Current Issue
May 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

(Cheryl Carlin)

Who's Fueling Whom?

Why the biofuels movement could run out of gas

Switching to biofuels means getting our energy only from what we can grow in the present day, and that's not much. In the course of a year, an acre of corn yields only as little as 60 gallons of ethanol, after you subtract the fossil fuels used to cultivate, harvest and refine the crop.

So let's flash forward five years. Twice a month you swing by the biofuels station to fill the 25-gallon tank in your sporty flex-fuel econo-car. (Pretend you've kissed the SUV goodbye.) Even this modest level of energy consumption will require a ten-acre farm to keep you on the highway for a year.

That might not sound too bad. But there are more than 200 million cars and light trucks on American roads, meaning they would require two billion acres' worth of corn a year (if they actually used only 50 gallons a month). The country has only about 800 million acres of potential farmland.

What if we managed to break out of the corn ethanol trap and instead set aside 100 million acres for high-yielding cellulosic ethanol crops? That's an attractive option to almost everyone outside the corn industry, including such environmental groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council. But it would still produce only about an eighth of the nation's projected energy consumption in 2025, according to a University of Tennessee study.

One other problem with the rush to "greener" fuels is that, despite the biodiversity happy talk, wildlife is already prominent among biofuel victims. Last year, for instance, farmers were protecting about 36 million acres through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which works to restore degraded lands, reduce soil erosion and maintain wildlife habitat. CRP land is what biofuel proponents often have their eyes on when they talk about producing biofuels and biodiversity by growing switchgrass. But farmers look at the bottom line, sizing up the $21 per acre they net with the CRP payment (to take a representative example from southwest Minnesota) against the $174 they can now earn growing corn. And they have begun pulling land out of CRP and putting it back into production.

Other countries are also rapidly surrendering habitat to biofuel. In Indonesia and Malaysia, companies are bulldozing millions of acres of rain forest to produce biodiesel from oil palm, an imported species. The United Nations recently predicted that 98 percent of Indonesia's forests will be destroyed within the next 15 years, partly to grow palm oil. Many of the new plantations will be on the island of Borneo, a mother lode of biological diversity.

Apart from the effect on wildlife, critics say Indonesia's forests are one of the worst places to grow biofuels, because they stand on the world's richest concentration of peat, another nonrenewable fuel. When peat dries out or is burned to make way for a plantation, it releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide. Indonesia, despite its undeveloped economy, already ranks as the world's third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States. When you add the peat effect into the equation, according to the conservation group Wetlands International, Indonesian palm oil biodiesel is up to eight times worse for the environment than gasoline.

Oh, and one final irony. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that because of the way U.S. biofuel laws are written, foreign tankers loaded with Indonesian biodiesel can stop briefly at an American port, blend in a splash of regular petroleum diesel and qualify for a U.S. subsidy on every gallon. It's called "splash and dash," because the tankers generally push on to Europe to collect additional subsidies there. All in the name of greener fuels.

None of this means we should give up on biofuels. But we need to stop being dazzled by the word and start looking closely at the realities before blind enthusiasm leads us into economic and environmental catastrophes. We also should not let biofuels distract us from other remedies. Conservation and efficiency improvements may not sound as sexy as biofuels. But they are typically cheaper, faster and better at dealing with the combined problems of global warming and uncertain energy supply. They also call on what used to be the defining American traits of thrift and ingenuity.

And what about Pete Bethune, gallivanting around the planet in his powerboat and telling us it's easy to be environmentally friendly in this newfangled world? I think he must be kidding. Our brief infatuation with biofuels has already taught us, with every high-priced tortilla, that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Tags
About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus