Are biofuels fueling the environmental crisis

Alarm is mounting with the news of the Antartic ice-cap melt Unless Al Gore is biding his time because he is still a potential dark horse in the present election campaign (something I very much doubt) I think this would be a good time for him to step forward as a spokesman for the energy policy in the next administration. Perhaps Clinton and Obama could agree that whichever wins they will propose his appointment to the cabinet to carry forward a program that they both endorse.

Not surprisingly the present Administration policy to support biofuels supposedly to increase US energy independance is adding to the envirnomental crisis and creating a food crisis to boot. Paul Krugman has written an interesting piece on this in the New York Times Grains Gone Wild. The decision to use biofuels (at the present level of technology) to substitute for petroleum is environmentally unsound and is leading to more not less global warming and environmental damage as it contributes to an out-of-control escalation of grain prices.

In order to substantiate his main argument on damage to the enviroment, he first deals with other obvious causes of the price rise in food, citing bad weather conditions in Australia (the second largest grain producer in the world); greater demand from Chinese for grain-fed meat; rise in oil prices which that passed through to the food chain mailtly through rising transportation costs but also because of increased Chinese demand; and also fallout from the Iraq war (which has taken their oil production off-market as well as creating direct costs of the war).


The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a "scam."

This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly "good" biofuel policies, like Brazil's use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.

And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.

Oh, and in case you're wondering: all the remaining presidential contenders are terrible on this issue.

...snip...

One more thing: one reason the food crisis has gotten so severe, so fast, is that major players in the grain market grew complacent.

Governments and private grain dealers used to hold large inventories in normal times, just in case a bad harvest created a sudden shortage. Over the years, however, these precautionary inventories were allowed to shrink, mainly because everyone came to believe that countries suffering crop failures could always import the food they needed.

This left the world food balance highly vulnerable to a crisis affecting many countries at once - in much the same way that the marketing of complex financial securities, which was supposed to diversify away risk, left world financial markets highly vulnerable to a systemwide shock.

What should be done? The most immediate need is more aid to people in distress: the U.N.'s World Food Program put out a desperate appeal for more funds.

We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible mistake

It is clear that we need a global energy policy and not quick fixes that only make the situation worse.

There are hopeful areas to explore such as new intrinsically safe nuclear reactor designs like the High Temperature Gas Reactor, that are engineered to stop a reaction before it becomes critical by relying upon the diffusion of the gaseous medium as its temperature rises. Of course the problem of nuclear waste would also need to be dealt with.

Perhaps their are environmentally sound ways to mine coal (while protecting the miners' safety) and utilize it as an energy source while trapping CO2 emissions which are also cost effective.

Then their are developments in solar and wind energy.

But conservation remains top of the list today.

There are the gas-guzzlers on the road and the energy-guzzling mcMansions that waste a lot of energy on heating and cooling and lighting. Not to speak of the proliferation of shopping malls.

I believe that we need to take a hard look at suburban sprawl. If we lived in more urbanized environments it would be easier to provide adequate mass transit and we wouldn't need to spend so much time on the road--to work, to shop, and for recreation.

We badly need someone of the stature of Al Gore to take a leading position nationally and globally in shaping a sound energy policy. And we need to rally the country behind that program.

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But I started out almost gleeful that someone is finally describing the nakedness of the king:
The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a "scam."

This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains...

My glee was unwarranted :-(

Please tell me, Carol, that somewhere in the material you've reviewed for this, that SOMEone actually makes note of the fundamental problem. Please!?

The fundamental problem is that burning biofuels for energy liberates Carbon Dioxide!

That is on TOP of the acknowledged and obvious problems, that the petroleum used for the agriculture of biofuel production is all precursor material for making Carbon Dioxide!

Have you seen any reference to this essential aspect of the biofuels problem?

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"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." - Thomas Jefferson

I have read that burning biofuel petroleum liberates more carbondioxide that burning petroleum. Also that Diesel is more energy efficient, but it would be good to source this directly. I will take a look.

carol

how they made that leap with biofuels. The only real benefit is to lessen our dependence on importing foreign oils, otherwise it is simply a wash.

But I think the lack of knowledge about agriculture combined with the pushback against subsidized production (again insert more lack of knowledge) has impeded rational discussions for a solution to our problems. I admit a particular bias coming from an agricultural background but I cringe as I read and hear some of what passes for logical discourse on this subject.

I think one of the benefits from the point of view of the Bush crowd is that it offers a huge subsidy to corporate agriculture by driving up grain prices, and it protects the oil companies who have moved into the biofuel turf. Another case of elitist economic policy.

It wouldn't be so bad if it really made a significant difference on US oil dependency but I have read (forgive my lack of sourcing) that there is no weigh in the near term at least that sufficient bio fuel can be produced to make much of a dent in US oil importants. Here is where the amount of fuel eaten up in the production of biofuels comes into play.

Another thing I have read is that the worst source of this kind of bioenergy is corn because at least now, the only part of the corn that is utilized is the kernel.

carol

The high grain prices reduce the subsidies paid out to producers. This is a perfect example of the problem that exists when trying to discuss the situation.

I found the following in an article from the San Francisco Chronicle. Dems Work To Keep Subsidies by Caroline Lochhead.

Perhaps the article is a partisan defense of Republicans and therefore biased. I am not in a position to judge that but the general line of argument about agri-business profits seems to me the same as the point that I was trying to make. I had read things like this before though I don't have any special source in mind. Is there a flaw in the argument presented here.

As Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton toured the land denouncing special interests, giveaways to the rich, home foreclosures, job losses and a middle-class squeeze, back in Washington House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats met behind closed doors on a plan to raise taxes and cut food stamp money to protect billions of dollars for agribusiness, a sector of the economy that is booming.

The negotiators agreed Tuesday to find $10 billion in extra money in a last-ditch effort to save the farm bill, once seen as an opportunity to reform commodity programs and divert scarce funds to conservation, nutrition, organic research and California fruit and vegetable growers who are locked out of the Depression-era programs. The money is needed to appease these interests while still maintaining the commodity subsidies. Yet in proposals so far, those areas get trimmed to keep the subsidies flowing.

The subsidies demanded by the farm lobby would help big corn, wheat and soybean growers in areas where income is shattering records, credit is flowing and real estate values soaring.

Because of government ethanol subsidies and rising demand for grain in developing nations, grain farmers are enjoying such whopping price increases that food inflation is becoming a worry. U.S. bakers are even urging a restriction on grain exports to try to dampen prices.

carol

you are thinking might be flawed there. I have not followed the latest partisan wrangling over the ag bill well enough to know if it is accurate.

Agri-business is very broad term. It is one of the terms that is often used though not fully understood and so not used correctly.

The truth is most farmers (or what are typically believed to be family farmers) wish the government would have never interfered with their business and have only made things worse for the farmer in the long run. The farm bills and the way that subsidies are set up have become quite complicated, to the point that the USDA has classes that producers can attend to understand the changes when a new ag bill is passed. There are currently three income support (subsidy) programs for most grains the 2000 Ag Bill: 1)Direct Payments 2) Counter-cyclical payments and 3) Marketing assistance loans and loan deficiency payments. Some will be eligible to receive payments under more than one of these programs and others won't. There is also a problem with some loopholes in the bill that some are exploiting to receive more than the maximum allowed per year. And the shortcomings, problems and complaints about the Ag bill go on and on with each one that is contemplated and eventually passed. The frustrating part is that it always generates a lot of discussion from people that look at the figures without understanding the industry and begin to weigh in on a complicated situation as if it were more simple than it is.

In the 1980s I met some "family" farmers as opposed to corporate farmers. Now these "families" may have set up their business as a privately owned corporation but they were run by a small group of people (maybe or maybe not related) who were well educated in running a business and in crop management. At that time they were relying on the real estate market to support their businesses during hard time and some at least were in danger of going out of business.

I thought it to be the case that many of these agri-businesses were bought by huge conglomerates who introduced a kind of larger-scale factory farming. And that these farms were had much greater capitalization and larger scale operations.

I would imagine that Bush had supporters from both groups. That is the "family farmers" that I met in Texas for example were Republicans for sure.

As I understand the present situation government subsidies to support the production of biofuels has brought windfall profits to wheat farmers. I don't know wheter by direct subsidies or not but certainly by expanding their market and allowing them to charge higher prices for their product.

This is a simple minded explanation of what I have understood and mean to be saying. Maybe though it will help you to explain the concretes to me. I don't see any disagreement between us on the undesirability of over investing biofuels, which are not (1) not helping and perhaps harming the environment and (2)and are just as polluting when combusted as petroleum, (3)will not really alleviate growing US oil dependancy on foreign imports and (4) are diverting a food source to a fuel source, with potentially serious consequences of food shortages emerging not to speak of much higher prices.

carol

I don't believe you are trying to disagree with me. My point is the subject is far more complex than many understand. This unfortunately leads to a lot of misunderstanding of agricultural policy, who benefits, who doesn't and what better solutions should be for the industry and the nation. I can't begin to offer an explanation of the concretes and am not even sure I am qualified to without doing a lot of additional reading to get myself up to date on the current situation both here and globally. I think the best I can offer is to take anything you read with a grain of salt, consider the source and don't fall into making assumptions that is as simple as one political party or actor doing something to benefit one group over the other. That doesn't even take into account other factors such as weather, speculators, other nations policies, real estate bubbles, increased costs of inputs such as fuel and fertilizer that all have an impact on the decision to plant, what to plant, or in some cases to not plant at all.

I didn't think the article was flawed. I thought my original explanation was flawed and that this article specifically explained what I meant to be saying in general terms.

carol

In December, Kurt Kleine
wrote a good article on the question you raise. Here is an excerpt from his article, The Backlash Against Biofuels.

Extra emissions
Replacing petroleum with biofuels should, on the face of it, be good for climate change. After all, every tonne of carbon emitted by burning biofuels is just a tonne that was absorbed from the atmosphere by the feedstock crop, resulting in no net change. But it's not that simple. The energy used to create the biofuel also emits greenhouse gases.

If biofuels do provide more energy than the fossil fuels needed to produce them, it makes sense that there would be some reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the analysis has to take into account the kind of fuel used to produce the ethanol — ethanol made by using coal to provide heat for distillation, for instance, actually increases carbon emissions compared with gasoline — as well as the greenhouse gasses generated by other aspects of the process, such as increased fertilizer use.

In their Science analysis, Farrell and colleagues noted that there are still unanswered questions about how to calculate greenhouse gas emissions over the life cycle of biofuels6. They calculated that switching to ethanol produced from corn reduces emissions moderately, by about 13 percent, compared with using gasoline.

A typical ethanol plant in West Burlington, Iowa. Researchers disagree on whether burning bioethanol generates more energy than is used to produce the fuel.

Steven Vaughn
And a recent paper by P.J. Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, and colleagues concludes that previous studies underestimated the amount of the greenhouse gas nitrogen oxide produced by agricultural use of nitrogen fertilizer. If their new number is right, they say, ethanol made from corn could actually produce more greenhouse gasses than the use of gasoline7.

An even greater concern is that the increased demand for biofuels will cause farmers to cut down forests in order to plant more corn, sugar cane, oil palm trees or soybeans. According to an analysis by Renton Righelato of the World Land Trust in Suffolk and Dominick V. Spracklen of the University of Leeds, leaving the land forested would sequester two to nine times as much carbon over a 30-year period as would be saved by using biofuels.

carol

I intended to make plain, shifting the source of Carbon Dioxide from fossil to green fuel still makes C O 2. If you burn a gram of elemental carbon from coal, gasoline, or ethanol, you still get the same number of CO2 molecules on the other side of the flame.

So, OK, it's a good thing (if we assume we're not going to make any difference in the balance sheet for CO2) that we may at least be producing our energy domestically. If that's a more efficient process, it cuts the CO2 output.

But if we're also worsening the balance sheet for energy efficiency at the same time as we may be not even BETTERING but adding to the bottomline output of climate-impacting gases, it's utterly insane to shift to biofuel sources of energy.

I'd not intended to get into the other global warming gases in the equation since, if we cannot see the quintessential bottomline of the primary problem, I didn't think we'd be able to get the other -- really primary -- problems.

That's excellent, thanks!

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"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." - Thomas Jefferson