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Biofuels May Hinder Antiglobal-Warming Efforts

Wall Street Journal – February 8, 2008

This is a different twist over what I usually propose.  In general, I am for increasing our use of ethanol and other biofuels to reduce our CO2 production as well as to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels from the Middle East. Most people are aware that one of the downsides to this issue is the pressure on food that results. This article points out that the conversion of non-agrarian land to crop land will result in a net spike of increased carbon dioxide release.

What the study doesn’t seem to discover is how much of this trend has already happened. As you drive across farm country, you will usually see stands of old woods interspersed within the farms that have been there for many decades (perhaps centuries). I have no data to point to except for observations as I travel in the Midwest, but it does not appear that a great number of these wooded areas are being cut down. My guess is that the expense from this effort offsets the profit that an already financially strapped farmer would enjoy.

The study also doesn’t point out the large amount of land that lies fallow.  While this farming technique is not as popular as it once was, it appears to be far more popular in countries outside of the US. According to the 2002 census, almost 18% of the farm land in the US is idle.

A study published in the latest issue of Science finds that corn-based ethanol, a type of biofuel pushed heavily in the U.S., will nearly double the output of greenhouse-gas emissions instead of reducing them by about one-fifth by some estimates. A separate paper in Science concludes that clearing native habitats to grow crops for biofuel generally will lead to more carbon emissions.

The Energy Department expects U.S. ethanol production to reach about 7.5 billion gallons this year from 3.9 billion in 2005, encouraged by high prices and government support. The European Union has proposed that 10% of all fuel used in transportation should come from biofuels by 2020.

Land-use changes can have big and unintended consequences, such as food shortages and reduced biodiversity. For example, when forests or grasslands are converted for agricultural use, it leads to a large, quick release of carbon when the existing plant life is destroyed and the soil is tilled. Even if biofuels are grown on cropland previously used to grow food, farmers tend to then clear other forests and grasslands and grow the food elsewhere.

For example, an increasing amount of land in Brazil is being used to grow sugarcane for ethanol. Converting the undeveloped land into sugarcane fields releases CO2. It would take 17 years for the positive effect of using sugarcane ethanol from those fields instead of petroleum-based fuels to overcome the CO2 farming the land put into the air. Draining and clearing peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia to grow palm oil emits so much CO2 that palm biodiesel from those fields would have to be burned for more than 420 years to counteract it.


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3 Responses to “Biofuels May Hinder Antiglobal-Warming Efforts”

  1. The “Biofuels Take Food From Our Mouths” argument is based on fallacy. The two most common biofuel feedstocks, corn and soybeans, are grown for animals to feed the industrial meat business producing pork, poultry and beef. Processing these feedstocks to extract sugars or oils to make biofuels, makes the byproduct ‘seed cake’ and ‘spent mash’ more digestible as animal feed. Thus the animals get more nutrition from the byproduct than the original feedstock, and less is crapped out as waste. We can get food and fuel from the same crop.

    Granted that the feedstock grains and legumes could be exported to feed the starving millions instead of being used to feed meat animals. But that practice has been going on for decades, is not likely to change, and is totally external to the biofuels issue.

  2. John – Thank you for your comment and I am not as versed in the full use of corn but something seems missing in your argument. The price of Corn according to CBOT in 2005 was in the low 200s and even dropped below 200 for awhile. The price now is about 450. This is a doubling of price in about 2 years. Since the commodities marketplace is almost a “perfect” marketplace, something is obviously putting pressure on this supply and demand and everything I have read is that it is alcohol.

    Does the process that you are describing exist today in wide scale use or is this a relatively new way to use alcohol byproduct?

  3. Farmers have been feeding spent mash to cows and pigs for as long as I can remember. Ask any brewery.

    What that has to do with the price of feed corn escapes me.

    City people who write about biofuels seem to have the misguided understanding that the byproducts somehow disappear and are never used. That’s simply not true. Food and fuel can be derived from the same crop.

    That still does not change the fact that ethanol in N.America is a scam. It takes as much petro energy to make ethanol as they get out as ethanol. It’s just a clever way to subsidize farmers and turn petro into alcohol. Seems like a rather stupid idea to me, but hey that’s politics… what can we expect, eh?