Biofuels are a Scam: The New Conventional Wisdom at Long Last

You know that something has achieved the status of "the conventional wisdom" when Time magazine finally latches onto it.

Now Time reporter Michael Grunwald pretty comprehensively lays out the economic and ecological insanity of biofuels in his "The Clean Energy Scam." To wit:

An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate...

several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.

Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry. The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves. The U.N.'s World Food Program says it needs $500 million in additional funding and supplies, calling the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency. Soaring corn prices have sparked tortilla riots in Mexico City, and skyrocketing flour prices have destabilized Pakistan, which wasn't exactly tranquil when flour was affordable.

Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon....

One groundbreaking new study in Science concluded that when this deforestation effect is taken into account, corn ethanol and soy biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline. Sugarcane ethanol is much cleaner, and biofuels created from waste products that don't gobble up land have real potential, but even cellulosic ethanol increases overall emissions when its plant source is grown on good cropland. "People don't want to believe renewable fuels could be bad," says the lead author, Tim Searchinger, a Princeton scholar and former Environmental Defense attorney. "But when you realize we're tearing down rain forests that store loads of carbon to grow crops that store much less carbon, it becomes obvious."

The growing backlash against biofuels is a product of the law of unintended consequences. It may seem obvious now that when biofuels increase demand for crops, prices will rise and farms will expand into nature. But biofuel technology began on a small scale, and grain surpluses were common. Any ripples were inconsequential. When the scale becomes global, the outcome is entirely different, which is causing cheerleaders for biofuels to recalibrate. "We're all looking at the numbers in an entirely new way," says the Natural Resources Defense Council's Nathanael Greene, whose optimistic "Growing Energy" report in 2004 helped galvanize support for biofuels among green groups.

Lots more here

Of course, we at reason have been decrying this subsidized madness for years. See here and here, for just a couple of examples. Look for Congress to soon repeal the new mandates for bioethanol it just enacted in December. (Yeah, that'll happen.) 

Finally, environmentalist ideologues constantly warn of "unintended ecological consequences" whenever people intervene in nature, but somehow they maintain their touching faith that government intervention into economies will operate exactly as planned without any pesky unintended consequences. In economics "everything is truly connected to everything else." Sigh. 

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  • ||

    Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry

    I propose that we create a subsidy that will bring down food prices!

  • Episiarch||

    My enjoyment of watching enviro-fascists and government scumbags totally fuck up is offset by my chagrin that, once again, they completely fuck the world's poor.

    DDT. Trade barriers. Aid taken by corrupt governments. Opposition to genetically engineered crops. Now this.

    Thanks, shitheads. Once again, you prove how utterly stupid you are--yet you never, ever learn.

  • ||

    Finally, environmentalist ideologues constantly warn of "unintended ecological consequences" whenever people intervene in nature, but somehow they maintain their touching faith that government intervention into economies will operate exactly as planned without any pesky unintended consequences.

    Bingo. I've been trying to point out this connection to my environmentalist friends for years to try to explain how, yes, my take on economic policy is something other than evil, mean, and uncaring about the poor people, but I can't seem to get no respect for it.

  • ||

    spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture

    When I read that, this jumped into my head: If not for that odious thief Robert Mugabe, currently impoverished and starving Zimbabweans could be raking in the dough, capitalizing on high demand in world agriculture markets. And, if not for our imbecilic farm policies, they might even be selling to us.

  • ||

    It may seem obvious now that when biofuels increase demand for crops, prices will rise and farms will expand into nature.

    Now it seems obvious? NOW? What, somebody finally decided to crack open an Econ 101 textbook? IDIOTS!

  • ||

    Look for Congress to soon repeal the new mandates for bioethanol it just enacted in December.

    Good one; my knee hurts, where I slapped it.

  • ||

    My policies have created jobs! It's a gain for the economy! Jobs gained (ignoring jobs lost) is the only necessary measure of a policy's impact on the economy!

  • ||

    It's not our fault. We meant well.

  • BlueBook||

    Not to worry; I've just patented a fantastic new technology that converts gasoline into corn syrup. It'll all balance out in the end.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "My policies have created jobs! It's a gain for the economy! Jobs gained (ignoring jobs lost) is the only necessary measure of a policy's impact on the economy!"

    YES!

    Pay no attention to those actual GDP numbers behind the curtain.

    I am the great and powerfull OZ!

  • Taktix®||

    Not to worry; I've just patented a fantastic new technology that converts gasoline into corn syrup. It'll all balance out in the end.

    HFCO? High Fructose Crude Oil?

    Someone call Dave W.

  • Dave W\'s superego||

    Not to worry; I've just patented a fantastic new technology that converts gasoline into corn syrup. It'll all balance out in the end.

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

  • the innominate one||

    In economics "everything is truly connected to everything else."

    which is why ecologists (not to be confused with environmental activists) have borrowed economic models for ecological models and theory.

  • TallDave||

    it's dramatically accelerating global warming

    This is just stupid. Even ignoring the fact temperatures have declined since 1998, it's blindingly obvious that burning biofuels, which have to pull CO2 from the air to grow, is better than burning oil, which is sequestered carbon from deep underground.

    Yes, we lose some rainforest. But they don't suck in nearly as much CO2 as fast-growing crops that are harvested and regrown every year.

    Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry.

    Again, stupid. The poorest people in the world are subsistence farmers. Higher prices for their crops actually help them. The people hurt by this are the urban poor, who are generally much better off.

    With the subsidy, corn ethanol may be scammish in economic terms, but switchgrass probably won't even need subsidies. There was an article in SciAm that said the energy yield for switchgrass is 540% - versus 25% for corn.

  • ||

    innominate: A point I make all the time to ecologists. Most remain intellectually enthralled by economic thinking that's more than 2 centuries old. Strangely they don't believe that they can learn anything from modern economics.

    "In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work".

    Charles Darwin, from his autobiography. (1876)

  • ||

    Algal-dieselists have been aware of these problems for years.
    http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html

    Here is some nifty new algal-diesel tech:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ToojK_MJd0

    In the mean time, I take the bus.

  • ||

    And these are the same geniuses telling us all the other things we have to do to Stop Teh Warmening!

    blindingly obvious that burning biofuels, which have to pull CO2 from the air to grow, is better than burning oil, which is sequestered carbon from deep underground.

    Dave, plowing up new land for farms to grow fuel also releases tons of sequestered CO2, in addition to actual, not imagined or potential, environmental damage. You don't even have to RTFA to get this, just the post above.

    Environmentalists: Destroying the village in order to save it.

  • ||

    TallDave wrote:
    "This is just stupid. Even ignoring the fact temperatures have declined since 1998"

    um ...have you done the calculus? One does not simply connect-the-dot from 1998 to any following year and declare a trend. Find the slope of the global yearly average temperature anomaly points of the curve for 1997 through 2007; and then average them out. What do you see?

  • ||

    p.s. 1997-2007 is enough to average out the effects of el Nino/la nina, volcanoes, and one whole 10-11 year sunspot cycle. 1998 was both a strong El Nino, and a Solar Cycle peak year.

  • ||

    Soaring corn prices have sparked tortilla riots in Mexico City...

    First, the Emos and now this? Dear god! What hell hath we wrought with our decadent ways?

  • TallDave||

    One does not simply connect-the-dot from 1998 to any following year and declare a trend.

    No kidding. Explain that to Al Gore for me, would you?

  • ||

    The poorest people in the world are subsistence farmers. Higher prices for their crops actually help them.

    OOPS! Time to learn what "subsistence farming" is, Dave.

  • TallDave||

    Dave, plowing up new land for farms to grow fuel also releases tons of sequestered CO2, in addition to actual, not imagined or potential, environmental damage.

    Sure, but so does oil.

    Assuming you have to get the energy from somewhere, you're much better off utilizing a process that sequesters then releases CO2 (biofuels) rather than a process that only releases it (fossil fuels).

  • TallDave||

    The poorest people in the world are subsistence farmers. Higher prices for their crops actually help them. OOPS! Time to learn what "subsistence farming" is, Dave.

    Subsistence farmers sell what they don't eat.

  • ||

    Don't worry, we have up our sleeves one other solution to rising food prices besides ending subsidies to corn and ethanol and international trade restrictions:

    Price Controls!

    Sure, price controls have been demonstrated to be foolish policy since at least the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, but that didn't stop Nixon. We already have price gouging legislation. I expect price controls to get bandied about if the Fed loses its nerve over the housing crisis and inflation stays high.

  • ||

    From Brittanica:

    form of farming in which nearly all of the crops or livestock raised are used to maintain the farmer and his family, leaving little, if any, surplus for sale or trade. Preindustrial agricultural peoples throughout the world have traditionally practiced subsistence farming. Some of these peoples moved from site to site as they exhausted the soil at each location.


    http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9001314/subsistence-farming

  • ||

    In economics "everything is truly connected to everything else." Sigh.

    Ron--I checked your link. Congress repealed that pesky 4th law last year. Tell Barry Commoner he has to come up with a new one.

  • TallDave||

    Yes, please note the part about having a little to sell.

    Subsistence farmers know that crops yields are unpredictable, so not being idiots they try to grow more than what they need to avoid death. Some years yields are bad and they go hungry or even die, some years yields are good and they have a little to sell.

  • ||

    Assuming you have to get the energy from somewhere, you're much better off utilizing a process that sequesters then releases CO2 (biofuels) rather than a process that only releases it (fossil fuels).

    TD--You're assuming that CO2 isn't produced in the production of biofuels. Not to mention the energy poor potential in a gallon of ethanol compared to gasoline, you have to produce more of it to get the same potential. It's not a 1-1 comparison.

  • TallDave||

    TD--You're assuming that CO2 isn't produced in the production of biofuels.

    No, I'm not. I'm saying that there's much less net CO2 produced than via oil (which also costs CO2 emissions to extract, in addition to the carbon in the oil itself).

    Not to mention the energy poor potential in a gallon of ethanol compared to gasoline, you have to produce more of it to get the same potential. It's not a 1-1 comparison.

    Yes, joules is a better unit of measure than volume.

  • ||

    Clearing land for agriculture is the single most ecologically destructive thing humans do.

    We don't see this effect in the developed world because most of our fields were cleared long before modern ecological concerns and the trend in the developed world is the return of farms to their natural state (which sequesters significant amounts of CO2 by the way).

    In the developed world, however. farms are routinely cut into pristine areas. It's not just biofuels that encourage this but other eco-fads as well such as using bamboo to replace wood or plastic and the "organic" farms that require lots of land and cheap labour.

    Money is just a proxy for resources and even if when assume that price does not capture all the ecological consequences of a product it is still the best guide to overall ecological impact.

    If something cost more, it's probably worse for the environment.

  • TallDave||

    most of our fields were cleared long before modern ecological concerns and the trend in the developed world is the return

    Yeah, most people don't realize that ag yields are so much greater today that we produce far more food despite having less land in use than in 1908.

    But what's the "right" amount of undeveloped land? We need food and energy.

  • ||

    Shannon Love:


    In the developed developing world, however, farms are routinely cut into pristine areas.



    Fixed.

  • ||

    I dream of a world where the composted policy proscriptions shat from the "environmentalist" community are view with skepticism and met with the derision they deserve.

  • ||

    No, I'm not. I'm saying that there's much less net CO2 produced than via oil (which also costs CO2 emissions to extract, in addition to the carbon in the oil itself).

    Considering all the issues surrounding biofuels, especially the part where it may not even be a net positive energy producer and what output it does have is insignificant compared to the energy demand, tells me that we are better off to leave this expereiment in the "good idea, bad result" file.

    This is even more so when you look at the actors in this who are the biggest proponents: corn farmers, ag giants such as AMD, farm belt congresscritters and the environmental lobby (whose RDF is only tunable enough to spin the bullshit they already fed us), essentially the true believers and profiteers, and you have a fairly poor leg to stand on.

    Hell, far be it for me to give Time credit for getting much of anything right, but I suppose they're due.

  • Guy Montag||

    Wow, ot os so clear yet so ignored: the time for cetacean fuel is here! No disruption of farmland, plus an increase in food suply (and perfumes) from the parts that do not produce fuel.

    On another note, I remember some news writer back in the 1980s (or so) commenting on Brazil's use of food crops for fuel and questioned the wiseness of putting them into compitition with one another. Wish I could remember where I read that.

  • D.A. Ridgely||

    Cross-posted in Mr. Walker's tortilla chip thread (and how often can a fellow write something like that?), here's a brief history of the role of corn in American history.

  • ||

    Greetings, inhabitants of bizarro world! Just popping in to note that environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about biofuels since long before libertarians latched onto the issue as...a way to make ignorant comments about environmentalists.

    It's weird that Ron Bailey never mentions this, because he's definitely not a hack.

  • ||

    We need food and energy.

    We have energy, it just isn't the "right" kind of energy. Not that I go hungry, (OTOH I don't enjoy artificially inflated prices) but to those that do, I'd wager that food ranks a bit higher. Cheap/affordable food even more.

  • ||

    Bizarro world inhabitants: another bulletin from outside the bubble! Environmentalists do in fact understand economics, which is why they favor putting a price on carbon. You see, carbon is an unpriced externality of fossil fuel use that imposes a cost on society (that includes you!).

    You are free to indulge in the fantasy that global warming is a hoax, but understand that environmentalists do in fact favor policies grounded in economics. Truth is stranger than fiction!

  • Guy Montag||

    On the most serious note of all: anybody who thinks that all of this biofuels and "conservation" nonsense has anything to do with "saving" the planet is really misinformed. These movements are nothing but juvenile attacks on the industrial revolution, nothing more. If anybody actually makes any money on any of these schemes, they get attacked too, just like the traditional energy companies. The corn farmers are just beginning to get the treatment now.

  • ||

    Of course, environmentalists were always skeptical of ethanol - and were not its primary pushers - those, of course, were our friends in the big farms in the Midwest.

    But Ron Bailey knew that. It didn't make for as convenient a villain here, just as with his garbage about DDT.

  • ||

    So... you're saying that congress enacted legislation based on the squeakiest wheel without considering the consequences of their actions? And that they're willing to use violence and the force of government to enforce transactions that they have little to no knowledge of?

    Imagine that. I really want to think they'll learn from this, but somehow, I feel sure we'll see this same thing over and over, just as we always have.

  • ||


    ...but understand that environmentalists do in fact favor policies grounded in economics.



    I defy anyone to give me the last real-world instance of an efficient tax based solely on an underpriced externality and not hokum.

    Besides, unless they burn shred compost the receipts in a carbon-neutral fashion, who's to say where the tax revenue gets spent isn't worse than whatever carbon emissions are avoided? Last I checked, most of the country's discretionary income is spent on the carbon-spewing military, plus the occasional we-didn't-mean-to-screw-up-the-environment-honest scheme based on bad science, like subsidized corn-ethanol.

  • Episiarch||

    Yeah, Saul, environmentalists are oh-so-rational and not ruled by emotion. Good one, but your satire is a bit rusty.

  • Guy Montag||

    Just remember the core driver of the environmentalist: all life is sacred, except human life.

  • ||

    Saul -
    If you are a self-identified "environmentalist" and also have some respect for economics, then you are not who we are all referring to.
    Do you honestly know nobody who's a self-identified "environmentalist" who advocates command-and-control policies? Because I know a lot, and very few who have any respect for economics. That is, the latter are usually people who've studied economics who have a thing for the environment.

  • ||

    Dear The Inconvenient Truth Disinformation:

    Of course, the rent-seeking farmers and evil corporations like ADM want biofuel subsidies, but stop denying that many environmentalists did too. See for example, the Natural Resources Defense Council's report "Growing Green" for details.

  • the innominate one||

    Ron: Diamond's vulgarization of ecology is no doubt often inaccurate, as was Steven Jay Gould's vulgarization of evolutionary theory. Admittedly, I haven't read Diamond's stuff, although I fell asleep during one of his lectures once. I've also fallen asleep during one of Gould's lectures.

  • Guy Montag||

    Ron,

    Good point about those pesky farmers and enviroloonsmentalists.

    No, how do we get cetacean fuel back on the table? It has none of these drawbacks and can help revive the declining sea harvesting industry.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "You see, carbon is an unpriced externality of fossil fuel use that imposes a cost on society (that includes you!)."

    Get back to me when somebody on the planet is actually capable of proving that man-made carbon emmissions is, in fact, imposing a cost.

  • Guy Montag||

    Gilbert Martin,

    But how can you cost the crushing anguish of the hurt feelings of people whose frivolous demands are being ignored?

  • Paul||

    This is just stupid. Even ignoring the fact temperatures have declined since 1998, it's blindingly obvious that burning biofuels, which have to pull CO2 from the air to grow, is better than burning oil, which is sequestered carbon from deep underground.

    No it's not. Yes, traditional oil is basically a big carbon trap. However, the co2 question with biofuels has been studied, and it has been postulated, and even shown in more than a few treatments on the subject that the energy required to grow such crops puts more co2 in the air than it takes out.

    It's like windfarms. Can you manufacture, deploy and maintain wind farms-- then generate surplus power, all on wind? So far, no. It's the same with biofuels.

    Again, stupid. The poorest people in the world are subsistence farmers. Higher prices for their crops actually help them.

    No they don't. They're subsistence farmers, meaning they need to eat the food they grow.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "But how can you cost the crushing anguish of the hurt feelings of people whose frivolous demands are being ignored?"

    I would categorize that as a nice bonus rather than a "cost".

    LOL

  • Neu Mejican||

    Saul's about right.
    TallDave's basic point is sound.

    Paul's got some reading to do.

    http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/103/30/11206

  • Guy Montag||

    They're subsistence farmers, meaning they need to eat the food they grow.

    So now they can eat and grow rich.

  • Paul||

    Neu Mejican has some reading to do as well:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/07/050705231841.htm

    Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.
    [...]
    Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

    In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

    * corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
    * switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
    * wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.



    Oh, and TallDave's basic point is not sound. Subsistence farming-- even if seeling "surplus" food--, is not in the same economic ballpark as commercial farmers who do benefit from higher "crop" prices. Higher food prices in micro-markets where the population is largely subsistence farming does not always bode well for the farmer.

    There's a big difference between high "crop" prices-- where crops are used for reasons other than food, as opposed to crop prices where the produce must be used as food.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Paul,

    Actually, I was not referring to that point of TallDave's.

    Of course, my appeal to authority is to a better authority than yours...and more recent.

    ;^)

  • Paul||

    So now they can eat and grow rich.

    I suppose they could, if these "subsistence" farmers are growing enough crop (a crop affected by bio-fuel market demands) to sell to a market which has the money to pay the higher price.

    Or maybe, their extra 1/2 bushel of radishes isn't going to make that large a difference.

  • Paul||

    Neu, this is why I wrote this in my original post:

    However, the co2 question with biofuels has been studied, and it has been postulated, and even shown in more than a few treatments on the subject that the energy required to grow such crops puts more co2 in the air than it takes out.

    Subtle? Probably. Had I thought the question was settled-- absolutely--, I probably would have written the above quite differently.

    I agree it's not absolutely settled. Maybe the University of Minnesota knows something that Cornell and Berkely don't. Unfortunately, I can't say.

  • Paul||

    Oh, and besides, the scientist pictured in my appeal to authority looks really smart, wears the academic, smarty-pants professorial tweed coat, has a great crease in his trousers and has a charismatic shock of silver hair. Beat that!

  • Neu Mejican||

    Paul,

    Indeed, it is not absolutely settled, but the argument is not as close as you imply.

    FWIW, Cornell has a large program to keep working on the issue because they see it having great potential.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Paul,

    Oh, and besides, the scientist pictured in my appeal to authority looks really smart, wears the academic, smarty-pants professorial tweed coat, has a great crease in his trousers and has a charismatic shock of silver hair. Beat that!

    Easy...I've got all of those characteristics, and I have elbow patches on my tweed coat.

  • Paul||

    and I have elbow patches on my tweed coat.

    Arrrghh! Curse you, Neu Mejican!!! I'll get you yet!!!

  • Guy Montag||

    Paul,

    Sadly, I only wear custom made double-breasted suits and light cigars and cigarettes with money. Know where I can find a good silk top-hat while I try to grow a big moustache? Not springing for spats until I actually see what they look like on cowboy boots.

  • ||

    Good one, Ron. As with your DDT misinformation, you can find a few people who say what you characterize the general population of the group as - but that's not remotely enough. And the link you provided talks mainly about cellulosic ethanol, which (although I find it unlikely it will work well ENOUGH) will certainly work better than the stupid corn ethanol.

    You still need to argue against mainstream environmentalism's disproportionate arguing that renewable energy and conservation are the way to go - fairly few fell for the ethanol trap. (Yes, I know all about the stupid hippies with biodiesel.)

  • ||

    Neu & Tall: Of course, all that switchgrass has to grow somewhere and perhaps it would grow really really well on former tropical forests. In any case, here's my rough calculation (based on DOE figures) of how much land it would take to grow enough switchgrass to replace 1/3rd of current transport fuels.

    To wit:

    Last year, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture estimated that it would take one billion tons of dry biomass to produce enough ethanol to replace one-third of current U.S. demand for transport fuels. Assuming a high yield of 10 tons per acre of switch grass would mean harvesting 100 million acres of land for fuel each year-an area about the size of California. In 2005, the USDA reckoned that there were 39 million acres idle in the conservation reserve program and 67 million acres of cropland being used as pasture, so dedicating that much land to grow fuel crops is not impossible. But planting idle cropland and pasture with fuel crops could have some deleterious effects on the natural environment and wildlife and possibly spark a fight between the naturalist and energy wings of the environmentalist movement.

    Strangely, the Fed's billion-ton biomass vision doesn't factor in the amount of energy needed to make ethanol. Just how much energy it takes to churn out ethanol is hotly contested, but for simplicity's sake let's assume that the process produces twice as much energy as it uses. That means that with even the most optimistic calculation, in which one billion tons of biomass are converted into ethanol, the amount produced could ultimately replace one-sixth of annual U.S. oil imports. That's not nothing, but it's not "energy independence"-and it's not much of a "miracle," either. Finally, it has to be asked, if producing ethanol is such a profitable idea, why does it need federal subsidies?

  • Neu Mejican||

    Ron B.

    No single energy source is going to replace oil.
    A diverse set of solutions will.

    "Hotly contested" is hyperbole.

  • ||

    Dear Truth Disinformation:

    That's right, the NRDC is a very little known completely obscure environmentalist group.

    You also write: ...mainstream environmentalism's disproportionate arguing that renewable energy... But wait, isn't bioethanol supposed to be, uh, you know, "renewable energy?"

    Neu: See "hotly contested."

  • ||

    Neu:

    You write: No single energy source is going to replace oil.

    Completely correct, but surely government subsidies to plow down more forests to provide it is kinda stupid?

  • ||

    You know what I meant, Mr. Disingenuous. Wind/solar/hydro.

    And since a few environmentalists have problems with some wind and some hydro (and doubtlessly some solar), using your own 'logic', we could say 'environmentalists don't support any energy at all' - which brings us perilously close to Limbaugh Land.

    The fact is that most environmentalists knew from the getgo that corn ethanol was a joke - a farm subsidy plan and a CAFE loophole, nothing more. Cellulosic ethanol is an unknown at this point to most of those folks who are giving it more benefit of the doubt than I'd do.

    And the fact is that you, once again, used environmentalists as your convenient bogeyman. In this case, the farm subsidy/CAFE loophole angle is responsible for 99.9999% of the 'success' of corn ethanol (other types of biofuels essentially not here yet). That's intellectually dishonest.

  • Guy Montag||

    Ron,

    If we only need an area the size of California, why don't we use the two areas* of that size that we already have?

    How about just using a little sliver of Alaska the size of California?

    *California and Iraq

  • Guy Montag||

    One benefit of ethanol is that it helps keep fuel systems clean. Maintenance warning: when your area has ethanol added to the fuel make sure you replace your fuel filters once per year!

    Downside is another alcohol additive needs to be added to the fuel, monthly, to prevent the accumulation of moisture.

  • Guy Montag||

    If the 'environmentalists' just want us to stop driving, why aren't they attacking all of the additives to our fuel that keep our engines running well and clean? They did it to lead, then to that other stuff (MTBE?), so why stop there?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    The last time I filled up at the pump, I noticed a small sign that said " the fuel in this pump may contain up to 10% enthanol".

    I consider that a rip off. Since a gallon of ethanol has only 2/3 the store of energy of a gallon of gas, I am getting a gallon of something that is not as valuable as 100% gasoline. They aren't selling it any cheaper than 100% gas to account for the difference.

  • ||

    They aren't selling it any cheaper than 100% gas to account for the difference.

    Uh, why do you think that? Presumably they are selling it at market price.

    In the unlikely chance that the dealer across the street does not have that same sticker -- usually indicating a government emissions control requirement -- is it the same price? Then buy your gas there.

  • ||

    I'm saying that there's much less net CO2 produced than via oil (which also costs CO2 emissions to extract, in addition to the carbon in the oil itself).

    Funny, that's not what the people who have actually studied it say.

    Just popping in to note that environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about biofuels since long before libertarians latched onto the issue

    Saul, on this forum it is traditional to provide links supporting assertions such as this.

  • Guy Montag||

    I consider that a rip off. Since a gallon of ethanol has only 2/3 the store of energy of a gallon of gas, I am getting a gallon of something that is not as valuable as 100% gasoline. They aren't selling it any cheaper than 100% gas to account for the difference.

    Bummer that you only have one gas station in driving distance. Maybe you should open one and apply your pricing model to the fuel?

  • ||

    Again, stupid. The poorest people in the world are subsistence farmers. Higher prices for their crops actually help them. The people hurt by this are the urban poor, who are generally much better off.

    Regardless of whether TallDave understands or doesn't understand what subsistence farming is, his basic economic understanding here is wrong.

    Lower costs of goods and services are better for the economy across the board. Even for subsistence farmers, lower food prices offer new opportunities for trading their grown product for other now cheaper food or food-derived goods.

    As with any artificially inflated price, higher food prices hurt everybody in the economy except a particularly small producing class. If one feels that small producing class's problems need addressing, there are far, far less expensive ways to do it than by distorting the market and making things more expensive for far greater numbers of people.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Bummer that you only have one gas station in driving distance."

    I haven't had to fill up again since I noticed that sticker so I don't know if the other stations in the area are doing that as well or not.

    If they are, then it has to be pursuant to a government mandate which means the government is the one doing the rip off.

  • LarryA||

    Assuming a high yield of 10 tons per acre of switch grass would mean harvesting 100 million acres of land for fuel each year-an area about the size of California.

    Which would actually be a better use for California than what we have now.

  • Guy Montag||

    GM,

    It is ethanol season in the USA. IIRC, as soon as it warms up a bit the government requirement goes away.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Ron Bailey,

    Neu: See "hotly contested."

    Thanks for proof that "hotly contested" is hyperbolic.

    I'll give you this.
    At least this time you didn't sight yourself.

    Completely correct, but surely government subsidies to plow down more forests to provide it is kinda stupid?

    Sure.
    As are the continued subsidies for oil.

  • Neu Mejican||

    sight = cite...
    du'oh!

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "It is ethanol season in the USA. IIRC, as soon as it warms up a bit the government requirement goes away."

    As I recall, MTBE used to widely used as a fuel addiditive until the gubmit decided they didn't like it and mandated ethanol instead.

    Since ethanol is harder to transport and blend with gas, that drives up the cost of production and the retail price as weil - still a rip off.

  • Neu Mejican||

    RC Dean

    Funny, that's not what the people who have actually studied it say.

    To quote a wise man:
    " on this forum it is traditional to provide links supporting assertions such as this.

  • ||

    Neu: Now don't be so churlish--it's Friday after all. When I "cite" myself, I do it so that the readers can easily click on the all the handy links I provide as evidence for my arguments.

  • Kolohe||

    Guy Montag-

    The Crown station on Rt 7 near Bailey's crossroads used to be about 10 cents cheaper than anything within 3 miles not only because it was off-brand but also that it was the only one that was 10% ethanol. (This anecdotal data, however, is now at least five years old, when the typical NoVa gas price was $1.30-$1.40)

  • Neu Mejican||

    Ron Bailey,

    Churlish is how I roll.
    =/8~)

  • ||

    Proponents of an agriculturally based alternative fuel have never addressed the problem of water. The world's largest natural aquifier is located beneath the great US farm belt and it is being depleted faster than natural sources can replenish it. And don't think about tapping the Great Lakes, use of that water is already strictly regulated. Population growth and urban spraw is putting a strain on existing water sources and a exponetial increase in agriculture will only excerbate the situation. Another unintended consequence created by government interference with the free market.

  • ||

    That should be urban sprawl.

  • ||

    "You know what I meant, Mr. Disingenuous. Wind/solar/hydro.

    And since a few environmentalists have problems with some wind and some hydro (and doubtlessly some solar), using your own 'logic', we could say 'environmentalists don't support any energy at all' - which brings us perilously close to Limbaugh Land."

    Well, actually, I have a family member who is what I would term an eco fascist (and also a "climatologist" in training, although with a strange disdain for the scientific method and little knowledge of minor things like the laws of thermodynamics) who really *does* want us to essentially have no real source of energy at all. See, "consumerism" is evil, and humans are evil, and we should all basically die since there are far too many of us. Those of us that don't die should live as peasants, happily tilling the soil with our bare hands. "Fuedalism was good" and "poor people are happier" are pretty standard statements, although her belief that we should all be living in felt yurts and living only off of what we can draw from the soil through our own muscle power is not very consistent with her complaints about income inequality. I point out the logical inconsistencies and she just shrugs. She spends time living in Costa Rica and was complaining about the free trade agreement they were going to vote on...seems that that if it was ratified there would be a 7-11 springing up on every corner. I can't stress to you just how horrible that would be. People having more wealth and the freedom to choose what to do with it essentially the greatest evil imaginable. For her, there *is* no acceptable alternative energy source, because it is *wealth* itself that is evil.

    I don't know what percentage of the environmentalist movement she represents, but there *are* people who really and truly do want to take us back to a romanticized Rousseauen stone age bliss of hunger, disease, grinding poverty, and dramatically reduced lifespans. All for the benefit of mother earth.

    Just out of curiousity, how do think we can significantly increase the amount of hydro power? Our head is essentially tapped out. Solar power has massive problems with efficency, output on demand, and scalability. Wind power has essentially no net energy gain after factoring in construction and maintenance costs. WHAT sustainable energy sources?

    I'm reminded of the article I read about the Los Alamos labs coming up with a way to create a clean hyrdocarbon fuel from water and CO2 in the air, using the electricity generated from nuclear power plants. A completely carbon nuetral way of creating gasoline literally out of thin air. The article quoted the head of some environmental NGO complaining that yes, it was carbon neutral, but it was a distraction from the goal of conservation and reduction of energy usage. The complaint was not that the process was inefficent, or even that it relied on nuclear power as the ultimate energy source. The complaint was that it distracted from the goals of conservation. It was pretty clear from the article that *any* soft of energy, no matter how clean, would not have met with the approval of this particular NGO. Wish I could find the link.

  • ||

    Funny, that's not what the people who have actually studied it say.

    To quote a wise man:
    " on this forum it is traditional to provide links supporting assertions such as this.


    Is it really necessary to link to the post at the top of this thread? I'm a little embarassed that I even have to quote it:

    But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon....

    One groundbreaking new study in Science concluded that when this deforestation effect is taken into account, corn ethanol and soy biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline. Sugarcane ethanol is much cleaner, and biofuels created from waste products that don't gobble up land have real potential, but even cellulosic ethanol increases overall emissions when its plant source is grown on good cropland.

  • Neu Mejican||

    RC Dean,

    Discussion of the post assumes it as a background of information.

    When someone disputes the content of that post, refuting with reference to that post is pretty circular.

    Your claim was that "the people" studying it...not "some people studying it" or a specific reference to which people studying it agreed with your assertion.

  • Paul||

    MikeM

    I'd like to add to your argument, if I may.

    I was tempted earlier to respond to the snark about environmentalists not wanting any energy, and sadly it is sometimes true-- even in mainstream environmentalism.

    Take for instance, the recent popular fad/wave of "carbon offsets". There is a very mainstream argument floating around amongst environmentlists that carbon offsets don't curb our consumption because they allow us to spew out CO2 "guilt free".

    This argument is bordering on ridiculous. If co2 emissions are the driving force behind Global Warming(tm), then if I offset 100% of my co2 then I'm not contributing to Global Warming, period. So any discussion, any discussion about remaining "guilt free" are purely moralistic in nature and cut right to core that consumption in and of itself is Bad(tm).

  • ||

    Tall Dave,

    It would be nice if you applied the same amount of critical thinking and skepticism to the biofuel advocates that you apply to the global warming advocates.

  • Brandybuck||

    If you accuse the green movement of promoting enviro-unfreindly biofuels, they will retort that they did nothing of the sort, that they were never for biofuels. That may be true for a few of them, but it doesn't excuse their absolute silence on the issue when biofuels were being noisily marketed to government. As self proclaimed savants of all things environmental, they should have done more than smile giddily while the eco-disaster was being implemented.

  • ||

    Neu Mejican's link clearly refutes the idea that biofuels will have any meaningful contribution to the energy supply.

    Environmental, economic, and energetic costs and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels

    Neither biofuel can replace much petroleum without impacting food supplies. Even dedicating all U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12% of gasoline demand and 6% of diesel demand.

  • ||

    The stock reply of many biofuel advocates when shown the crystal clear evidence that biofuels are an environmental disaster is "yeah but we mean switchgrass, not corn ethanol"

    Could we please agree that those who argue that switchgrass will fix all of corn ethanols problems are not to be taken seriously as long as these two existing conditions continue.

    1. Ethanol usage is mandated

    2. There are no commercial producers of ethanol using switchgrass as a feedstock.

  • ||

    "Finally, environmentalist ideologues constantly warn of "unintended ecological consequences" whenever people intervene in nature, but somehow they maintain their touching faith that government intervention into economies will operate exactly as planned without any pesky unintended consequences. In economics "everything is truly connected to everything else." Sigh. "

    Ron, not to be churlish (it's Saturday in my neck of the world afterall, and also, I happen to like the free market) but isn't this also the same argument, turned on its head, that *progressives* make about the free market. We argue that intervening in the economy can have many negative, unforseen consequences, yet conversely we also argue that intervention in ecology is sometimes necessary; additionally, it's rather cold and inhumane to restrict these interventions when we can do something now to help people, fear of possible unkknow consequences be damned. It seems to me progressives make a very similar argument for immediate economic intervention.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Neu Mejican's link clearly refutes the idea that biofuels will have any meaningful contribution to the energy supply.

    Make that "food-based biofuels" and I won't churlishly accuse you of distortion.

  • ||

    "I don't know what percentage of the environmentalist movement she represents, but there *are* people who really and truly do want to take us back to a romanticized Rousseauen stone age bliss of hunger, disease, grinding poverty, and dramatically reduced lifespans. All for the benefit of mother earth."

    And all libertarians want babies to starve to death in the streets after shooting each other with unregulated guns. Well, I met one that said so once, so I can't assume they all don't.

  • ||

    Neu Mejican,

    Everything but "food based biofuels" is the worst sort of vaporware. If you support biofuel usage today you are supporting food based biofuels.

    My earlier comment still applies

    The stock reply of many biofuel advocates when shown the crystal clear evidence that biofuels are an environmental disaster is "yeah but we mean switchgrass non food based biofuels, not corn ethanol"

    Could we please agree that those who argue that switchgrass "non food based biofuels" will fix all of corn ethanols problems are not to be taken seriously as long as these two existing conditions continue.

    1. Ethanol usage is mandated

    2. There are no commercial producers of ethanol using switchgrass "non food based" feedstock.

  • ||

    Neu Mejican,

    Any biomass based fuel that requires farming to produce is going to cause many of the same problems the "food based" biofuels cause.

    Your earlier link points out that there is a huge scaling problem here.

    Even dedicating all U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12% of gasoline demand and 6% of diesel demand.

  • Neu Mejican||

    TJIT,

    You inaccurately stated that the link provided support to a broader statement than it did.

    The primary conclusion of the article:

    Transportation biofuels such as synfuel hydrocarbons or cellulosic ethanol, if produced from low-input biomass grown on agriculturally marginal land or from waste biomass, could provide much greater supplies and environmental benefits than food-based biofuels.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Of course, I guess, the main question is what counts as a meaningful contribution.

  • ||

    On grain elevators:

    I just read an article the other day in the WSJ about grain elevators that may go under because they can't make their margin calls. Apparently some "knowledgeable" people have stated that the gov should help the grain elevators lest they go under. Here's an odd equation: grain prices go up because of gov subsidies + gain elevators can't make their margin calls because of higher and higher grain prices = gov swoops in with cash to bailout the grain elevators. Is there a lesson in there somewhere?

  • ||

    "And all libertarians want babies to starve to death in the streets after shooting each other with unregulated guns. Well, I met one that said so once, so I can't assume they all don't."

    Hey, Inconvenient Truth. I was wondering what happened to you. Good to see you again. They finally fixed my med levels and so now I'm out of that psyche ward we called a home for so long. How'd you get out?

  • ||

    Neu Mejican,

    You are apparently oblivious to the important point of the quote you posted. It said

    cellulosic ethanol,

    In other words more vaporware


    could provide much greater supplies and environmental benefits than food-based biofuels.


    That bold could in that quote is where they are telling you it is vaporware.

    You keep blowing right by the fact that food based biofuels are all we have available right now and they are immensely destructive.

    Biofuel dead enders who keep supporting the current biofuel system in the face of all the harm it causes are accomplishing two things.

    1. Much more ecologic, economic, and human damage.

    2. Ruination of the reputation of biofuels and a decreased chance of successful biofuels in the future.

  • ||

    The benefit of cellulosic ethanol is not what would happen if the world converted to it immediatly using the current state of the art, which would certainly be foolish, but the promise it holds as an emerging techonology.

    The major inneficiency of the process is that it takes a lot of heat to cook the ethanol out of biomass currently. You burn most of it to get the ethanol out of the rest. Biotechnology may well have a lot of answers, creating ethanol 5 times as efficiently as is done today. An area 1/5 the size of California is not really so bad.

    Google for Coskata.

    Clearly the corn thing is another government boondoggle.

  • Guy Montag||

    Wow, one of the Goreites made it over here to complain about "sprawl", as if the 'answer' to this mythical problem is to keep humans penned up in cities, without stating that answer.

    When are the folks advocating we go back to the ways of the 'natives' going to appear? Nobody was bigger fans of deforestation than the Plains Indians, making me a big fan of theirs.

    Forests are unproductive and should be sold into private hands as quickly as possible so productive uses can be found for them to benefit mankind.

  • ||

    Forests produce oxygen don't they? Also, mountain forests prevent run-off, mudslides, and flooding into the cities. Herbs for medicines, etc. etc. Forests might be better in private hands (Nature Conservatory, North Maine Woods, etc.) but that doesn't mean it would be better to have them all chopped down so the land could be put to other uses.

    Oh, and this response isn't in response to your comments about sprawl. Just about the forests.

    Save the Trees, Cut Down a Randian! (Might have seen it on a bumper sticker).

  • Guy Montag||

    Did anybody do that silly light turnoff thingie last noght? I completely forgot, but I did accidentally leave on the light that I was going to turn on in my little counter-protest anyway.

  • ||

    Fuel from coal -- which we got lots of.

    http://money.aol.com/news/articles/_a/air-force-prod-aids-coal-to-fuel-plans/n20080322050509990002

  • Neu Mejican||

    TJIT,

    Neu Mejican's link clearly refutes the idea that biofuels will have any meaningful contribution to the energy supply.

    This is your original statement.
    Since we need to bold things for each other, I have bolded the key part of your sentence that I was refuting.

    The link I provided does not refute the idea that biofuels will make a future contribution to the energy supply. Your statement is over-broad. Deal with it.

  • Neu Mejican||

    For those interested...
    A wikisummary of the current state of cellulosic ethanol production around the world.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol_commercialization

    In 2004, Iogen began delivering its first shipments of cellulosic ethanol into the marketplace.

    There are several productions that will be producing the stuff commercially in the near future.

  • Neu Mejican||

    That's some pretty solid vaporware.

  • Guy Montag||

    If it is a "solid" idea, then there should be no trouble selling it.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Yeah - WITHOUT any government mandates or subsidies.

  • ||

    Neu Mejican,

    From your link

    In the near term, logen intends to commercialize its cellulose ethanol process by licensing its technology broadly through turnkey plant construction partnerships. The company is currently evaluating sites in the United States and Canada for its first commercial-scale plant.

    According to your link they don't even have a plant location picked. That is indeed a pretty solid example of vaporware.

    Yet the mandates for ethanol usage are still in place which means the only source of commercial quantities of ethanol are the ones that use food based feedstock.

  • Neu Mejican||

    TJIT,

    Okay.

    So the fact that a company is actively working on expanding commercial production, has had cellulose ethanol in the marketplace since 2004, and is competing with others to be the first to move into the US and world market means that it is vaporware.

    Got it.

  • ||

    Neu Mejican,

    I'm wondering why you bother posting links since you promptly ignore them and argue against the information in you own @$&^%#$^ link.

    For example, you said

    So the fact that a company is actively working on expanding commercial production

    However, if you look at the link you provided which is the same one I cited in my comment directly above yours it says

    the company is currently evaluating sites in the United States and Canada for its first commercial-scale plant.

    Your own link prominently mentions the fact that they don't have a commercial plant.

    In spite of this you continue to blather on about expanding commercial production.

    This behavior is generally seen in those who are either.

    1. Gullible
    2. Obtuse
    3. trolling
    4. all of the above.

  • ||

    Neu Mejican,

    Here is a good example of why absent production of commerically meaningful amounts of product you need to take what the ethanol promoters are saying with a massive grain of salt.

    Responsible Ethanol Goes Bankrupt

    This is exactly, EXACTLY why I caution against getting carried away with projections. This is exactly what I have been so critical of Vinod Khosla about. Projections don't always come true. I can guarantee you that Khosla's vision of 200 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030 isn't going to happen. But he is testifying to congress that it can happen, and that is influencing our energy policies in the wrong direction.



    Bold is my emphasis and a point more ethanol promoters should remember.

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