Biofuel Absurdity

Ethanol PlantWorld Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, published a report this month showing the inefficiencies of biofuel use and production.  The report focuses largely on land use trade offs and cautions against the negative impacts that has on food production.  However living in Minnesota — where ethanol is popular with farmers, rural communities, and politicians of nearly every stripe — biofuels have always struck me as absurd from the get-go.  Land use is one consideration, but what about the science and simple economics of biofuel production?

I found the World Resources Institute report in a story published today in the New York Times, but this sort of critical assessment of biofuels is hardly breaking news.  Other reports generally raise similar concerns about the trade offs between dedicating land for food versus land for fuel.

I agree with these concerns, however I see another issue, something you might call a political ethanol boondoggle.  Perhaps the entire is idea is flawed from an economic and environmental as well as a policy issue.  Ethanol is hailed as a green energy solution, a viable industry that will help ease our dependence on expensive, dirty fossil fuels.  But what if it isn’t any of that?

For the most part, the criticism that ethanol depends on subsidies is not true; however that does not mean it is not indirectly supported by economic and legal subsidy or endorsement.  This is where I see the boondoggle revealed.

In Minnesota, for example, ethanol production was a subsidized industry in the 1990s and early 2000s shortly after the process of converting corn to ethanol became economically realistic (with the subsidy, it that is).  Farmers were not subsidized, but producers and “blenders” were.  The cost of production compared with the cost of producing petroleum made the process appear promising.  In Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty lobbied heavily for ethanol development and it 2005 Minnesota enacted a law requiring all fuels sold in Minnesota contain 20% ethanol by 2013.  This certainly gave the ethanol industry a boost and agriculture an expanded market for its crops.

I think the real issue, however, is efficiency.  What are the energy needs — and real costs — to grow and harvest the crops needed for ethanol?  It is more than just land; it includes the use of water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

What about the energy and costs required to convert the crop to ethanol?  True, we use energy to extract and produce fossil fuels, but isn’t the appeal of ethanol that it is a relatively “green” alternative to fossil fuels?  I’m not so sure.  If we are expending all this energy and resources to produce ethanol, where are the green alternatives realized?  And I presume the energy produced from ethanol is net positive, but how efficient is it compared with traditional fossil fuels?   When I look for papers on fuel efficiency not much is said.  In the end, ethanol might turn out to be a rather dirty fuel.

Perhaps that’s up for debate.  Nonetheless, it strikes me as absurd to jump from one carbon fuel (fossil fuels) to another carbon fuel (ethanol) and think we are moving in the right direction.

Moreover, the development of ethanol did not cause our current energy boom.  Rather the development of familiar fossil fuels, primarily through petroleum fracking technology, has given us more of the fuels ethanol was meant to replace.  Against that fact in particular, ethanol as an answer to our energy challenges seems to have failed.  We didn’t turn to ethanol plants on the prairie, we turned to more — presumably more economically feasible — prospecting for oil.

I agree with the land use and food production concerns, but at an even more basic level ethanol doesn’t seem to be an answer to our environmental and energy concerns.  If we’re going to truly develop new energy sources, it seems plainly obvious to me that we need to develop energy sources that are truly new.  In some very scary ways just the opposite is happening.  We are looking backward for solutions, rather than forward, and ethanol seems like just another snare in which to better entrap us in the past.

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