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by Larry

November, 2007

Doing the Math - Why Solving Global Warming with Biofuels Just Doesn't Compute

Government, industry, farmers, investors, and some environmentalists are currently on a "going green" bandwagon, pushing biofuels as a way to deal with both too great U.S. dependence on foreign oil and the specter of rising temperatures (due to excess carbon in the atmosphere). The idea is that fuels can be created from crops, garbage, trees, paper mill sludge, livestock manure, and a variety of other readily available organic energy sources right here in this country. Carbon enters the atmosphere from combustion of all these too, of course, but we are trying to convince ourselves that carbon from burning wood chips or ethanol derived from corn, soybeans, etc., will be offset by the tendency of plants to take carbon out of the air in the process of photosynthesis, never mind that cow manure does not dispose of any carbon or that living trees lately seem to have reached their saturation point in some areas and may no longer be efficiently removing carbon dioxide as fast as the rotting or burning dead ones are adding it back in.

Even if the initial premises were correct, however, though this is quite debatable, there are a number of ways in which the biofuel arithmetic does not add up. For instance, in order to get farmers and others to raise more crops for conversion to biofuel, government is not only still subsidizing corn (as a basic commodity for farmers to produce) to the tune of billions of dollars annually, never mind that corn products such as cornstarch, syrup, sugar, or whiskey are so prevalent in our regular diets that they are aggravating existing obesity and diabetes diseases, now at near pandemic incidences, but we are also subsidizing ethanol producers with tax credits worth $0.51 a gallon.

Once all the subsidies are added in, it is highly questionable if biofuels are cost effective. But of course they guarantee there will be a huge lobbying push to maintain the biofuel effort, now that it is underway. And as politics go in Washington, once a dole is being paid out, it is exceedingly hard to have it stopped. (For instance, though even in farm states the majority of us strongly oppose such payments to tobacco farmers, we are still subsidizing them despite the same U.S. government that is doing the subsidizing also successfully suing big tobacco companies for not telling us enough about what everyone has known for decades, that tobacco products are rather hazardous to our health.)

Meanwhile, little discrimination is being made between processes to produce biofuel that have no chance of being cost effective or truly environmentally friendly and those that do meet such criteria. The good, the bad, and the ugly seem about equally entitled to expensive government subsidies. It shows apparent success of special interests in this arena, but cannot be of genuine benefit to most U.S. citizens. For example, subsidies are given to ethanol producers that burn coal to ferment the corn, a key step in the process of creating ethanol. The sum of the coal burning emissions plus those of the ethanol produced in this way, even though the latter is somewhat "greener" than gasoline, can typically be significantly higher than simply using gasoline instead of ethanol in the first place.

Another example: foreign tankers virtually filled with biofuel from abroad, Indonesia perhaps, or Brazil, can stop at U.S. ports and get a bit of our regular petroleum to mix with their existing blends and then qualify for U.S. subsidies on the entire cargo, thanks to how poorly the subsidy laws are written. The same tankers then take the blend to Europe, where they qualify all over again for European subsidies on a load of biofuel that was really produced in neither North America nor Europe.

Besides the cost of growing extra corn (not simply to feed people, pigs, poultry, and cattle, as usual, but to also make ethanol), federal plus state subsidies add $500 to the ethanol expense of avoiding putting a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yet, it would cost us just $28 per metric ton of avoided carbon dioxide to pay someone else to reduce it by the same amount via the carbon emissions trading market. The difference in cost is due to those whom we pay to lower carbon pollution for us using far more cost effective methods, such as operating fuel efficient vehicles or industrial processes. It is as if we preferred to buy a $500 "green bargain" filter system for our water instead of paying the kid down the street $28 to fix us up with an efficient system of collecting lots of pure rain water.

There is a big additional cost to using corn to cut our gasoline usage, one seldom discussed by the politicians talking up U.S. biofuels. Because corn is in limited supply, even in bumper crop years when every farmer plus his aunt and uncle are planting more of it to capitalize on the new ethanol market, our stomachs are now in competition with our fuel tanks, driving up the price of the commodity for both uses. The higher price of corn (double its price just two years ago) translates to broader inflation in grocery markets, with substantially higher costs for beef, milk, cheese, pork, poultry, tortillas (sparking marches or riots in Mexico), etc. All this in the name of a "cheap" way to reduce our production of greenhouse gases.

Numerous other illustrations might be presented for the ineffectiveness of current policies for converting from gasoline to ethanol to reduce our country's "carbon footprint" (now the highest in the world, though China may soon be overtaking us for that dubious honor).

But consider the best supply of biofuel ever, all of the petroleum and natural gas deposits derived from roughly 700 million years of plant and animal life on planet Earth. By some estimates, humankind has already gone through close to half of that entire quantity in just the last 70 years or so. Even giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt and figuring we still have three-fourth's of the entire supply from the past left, a doubtful proposition, our rate of consumption of these naturally occurring biofuels (concentrated sunlight through photosynthesis and other processes to the tune of one gallon of gasoline per 196,000 pounds of living plant and animal tissue), has been, for every one modern year since autos became our primary means of transport (and since equivalent other petroleum based industrial operations became prevalent), we use up all of the natural biofuel production from at least 2.5 million years of annual global biosphere growth. How likely is it, then, that cultivating only the places left over for growing more plants, after all the acreage necessary for food production, we shall in a mere five or ten years or so be able to produce enough "artificial" biofuels to really made a significant dent in the overall demand, and in the trend toward global warming, via biofuel blends we create?

Put another way, in order to produce enough biofuels just to replace the gasoline used for our personal vehicles (over 200 million cars and light trucks now being driven in the U.S.), not to mention all the other industrial or agricultural uses of fuel, our farmers would have to till and plant an extra 2 billion acres each year, in this country alone, to produce the requisite biomass for conversion to ethanol, and that is on the low-ball assumption that the average fuel expenditure for each of our auto driving needs would be only 50 gallons a month, though our gasoline hungry vehicles (including vans, SUVs, trucks, and so on) today actually consume more than that. The 2 billion acres requirement compares with a total potential farmland estimate for the U.S. of just 800 million, including all of the acres now in food production.

And while we are trying our best, despite the math, to get every last biofuel drop out of our landscape, what effects will all this monoculture cultivation have on wildlife or biodiversity generally?

Indeed, if we are that dependent on a harvested crop such as corn for our energy needs, what happens in the event it succumbs to a major disease or to drought?

All of which is to suggest that more coherent planning needs to go into a revamping of our energy policies. Some have suggested what is called for is on a par with our comprehensive national emergency efforts once World War II had begun, or, at the very least, with the program that successfully put men on the moon in less than a decade. In any case, our energy and global warming solutions, whatever they are, will almost certainly need to rely on much more than biofuel production alone.

Source: Who's Fueling Whom - Why the Biofuels Movement Could Run Out of Gas. Richard Conniff in Smithsonian, Vol. 38, No. 8, pages 109-116; November, 2007.

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