The Intersection

Biofuel Warfare


I did my latest Science Progress column on this subject, in light of recent research suggesting “green” biofuels like ethanol might actually be bad for the environment.

My conclusion?

…enough doubts have been raised that no one can reasonably postulate biofuels as an automatic solution to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. Depending on the details, they could actually cause dramatic setbacks. But it’s also clear from the latest research that there will be more and less efficient-and more and less destructive-ways of generating and using biofuels. Despite huge hype, massive subsidies, and strong political support in the U.S., it seems corn-based ethanol runs near to last place in the competition.

The entire piece is here.


  1. #1 bwv
    March 7, 2008

    Your hope is in vain for a

    ” U.S. administration that takes expert analyses very seriously-and for that matter, a U.S. Congress that can also process exceedingly complex information. If we only still had an Office of Technology Assessment. I can’t think of a better and more useful task than a study of policy options for biofuels.”

    What politician is going to take experts more seriously than key interest groups? Who has the money to lobby for good science compared to farm and corporate interests? Has anyone seen a single politician propose ending sugar protectionism? The only hope is to get the government out of deciding energy policy and let the market make choices, because no one in government has any incentive to make good decisions for consumers or the environment.

  2. #2 bob koepp
    March 7, 2008

    It’s sad that the land use issue is framed in terms of carbon debt and GHG emissions. This evidences an unhealthy fixation on atmospheric carbon levels — as if this was THE MOST IMPORTANT environmental issue at stake. What about plain old habitat destruction? What about sharing the planet with our relatives?

  3. #3 Simon D
    March 7, 2008

    Chris – It’s worth noting that the emerging competition for land in the US and elsewhere is really between feed and fuel, not food and fuel. For one, the majority of US corn and soybeans are used as animal feed not directly for food. If the world want to grow a significant amount of biofuel crops without clearing more land and releasing more carbon to the atmosphere, cutting into feed production could be necessary. This has nothing to do with stumping for vegetarianism. It is simply the reality of agricultural land use.

  4. #4 Lance
    March 7, 2008

    Kudos to you Chris for reporting the reality of the biofuels issue. Agri-business is the only winner in this miserable little saga.

    Given the rational approach you showed to this analysis I have hope that you will yet see the light about a certain little molecule that has become the obsession of the environmental left.

    You may next want explore the question “If we can’t count on biofuels to come to our rescue what’s left?”

  5. #5 Eric the Leaf
    March 7, 2008

    Chris is finally catching up with what has been around for quite a while regarding biofuels, particularly ethanol. Because the question not only pertains to their relative advantage (or not) in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but to their scalability and energy return as a partial substitution for gasoline or to mitigate oil depletion. Only in the case of hypothetical cellulosic ethanol is the discussion taken halfway seriously by those familiar with the arithmetic. Conclusion: biofuels will never have a substantial substitution effect for gasoline, regardless of their impact on carbon emissions.

    This clarifies my suspicion that our energy predicament is poorly understood by many environmentalists, and that the issues are framed almost entirely within the context of climate change.

    In this respect, Lance is absolutely correct, we are going to burn through all of the recoverable conventional petroleum. I would also agree with Lance, though many will argue otherwise, that we are likely going to burn through all of the natural gas and and coal. Peak coal = 2025 (Laherrere, Rutledge, Energy Watch Group).

  6. #6 bigTom
    March 9, 2008

    Biofuels versus the environment is really only the 250 pound dwarf gorilla, his big brother depletion of global food stocks is rearing his ugly head. Once starvation in poorer countries starts showing up on the evening news, our attitude towards food to fuel conversion may start to change. Until then it would seem that we have a frustrating uphill battle.

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