Revisiting Biofuel

In the March 27th issue of Time Magazine, an in-depth article entitled “The Clean Energy Scam” by Michael Grunwald is indicative of how rapid the descent has been for biofuel in the eyes of environmentalists and mainstream media. One isn’t sure whether to cheer or be derisive – after several years of relentless molding of public opinion and public policy to encourage biofuels, the environmentalists and media are now trying to tear it all down as abruptly as they built it all up.

About one year ago we posted “Biofuel or Biohazard,” where we listed eight criteria that – ideally – ought to be considered when encouraging a market for biofuel:

(1) Biofuel cannot displace food crops.

(2) Biofuel cannot displace rainforest.

(3) Biofuel cannot displace critical wildlife habitat.

(4) Production of biofuel must be decisively energy positive.

(5) Biofuel must not exacerbate water scarcity, either in the growing or the refining process.

(6) Biofuel plantations cannot exploit local labor, or exclude local ownership.

(7) Biofuel use should be encouraged in the most efficient applications, such as combined heat and power, and not automatically be directed into the automotive sector.

(8) Biofuel produced using cellulosic extraction must not prevent valuable organic matter from returning to the soil.

The problem is there are still few clear cases where these criteria can be fulfilled. Even growing corn ethanol in America’s midwest, where there is abundant farmland and summer rains provide ample irrigation, is not beyond challenge. Creating a global market for biofuel has raised the prices for all agricultural commodities, and this has stimulated a land rush throughout the tropics. As Grunwald puts it:

“The growing backlash against biofuels is a product of the law of unintended consequences. It may seem obvious now that when biofuels increase demand for crops, prices will rise and farms will expand into nature. But biofuel technology began on a small scale, and grain surpluses were common. Any ripples were inconsequential. When the scale becomes global, the outcome is entirely different, which is causing cheerleaders for biofuels to recalibrate.”

In most of the reassessments of biofuel, critics now point to the massive release of CO2 that accompanies clearing forest and wetlands to grow crops. And if you believe CO2 is the root of all environmental evil – we don’t, such alarmist thinking helped get us into the biofuel mess, let’s remember – then this is additional reason to be concerned. But perhaps more alarming is the potential climate change related to losing tropical forests, which causes land in the equatorial regions to lose the reflective cloud cover that forms over tropical forest, but does not form over tropical farmland. Losing this cloud cover over literally millions of square miles causes drought, it undermines the monsoon circulation, it raises surface temperatures; all in all tropical deforestation could be a bigger driver in climate change than CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel. Here are recent quotes from Grunwald’s article on the issue of biofuel:

“‘We’re all looking at the numbers in an entirely new way,’ says the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Nathanael Greene, whose optimistic ‘Growing Energy’ report in 2004 helped galvanize support for biofuels among green groups.

‘The situation is a lot more challenging than a lot of us thought,’ says University of California, Berkeley, professor Alexander Farrell, whose 2006 Science article calculating the emissions reductions of various ethanols used to be considered the definitive analysis. The experts haven’t given up on biofuels; they’re calling for better biofuels that won’t trigger massive carbon releases by displacing wildland.

Robert Watson, the top scientist at the U.K.’s Department for the Environment, recently warned that mandating more biofuel usage–as the European Union is proposing–would be ‘insane’ if it increases greenhouse gases. But the forces that biofuels have unleashed–political, economic, social–may now be too powerful to constrain.”

Indeed they are. Perhaps it is time for the environmentalist movement to become a bit less monolithic? A bit more tolerant of debate? A little less sure of itself? A little less arrogant? Because look what they’ve given us – the biggest global wave of tropical deforestation in history. Perhaps it is time for more politicians to stand up to environmentalist conventional wisdom – for the sake of the environment? Perhaps tropical rainforests aren’t the only ecological casualty as we conveniently worry about CO2-driven global warming to the exclusion of everything else – demonizing anyone who dares to disagree.

Expert opinions that blow in the wind is the problem here – we must agree with the “experts” and stifle debate, yet expert opinion changes so fast? Last year biofuel could do no wrong, and this year biofuel does nothing right. Neither extreme is accurate. It is up to every voter and every policymaker to keep their own council, and try to recognize hidden agendas or overzealous tactics from all angles and at all times.

3 Responses to “Revisiting Biofuel”
  1. Patrick Anderson says:

    Is corn belt ethanol really for general consumption, or is it for the farming community. One way to cap your farming fuel cost is to grow your own. Add to this, coal synthetics for fertilizer production, and you have a farming community that has a clear way to control a large part of their cost. Seems like a good strategy to me. If I was a farmer, I would want to uncouple my operation from the global oil market as soon as possible. I think they are on the way to energy independence and it’s clearly under the radar screen.

  2. Ed Ring says:

    Patrick: You bring up a good point. Biofuel for subsistance applications, whether state-of-the-art innovations in Iowa, or jatropha lamp oil in a remote region of the tropics, is a pretty good idea. And if you have more information on coal synthetics for fertilizer, send it here. It is the subsidized, globalized market for biofuel – supposedly to combat climate change – that must be challenged, not the smart farmer in Iowa who is getting off the grid.

  3. Patrick Anderson says:


    Rentech is a company that I have been following. Just type their name into your search engine. The Midwest facility is looking to move to coal synthetics for fertilizer. The Illinois corn belt sits on top of a huge reserve of coal. Very convenient for farming communities located along the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri river sytems. Check it out.



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