Tag Archives: biofuel

Advanced biofuels will still take food out of the mouths of the world’s poor

Environmentalists don’t seem to understand that life involves unavoidable trade-offs.  Nathanael Greene, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently wrote a post titled, “Europe catches up to the US on biofuels policy” in which he approves of the EU’s decision to “stick to its 10 percent goal for biofuels but require an increase percentage to be advanced biofuels that don’t compete with food production.”

The problem is that you cannot avoid competition between biofuels and food. The EU may state that new alternatives won’t compete with food production, but wishing something doesn’t make it so.

The first place new biofuel crops will be grown is on land that is already in cultivation. Instead of growing corn, for example, farmers will grow switchgrass. Instead of taking corn and turning it into fuel, these policies are just taking land that would have produced corn and re-purposing it to produce fuel.

There only difference is that advanced biofuel crops should be more efficient. But advanced biofuel conversion technology needs to first make it out of the lab out of the lab and into commercial-scale production. If biofuels could be made from organic waste, then advanced biofuel wouldn’t compete with food, but that’s the only scenario.

The point remains–our biofuel policies are taking food out of the mouths of the world’s poor. That is the unavoidable outcome our mandating the use of food for fuel. As the UN special rapporteur has stated, biofuels are “a crime against humanity.”

If the human toll of increasing food prices wasn’t enough, the environmental costs are significant. Today’s biofuel production releases more greenhouse gases than petroleum production and we are turning miles and miles of jungle into biofuel plantations.

Obama Energy Promises–Cheap Magic Energy for Everyone!

Barak Obama, and to only a slightly lesser extent, John McCain, are on the campaign trail promising cheap, magic energy for all. From the National Post:

Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed he would break America’s addiction to “dirty, dwindling, and dangerously expensive” oil if he is elected U.S. president — and one of his first targets might well be Canada’s oil sands.

A senior adviser to Mr. Obama’s campaign told reporters it’s an “open question” whether oil produced from northern Alberta’s oilsands fits with the Democratic candidate’s plan to shift the U.S. sharply away from consumption of carbon-intensive fossil fuels.

“The possibilities of renewable energy are limitless,” Mr. Obama said in an energy policy speech Tuesday in Las Vegas. “We’ve heard promises about it in every State of the Union [speech] for the last three decades. But each and every year, we become more, not less, addicted to oil — a 19th-century fossil fuel that is dirty, dwindling, and dangerously expensive.”

While it’s true that there is less oil today than yesterday, it is not dwindling. There are more oil resources in North America, in the form of oil sands and oil shale, than there is in Saudi Arabia. We also have vast supplies of oil and natural gas on the outer continental shelf, but Mr. Obama and his friends have fought to restrict access to those domestic resources. Unsurprisingly after years of constraining our supply, we now have tight supply and high prices. Thank you Mr. Obama. The policies you support are the very ones driving up the price of energy.

Oil might be dirtier than natural gas, but it is also less expensive for personal transportation. Does Obama not support personal transportation? Oil emits less greenhouse gases than current biofuel technology, so you can argue that it is cleaner than biofuel. And oil is cheaper than biofuel, allowing lower income people to afford to buy and use it.

In opposition to oil, but does Obama support?  Biofuel of course. Unsurprisingly the NY Times reports that Obama is in the pocket of Big Ethanol. If Obama were thoughtful, if Obama were for real change, he would be concerned about the outcomes of the policies he supports. Some people rightly call biofuel a “crime against humanity.” Others say that it is increasing poverty.

The possibilities of renewable energy, like the possibilities of absolutely anything are limitless. When I want to drive my car I don’t want it to be a mere possibility the the station will have gas. I want there to be a high probability the station will have gas.

Someday renewables might make sense, but today we are throwing money away and making people poorer as a result. When will Obama support real change and end this tragic waste?

The Outlook for Biofuel Gets Even Worse

Now people are concerned about the second-generation of biofuel crops–the crops that would be used to create cellulosic ethanol. Here’s what the NY Times says:

In the past year, as the diversion of food crops like corn and palm to make biofuels has helped to drive up food prices, investors and politicians have begun promoting newer, so-called second-generation biofuels as the next wave of green energy. These, made from non-food crops like reeds and wild grasses, would offer fuel without the risk of taking food off the table, they said.

But now, biologists and botanists are warning that they, too, may bring serious unintended consequences. Most of these newer crops are what scientists label invasive species — that is, weeds — that have an extraordinarily high potential to escape biofuel plantations, overrun adjacent farms and natural land, and create economic and ecological havoc in the process, they now say.

At a United Nations meeting in Bonn, Germany, on Tuesday, scientists from the Global Invasive Species Program, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as other groups, presented a paper with a warning about invasive species.

“Some of the most commonly recommended species for biofuels production are also major invasive alien species,” the paper says, adding that these crops should be studied more thoroughly before being cultivated in new areas.

Controlling the spread of such plants could prove difficult, the experts said, producing “greater financial losses than gains.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature encapsulated the message like this: “Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your country.”

President Bush is Tone Deaf on Biofuel

President Bush is amazingly tone deaf on the outcome of his biofuel mandate. In an address on climate change yesterday he touted the legislation he pushed last year to require “fuel producers to supply at least 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022.” He argued that “This should provide an incentive for shifting to a new generation of fuels like cellulosic ethanol that will reduce concerns about food prices and the environment.”

But this mandate has helped drive up fuel prices today. There have been riots all of the world because of the high price of food and the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, told German radio Monday that the production of biofuels is “a crime against humanity.”

Not only is the biofuel mandate causing people to go hungry, the environmental costs are significant. Today’s biofuel production releases more greenhouse gases than petroleum production and we are turning miles and miles of jungle into biofuel plantations.

It’s amazing that President Bush could be so tone deaf about the problems with today’s biofuel. Biofuel may work tomorrow, but with today’s technology is accomplishes little and hurts a lot of people.

Beware of the Unintended Consequences of Mandates

Like my last post, here’s, another reminder that mandates and set-asides carry unintended consequences. In 2005, The Independent in the UK thought that biofuels were part of the answer to our problems. They promoted a biofuel quota because they were shortsighted and believed biofuel promoters who claimed there were no problems with biofuel. The Independent opined:

At last, some refreshing signs of intelligent thinking on climate change are coming out of Whitehall. The Environment minister, Elliot Morley, reveals today in an interview with this newspaper that the Government is drawing up plans to impose a “biofuel obligation” on oil companies. This would require major firms such as BP and Shell to blend a fixed proportion of biofuels with the petrol and diesel they sell on Britain’s garage forecourts. This has the potential to be the biggest green innovation in the British petrol market since the introduction of unleaded petrol a decade and a half ago.

The beauty of biofuels – petrol made from sugar beet and diesel made from oilseed rape – is that they are “carbon neutral”. The quantity of C02 they produce when burnt has already been absorbed by the crops used to make them. There is no reason why a biofuel quota should not work.

Now they have changed their tune. The biofuel spree has helped to increase the cost of food, drive up energy prices, and increase carbon dioxide emissions, and increase environmental degradation. Now The Independent says:

From today, all petrol and diesel sold on forecourts must contain at least 2.5 per cent biofuel. The Government insists its flagship environmental policy will make Britain’s 33 million vehicles greener. But a formidable coalition of campaigners is warning that, far from helping to reverse climate change, the UK’s biofuel revolution will speed up global warming and the loss of vital habitat worldwide.

Amid growing evidence that massive investment in biofuels by developed countries is helping to cause a food crisis for the world’s poor, the ecological cost of the push to produce billions of litres of petrol and diesel from plant sources will be highlighted today with protests across the country. . .

. . .

A study by the RSPB published today criticises the introduction of the RTFO as “over-hasty” and “utter folly”. The conservation body said there is already widespread evidence that biofuel production is destroying vast areas of unspoilt habitat and has made at least one species extinct.

It’s a good reminder next time government says that all we need is a quota or a mandate. Almost always there are unintended consequences. It’s too bad that the unintended consequences of the biofuel mandates in the EU and in the US are so great.

H/T The Corner

Paul Krugman and the libertarians agree–ethanol is “a terrible mistake”

It’s not everyday that a left-of-center economist like Paul Krugman agrees with the libertarians. But it’s not every day that politicians make as colossal mistake as they have with subsidizing and mandating biofuel and ethanol. But the case against the mandates and subsidies for ethanol, the case is clear. They are a scam. Earlier I wrote what I think is a path forward on ethanol policy.

Here’s Krugman’s take on biofuel:

Where the effects of bad policy are clearest, however, is in the rise of demon ethanol and other biofuels.

The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a “scam.”

This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly “good” biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.

And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states. [emphasis added].

This is what is sick about American biofuel policy–we are increasing the hardship for the poorest people in the world so politicians can court votes in farm states. That’s offensive.

Ron Bailey, who writes for the libertarian Reason magazine agrees with Krguman about ethanol’s problematic nature. Bailey writes:

Politicians in both the United States and the European Union are mandating that vast quantities of food be turned into fuel as they chase the chimera of “energy independence.” For example, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed misbegotten legislation requiring fuel producers to use at least 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022-which equals about 27 percent of the gasoline Americans currently use each year and is about five times the amount being produced now. And the European Union set a goal that 10 percent of transport fuels come from biofuels by 2020.

The result of these mandates is that about 100 million tons of grain will be transformed this year into fuel, drawing down global grain stocks to their lowest levels in decades. Keep in mind that 100 million tons of grain is enough to feed nearly 450 million people for a year.

. . .

Expanding acreage to grow biofuels is bad for biodiversity and may even boost the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to man-made global warming. Avery notes that food production needs to double because there will be more people who will want to eat better by 2050, at which point world population begins to slide back downwards. Turning food into fuel makes that goal much harder to achieve. Avery is right when he argues, “Biofuels are purely and simply the biggest Green mistake we’ve ever made and we’re still making it.”

Current ethanol policy is a scam, but here’s how to fix it

Less than a year ago, ethanol was hailed as a miracle fuel. For example, in Time’s 2007 Global Warming Survival Guide they exhorted us to “Turn Food Into Fuel” to help us survive global warming. But in 2008, they call ethanol a scam because of the environmental costs (ethanol results in using more land for crop production and the latest studies show that ethanol production results in greater greenhouse gas emissions than merely using petroleum).

But that’s not all. There are other environmental problems associated with today’s biofuel production. Environmental Defense is concerned that ethanol plants use too much groundwater. Another new study argues that corn-based ethanol production increases nitrogen pollution levels in the rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. And the biofuel plants in Iowa, the epicenter of biofuel production in the United States, have violated environmental regulations a whopping 394 over the last six years.

The current state of affairs for ethanol production does not look good. So what should we do about the massive downsides to current ethanol policy? Here are 5 steps to move forward ethanol policy that will help the environment.

  1. End the ethanol subsidies and mandates. When we thought ethanol was a miracle fuel (as late as last year), Congress enacted a number of subsidies and mandates to force ethanol use. This was premature. Ethanol is not an environmentally-friendly fuel and we should stop subsidizing and forcing people to use it.
  2. Be humble. Before we rush off to crown a new energy champion, let’s admit that we can’t foresee future energy markets. Let’s let technologies develop without mandating and subsidizing a champion prematurely.
  3. Promote cellulosic ethanol, but not through subsidies and mandates. It is possible that cellulosic ethanol (ethanol from the cellulose of plants, not just the sugars and starches) is in our energy future. If we want to promote it, then enact tax breaks for it’s production instead of using mandates. If cellulosic ethanol truly produces 540 percent more energy than used to produce it, it will be cost competitive with petroleum.
  4. Remember there are other possible sources of biofuel than just corn. This is related to #3, but there are a number of possible sources of ethanol. Usually when people talk about cellulosic ethanol they talk about switchgrass. Maybe switchgrass is an answer, but there’s also biofuel from algae and biofuel from waste, among other possibilities.
  5. Don’t worry, there are incredible incentives to develop next-generation energy technologies. Currently oil is at $102 a barrel and oil companies are is making a killing. For example, ExxonMobil made $86 billion in profit in 2007 on $405 billion in revenue while Chevron made $59 billion in profit in 2007 on $221 billion in revenue. When energy is this expensive, and literally trillions of dollars are at stake, smart people have incentives to figure out next-generation energy technologies so they can cut into the hundreds of billions of revenue oil companies make.

Biofuel Makes the World Go Hungry

That headline is hyperbole, but biofuels are helping to drive up the costs of food around the world.

 KUANTAN, Malaysia — Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material.

This is the other oil shock. From India to Indiana, shortages and soaring prices for palm oil, soybean oil and many other types of vegetable oils are the latest, most striking example of a developing global problem: costly food.

The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

In some poor countries, desperation is taking hold. Just in the last week, protests have erupted in Pakistan over wheat shortages, and in Indonesia over soybean shortages. Egypt has banned rice exports to keep food at home, and China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.