I first started to think that the biofuels movement might be slipping into la-la land when I spotted a news item early this year about a 78-foot powerboat named Earthrace. In the photographs, the boat looked like a cross between Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose and a Las Vegas showgirl. Skipper Pete Bethune, a former oil industry engineer from New Zealand, was trying to set a round-the-world speed record running his 540-horsepower engine solely on biodiesel.
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Along the way, he spread the word that, as one report put it, "it's easy to be environmentally friendly, even in the ostentatious world of powerboating."
Well, it depends on what you mean by "easy." Bethune's biodiesel came mostly from soybeans. But "one of the great things about biodiesel," he declared, is that "it can be made from so many different sources." To prove it, his suppliers had concocted a dollop of the fuel for Earthrace from human fat, including some liposuctioned from the intrepid skipper's own backside.
Given the global obesity epidemic, that probably seemed like a sustainable resource. You could almost imagine NASCAR fans lining up for a chance to personally power Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy Monte Carlo into the tunnel turn at Pocono. But biofuel skeptics were seeing warning flags everywhere.
Over the past few years, biofuels have acquired an almost magical appeal for environmentalists and investors alike. This new energy source (actually as old as the first wood-fueled campfire) promises to relieve global warming and win back America's energy independence: instead of burning fossil fuels such as coal or oil, which fill the atmosphere with the carbon packed away during thousands of years of plant and animal growth, the idea is to extract energy only from recent harvests. Where we now pay larcenous prices to OPEC, we'd pay our own farmers and foresters instead.
Of course, biofuels also produce carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of global warming. But unlike fossil fuels, which don't grow back, corn, soybeans, palm oil, grasses, trees and other biofuel feedstocks can recapture, through photosynthesis, the massive quantities of carbon dioxide they release. This makes biofuels seem like a good way to start bringing the carbon ledger back into balance. Other factors have made the promise of biofuels even more tantalizing.
• Ethanol producers in this country receive a tax credit of 51 cents a gallon, on top of billions of dollars in direct corn subsidies. (In 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, it was $9 billion.) In Europe biodiesel subsidies can approach $2 a gallon.
• Some biofuel entrepreneurs are coining energy, and profits, from stuff we now pay to get rid of: methane from municipal dumps, wood chips piling up around sawmills, manure from livestock facilities, and paper-mill sludge that now usually ends up being trucked to a landfill.
• With a little planning, proponents say, biofuels could give us not just energy but wildlife too. Switchgrass and other potential feedstocks provide good habitat for birds and other animals between harvests.
All this, and in the minds of people like Pete Bethune, we get to keep our muscle boats too.