Tuesday, September 3, 2013


We Americans have happily given our cars the run of the country, paving over a good forty percent of our cities so they can roam unfettered, and generously ceding a big chunk of our hard-earned homes to keep them warm and dry. But apparently that’s not enough. Now some interests are suggesting that, in order to keep our four-wheeled friends tanked up at all costs, we share our food supply with them as well.

Imagine creating fuel from plants instead of having to drill for it! We can guzzle all the biofuels we can grow! No more oil wars! No more Third World countries trying to push us around! 

Alas, as appealing as all this may sound, it’s a pipe dream. Among the many pitfalls of the biofuels concept:

Economics. Farmers across the globe, whether corporate or independent, will switch to growing plants for biofuel the instant it becomes more profitable than growing food crops. The current price of gasoline will give you a good idea how many seconds this decision might take. Result: Besides ceding even more of our environment to automobiles, we’ll also be competing directly with them for food. 

Logistics. To replace even a small fraction of current fossil fuel consumption, vast portions of arable land would have to be dedicated to growing biofuels crops. It’s been calculated that satisfying ten percent of the European Union’s total fuel demand with biofuels would require an agricultural area the size of Spain.

Science. U.S .and E.U. leaders alike are jumping on the biofuels bandwagon as a panacea for petroleum woes. Case in point: An E.U. directive instituted in 2003 required that 5.75% petrol and diesel should come from renewable sources by 2010--a quota the E.U. plans to increase to 10% by 2020. Yet the European Environment Agency’s Scientific Committee--the E.U.’s own advisory panel on biofuels--has concluded that this move will not curb the production of greenhouse gases, and in fact may actually increase them. 

“I see absolutely no reason to use a lot of energy, money and large swaths of farmland (to produce biofuels),” concluded Professor Helmut Haberl, a member of the E.U. panel. “The E.U. should scrap the 10 percent mixture rules."

In the United States, a recent study led by Timothy Searchinger, an agricultural expert at Princeton University, concluded: 

“By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%.” 

While the scientific news is bad enough, the worst thing about the political push for biofuels is that it only mires us deeper in a broken system, pandering to America’s energy addiction and perpetuating a culture and an economy in thrall to the internal-combustion engine.

We’d all like a world with adequate energy, a clean environment, and fewer conflicts. If biofuels can’t help deliver it, what can? In the short run, at least, that answer truly IS easy: Conservation. American technology, not to speak of American resolve, could easily reduce petroleum consumption by ten percent given the moral leadership to do so. The fault is not in our fuels, but in ourselves.

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