has found none, despite ongoing checks of numerous trade websites.

The only rebuttals that this reviewer is aware of are two responses which accompany Kiefer’s article in SSQ: one from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1 pg) and the other from the Department of Energy (3 pgs). Given the detailed, multi-pronged nature of Kiefer’s criticisms, both of these responses are entirely inadequate. Kiefer followed with his own “rebuttal response” at the SSQ website (Kiefer’s reply to DOE is reprinted below).

The response from DOE raises one important point, however. It states: “… the earth does have a finite amount of petroleum resources. The author fails to address resource depletion issues in comparing the petroleum energy systems and biofuel systems.” This reviewer agrees that Kiefer largely overlooks depletion issues with respect to the petroleum energy system. However, his primary focus is biofuels systems and his central thesis is that biofuels are a dead end, for the military and for the society which funds it.

It would have been impractical for Kiefer to undertake a detailed examination of the implications of the finite nature of petroleum: his intention was to write a paper, not a book.

However, the sobering conclusion for the rest us is this: Biofuels were one of our great hopes in resolving/mitigating the impending crisis in liquid fuel supply. If biofuels are indeed a dead end as Capt. Kiefer has demonstrated, then one of our most promising ‘solutions’ is gone.

Capt. Kiefer’s original study is available here.

Spring 2013 edition of SSQ includes four items (Kiefer’s concise version, responses from OSD and DOE, and Kiefer’s rebuttal to the latter) .

Author's Rebuttal Response: March 1, 2013

The rebuttals from OSD and DOE are most notable for the points they do not dispute. The arguments raised in my Energy Insecurity article can be categorized as,

The Seven Deadly Sins of Biofuels:

1. crippling fossil fuel dependence,

2. deficient EROI at scale,

3. poor quality (energy density, power density, infrastructure and engine compatibility, need for hydrotreatment, etc.),

4. huge environmental impact (land and water footprint, nitrate poisoning(eutrophication) and agrichemical runoff, irreversible conversion of and damage to biodiverse habitat),

5. higher lifecycle GHG emissions (when properly counting land use change and all N2O, CH4, and CO2),

6. increased global instability (food competition, "green grabbing" land confiscation, displacement of native populations, pseudo-slave labor),

7. decreased energy security (higher cost, greater price volatility, annual production with no reserves, vulnerable to weather and crop failures, etc.).

Each one of these arguments by itself is fatal to the claim of biofuels as promoting national security. The longer version of the paper adds to these fatal flaws the vulnerability of current and future increased dependence on imported agricultural minerals, the historical perspective of what low EROI, retrograde, biomass-based civilizations look like, and the nation’s history of fruitless encounters with biofuels. Of all the evidence against biofuels presented in my article, the rebuttals question EROI and water footprint. However, they critique only my computational methodology, not the underlying fact of massive disadvantage to biofuels.

It surprised me to hear that DoE does not consider fuel price or fuel density to be related to national security. The cost of energy is directly linked to stability of supply and to overall economic health. Energy density affects the fuel economy of vehicles and thus the number and length of convoys needed to supply fuel to the troops on the battlefield. The higher price of biofuels leaves less of the nation’s GDP for sustainment and growth, and the lower density of biofuels would require more fuel trucks on the battlefield subject to ambush and IED attack.

I must admit I was not able to follow the logic of how rain on crops in the US Midwest reduces the energy required to desalinate seawater in Saudi Arabia. It was also disheartening to have the Department of Energy confuse the thermal efficiency of a power plant for the EROI of a fuel. In contrast to both rebuttals, my article is an attempt to be straightforward and transparent so those interested in this issue will not be intimidated by jargon, but instead retrace my research for themselves.

The remaining criticisms simply misquote the paper. Careful readers—those truly willing to explore the 6,000 words of endnotes as well as the 9,600 words of the text—will discover how the government’s own reports and university studies in peer-reviewed journals across the four disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, and economics converge to paint a coherent and damning portrait of biofuels.

The best accuracy test of any theory or worldview is whether it is predictive. Since the final version of my article a month ago, two new studies documenting the environmental damage of biofuels within the United States have been released. And the only US enterprise to ever sell cellulosic ethanol for EPA Renewable Fuel Standard RIN credits has filed for Chapter 11. Now I leave it to the SSQ audience to dig deeper and decide for themselves—are Biofuels an empty promise?

T. A. Kiefer 

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