Biofuels: Hope or Hype?

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated this week that it is leaning toward increasing the biofuel "blend wall," the amount of ethanol allowed to be added to gasoline.

It’s still running tests, and it delayed a final decision until summer, but the agency said Tuesday that initial data indicate newer engines can handle more ethanol than the current 10 percent limit.

"It is vitally important that the country increase the use of renewable fuels," EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, co-chairman of the ethanol trade association Growth Energy, which requested the blend wall be bumped from 10 to 15 percent.

Biofuels have been widely pitched as developed nations’ best hope to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide energy security. However, as their use has grown, unintended consequences have surfaced, raising questions about just how large a role some biofuels should play.

Food or Fuel?

Biofuels aren’t new. Henry Ford designed his 1908 Model T to run on ethanol from corn, but Standard Oil and its fossil fuel cohorts, seeing the threat biofuels presented to their business, lowered their prices and drove biofuels out of the marketplace.

By the 1970’s, the United States had become so dependent on foreign oil that the Oil Crisis (twice, in 1973 and 1979) caused an outright panic when the Middle East reduced exports and raised prices.

To avert disaster, the late 1980s saw the creation of commercial biofuel projects in 21 countries, but most (and specifically France) were using non-food crops like rapeseed as feedstock.

In 2005, the state of Minnesota became the first to mandate that all diesel fuel contain at least 2 percent biodiesel. In 2008, The American Society for Testing and Materials, or ASTM, published the first, comprehensive specification standards for biodiesel blending.

All biofuels are not the same, however, and all are not created equal.

Bioethanol uses various fermentation processes to convert the starches and sugars in plant food crops (typically corn, sugar beets and sugar cane) to alcohol-type fuels. Biodiesel uses transesterification (with alcohol as a catalyst) to convert vegetable or animal fats (lipids) to esters, which make fuel. Palm oil, a driver of deforestation in Indonesia, is an example of a vegetable fat.

The primary problem, and one that revealed itself in 2008 in the form of spiking food prices and food riots worldwide, is that all these “first generation” biofuels use what would otherwise be food to create fuel.

This approach, which allows BMW drivers to feel good about their environmental footprint, doesn’t feel so good to families living in a tarpaper shacks in Mexico City with only enough pesos to buy either a package of corn tortillas or the oil to cook them in.

Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, highlighted the disparity in a recent conversation:

“I don’t think biofuels have anything to do with energy. They are, in fact, part of a larger agrarian transition in which industry subsumes agriculture to its own particular interests, making biofuels a captive market that provides an investment opportunity for monopolies which control grain, and for the financial sector, which needs to offload a lot its money into another bubble. In fact, what we saw in 2008 was precisely that.”

Draining Natural Resources

Besides diverting essential food into fuel, biofuels use precious resources such as land and water, making food production more difficult, especially in areas like Kenya, where water is increasingly scarce thanks to several years of drought.

Refining takes about three gallons of fresh water to produce one gallon of corn ethanol in the U.S., down from nearly 6 gallons a decade ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office wrote in a report released Monday examining the impact of biofuel on water. Cellulosic ethanol takes in the range of 2 to 6 gallons of water; biodiesel is close to 1 gallon. The report also detailed how the chemicals and salts released by biofuel refineries can contaminate drinking water, endanger fish and disrupt the microbes used in wastewater treatment.

Biofuel production also leads to deforestation, both directly for growing biofuel feedstock and indirectly as land shifted from food to biofuel in one area leads to a need for more food production in another. Some of the deforestation seen in Indonesia and the Amazon is the result of U.S. biofuel policy (see Energy Policy Act, 1992 and 2005). This leads to greater greenhouse gas emissions, as fewer trees are able to sequester carbon. It also leads to desertification, as fragile topsoils – once anchored by sturdy tree roots – are lost. But the losses aren’t confined to third-world countries; in the U.S., deforestation proceeds apace with the biofuels push.

Biofuels are fuel themselves, but their manufacture often uses large quantities of non-renewable resources like natural gas, not to mention the gasoline or diesel fuel used to haul the biofuels to distribution hubs. Since natural gas is also being increasingly used in electricity production (to supplant dirty coal), this drives up the cost of electricity in the U.S.

Biofuel production requires unique infrastructures by virtue of its corrosiveness, thus special fuel-blending stations are needed – and each one depends on state or regional mixing mandates (2 percent in Minnesota, up to 20 percent in Brazil and parts of Europe). Biofuels also mandate special modifications in pipe infrastructure to prevent pipes being eaten away.

Biofuels also cause pollution. Initially, in the feedstock-growing portion, this pollution comes from fertilizer runoff from fields that leads to eutrophication, hypoxia, or low oxygen levels in lakes, rivers, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

Secondary pollution comes from processing feedstocks, and results in greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (more than burning oil), but also sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, or NOx. In fact, this NOx production, which is nearly 3.5 times that of gasoline, caused Texas, in 2006, to ban bioethanol – a ban later retracted at the behest of the industry, which is well subsidized by the government and has deep lobbying pockets.

The greater source of pollution from biofuels is water pollution, as refineries inadvertently or intentionally discharge sludge or fluids containing glycerin and methanol (and, potentially, hexane), the byproducts of refining.

Lastly, a study shows that producing biofuels uses more energy than the biofuel generates, resulting in a net energy loss. For corn, this was a 29 percent loss, but for switchgrass, the loss was near 50 percent, thus pulling third-generation biofuels into the energy-loss equation.

Holt-Gimenez sums it up nicely:

“All of these myths about biofuel being clean, green, sustainable, or furthering energy independence, are supported by the Big Myth, which is that we can consume our way out of over-consumption.”

The Human Impact

In March, the U.S. EPA, Department of Health and Human Services, Johns Hopkins University, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety will hold a three-day symposium on environmental justice, to determine if America’s poor are experiencing disproportionate health impacts from manufacturing facilities, freeways and biofuel plants being located in their midst.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that most biofuel plants in the U.S. are located in communities that would otherwise be struggling for the economic resources to survive. In fact, the U.S. fuels policy has driven the marketplace from 22 commercial plants in 2004 to more than 200 today, most located in America’s heartland.

Holt-Gimenez, who calls biofuels “a bad idea poorly executed at the worst possible time”, says that biofuels, are, in fact:

"Part of much larger picture in which a few monopolies are consolidating their market power by integrating food and fuels systems and passing grain back and forth between those systems, holding us captive to the volatility of markets. Biofuels, a key mechanism within that larger corporate strategy, allow agribusiness giants to control both supply and demand.”

A biofuel snapshot shows plants in Luverne, Minn., producing 21 million gallons per year (mgy); Claremont, Minn., producing 42 mgy; Fairmont, Minn., producing 115 mgy; Atwater, Minn., 50 mgy; and 19 other small Minnesota cities, all producing ethanol from corn. Most of these cities have populations near, or under, 10,000, including some in the Iron Range where the two main industries, mining and lumber, have collapsed.

As Carol Browner, former head of the EPA and now an energy advisor to President Obama, openly admits (speaking of air pollution):

"Poor communities, frequently communities of color, suffer disproportionately."

Holt-Gimenez concurs:

“Biofuels are not about energy. They’re not about climate change, because the way they are produced creates just as many greenhouse gases (as gasoline and diesel), if not more. They are not about U.S. rural development, as witness the takeover of so many farmer- and community-owned refineries by ADM and Con Agra. In fact they are not even about third-world prosperity, because in those nations small farms provide for many more livelihoods than large palm or cane plantations.

"What they are about is U.S. and EU biofuel targets, which we can’t possibly meet, and the result is tremendous land grabs and abuses in poorer countries, some quite violent.”

And worse lies ahead, Grain noted in 2007, observing that the level of land expropriation from India to Brazil had reached unprecedented levels.

This is particularly true in Africa, where biofuel farming and facilities withdraw valuable land from food production, increase desertification, lead to soil sterility, create a sort of “neo-colonialism” (with rich countries promoting the growth of biofuel feedstocks at the expense of regional needs), and introduce levels of pollution heretofore never seen.

In Tanzania, reports Abdallah Mkindi, environmental officer for Envirocare (a regional social justice/environmental advocacy agency), thousands of farmers could face eviction from their lands by multinational corporations pushing the biofuel agenda. Even those who are not forced out will find water resources for food crops lacking, since both jatropha and rapeseed require inordinate amounts of water.

Policy Still Favors Biofuel

In 2008, The European Union said it would stick to its biofuel goals in spite of adverse testimony from environmental organizations and social justice groups. An agenda that Holt-Gimenez says was fostered in the recent Summit on Food Security in Rome:

“It was one of the biggest disasters in the last five years, with leaders backing off Millennium Development goals and coming to absolutely no agreement on biofuels yet again. In fact, leaders took all the direction out of the United Nations and put it into the World Bank instead. So now the global South is going to be producing fuel for the insatiable energy appetite of the global North indefinitely, at a time when we have over a billion going hungry.”

In the U.S., where residents have seen too many poor communities given over to polluting biofuel refineries (with little given back except low-paying jobs), the citizens of Clovis, N.M., in 2007, stopped a biofuel refinery in its tracks — a remarkable David and Goliath scenario where a town of 33,000 stopped ConAgra, a packaged foods giant headquartered in Omaha, Neb., from building its refinery in what residents described as “mostly Hispanic and Black neighborhoods”.

But the “poster child” of the biofuels bust is surely Cello Energy of Alabama, which in June was charged with defrauding its investors. This left the EPA with a 70 million-gallon ethanol deficit for blending into 2010 fuel supplies, which means the U.S. will likely default on its renewable fuels target.

Holt-Gimenez also targets biofuels as, “a Trojan horse for the GM (genetically-modified foods) industry”, since corporations like Monsanto use GM crops as a way of cracking open markets by contaminating pure food species to allow for the gradual progression of GM crops. For example, Europe, which bans GM food, was recently forced to up its allowable contamination rate (of food by GM seed) to 5 percent because of increasing genetic drift. This, notes Holt-Gimenez, is a strategy carried out again and again by firms like Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta and other GM companies in places like the EU, Mexico and Brazil.

So far, the Obama administration has not amended its biofuel use targets. On May 5, it issued a draft rule designed to cut greenhouse gases emitted by biofuel refineries, but it is still considering increasing the maximum ethanol blend.

Whatever happens, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s prediction that food will never be so cheap again is likely to come true. For some, adequate food will simply become unavailable. Unfortunately, drinking biofuel is not the answer.


See also:

Subsidies Worth Billions at Stake in Battle Over Biofuel Rules

New Report Complicates Ag’s Assault on Biofuel Rules

New U.S. Rules Look at Biofuels’ Global Impact

Biofuels Watch: African Land-Grab Deals Questioned

Want to Save the Amazon? Try Looking Closer to Home


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