Who's Fueling Whom?- page 2 | EcoCenter: Energy | Smithsonian
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Who's Fueling Whom?

Why the biofuels movement could run out of gas

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So what's the hitch? Partly it's that bit about doing a little planning. The move to biofuels thus far looks more like a stampede than a considered program to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Critics in the financial community have used words like "gold rush" and even the dreaded "bubble," fretting that "biofool" investors are putting too much money into new refineries, which could go bust as markets and subsidies shift or as technologies and feedstocks become obsolete.

Betting the farm on biofuels has become commonplace: this year alone American farmers planted an additional 15 million acres in corn, and they were expecting one of the largest harvests in history. The share of the corn crop going into ethanol is also increasing pell-mell, from about 5 percent ten years ago to 20 percent in 2006, with the likelihood that it could go to 40 percent in the next few years.

Not surprisingly, the price of corn doubled over the last two years. This past January, angry consumers took to the streets in Mexico City to protest the resulting surge in the price of tortillas, a staple food. In China, rising feed costs boosted pork prices 29 percent, prompting the government to back off its plan to produce more biofuels. Even titans of agribusiness worried out loud that we might be putting fuel for our cars ahead of food for our bellies.

The chief executive at Tyson Foods said the poultry producer was spending an extra $300 million on feed this year and warned of food-price shocks rippling through the market. Cargill's chief predicted that reallocation of farmland due to biofuel incentives could combine with bad weather to cause food shortages around the world. Cattle ranchers and environmentalists, unlikely bedfellows, both called for rethinking those incentives.

Not that anybody seems to have given them much thought in the first place. One problem with current subsidies is that they act as if all biofuels were created equal—while some may actually be worse for the environment than conventional gasoline. For instance, corn ethanol on average produces about 13 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, according to Daniel Kammen, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley. But when ethanol refineries burn coal to provide heat for fermentation, emissions are up to 20 percent worse for the environment than gasoline. Yet that ethanol still earns the full subsidy.

In the United States, state and federal biofuel subsidies cost about $500 for every metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions they avoid, according to a study by the Global Subsidies Initiative, an environmentally oriented nonprofit. We could pay somebody else to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, via the European carbon emissions trading market, for about $28 a ton.

But don't biofuel subsidies buy us energy independence? President Bush, a former oil executive, declared last year that we are "addicted to oil." In this year's State of the Union speech, he set a national goal of producing 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017. The next morning, C. Ford Runge, who studies food and agriculture policy at the University of Minnesota, calculated that this would require 108 percent of the current crop if it all came from corn. Switching to corn ethanol also risks making us dependent on a crop that's vulnerable to drought and disease. When the weather turned dry in the Southeast this summer, for instance, some farmers lost up to 80 percent of their corn.

In a recent Foreign Affairs article, "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor," Runge and co-author Benjamin Senauer noted that growing corn requires large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and fuel. It contributes to massive soil erosion, and it is the main source, via runoff in the Mississippi River, of a vast "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. (This year the dead zone, expanding with the corn crop, was the third-largest on record.) The article made the switch to corn ethanol sound about as smart as switching from heroin to cystal meth.

Biofuel subsidies might make sense, other critics say, if they favored "cellulosic" ethanol instead—fuel that comes from breaking down the cellulose in the fibrous parts of the plant, such as the corn stalk instead of the kernel. That wouldn't put direct pressure on food prices, and might even reduce them by providing a market for agricultural waste products. Cellulosic technology is also the key to exploiting such nonfood plants as switchgrass, and it promises an improvement of more than 80 percent in greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional gasoline. But while an experimental cellulosic ethanol plant is now operating in Canada, and several others are being built in this country, most experts say it will take years for the technology to become economically competitive. There are also political realities. "Corn and soybean interests haven't spent 30 years paying campaign bills" for national politicians, says Runge, "to give the game away to grass."

Even if cellulosic ethanol becomes practical, biofuels will provide at best only part of the solution to the problems of global warming and energy supply. That's because biofuels will never match the one thing fossil fuels do brilliantly: concentrating solar energy. A gallon of gasoline represents the power of the sun gathered up and locked away by about 196,000 pounds of plants and animals. To produce all the petroleum, coal and natural gas on earth, it took an entire planet's worth of plants and animals growing and dying over about 700 million years.

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About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

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

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