Biofuels Busted!


My biodiesel VW Bug
It was about a year ago that I came upon an article that gave me pause: over 70,000 people were marching in the streets of Mexico City over the skyrocketing costs of tortillas! Redolent of the 1789 Parisian bread riots, this protest was over a 700% increase in the price of corn since 1994.

Tortillas serve as the main protein staple of the Mexican diet, particularly for the poor. While most observers related this to the North American Free Trade Agreement and its consequences on small Mexican farmers, what struck me was the increased focus of American industry on growing corn for ethanol, diverting it from the food supply, and also increasing its market value.

I tucked this worrisome anomaly away in my mind for further investigation, and here, one year later it re-emerges: two separate studies published in the recent issue of Science magazine conclude that the rosy scenario of producing ethanol from corn and other feedstocks as an alternative fuel that would reduce emissions causing global warming—is actual a scenario for potentially double those greenhouse gas emissions, because enormous swathes of cropland are being converted to grow this new valuable commodity. As the lead author of one of the reports and an environmental researcher at Princeton University, Timothy Searchinger explained to the International Herald Tribune:

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially.”


We know that biofuels have been widely promoted by Congress and this administration as key to replacing our dependence on foreign oil. Ground-breaking energy legislation was recently passed mandating a six-fold increase in the use of ethanol by 2022. Proponents argue that from 20 – 70% fewer emissions (with switchgrass-based ethanol) than gasoline is reason enough to put full weight behind its amped up production.

As a “renewable” energy source, meaning, we just grow more instead of drill more of the finite stuff, the ethanol equation was appealing. According to the Science studies, however, what was missing from the equation was the huge increase in land use and the resultant loss of carbon sinks, or carbon absorbing forests, wetlands, croplands, that would result from the mad rush to produce this new heavily subsidized “oil” boom.

The European Union’s experience with biofuels is instructive. Long before the US they were mandating that biofuels be integrated into the fuel supply system; later, to avert the rush to “grow” more fuel and maintain their sources as “sustainable”, they required that the biofuel come from sustainably harvested sources ensuring that their biofuel use was carbon neutral. The consequence, however, was that the exporting country simply exported crops from the existing croplands—designated “sustainable,” but the farmers and poor, in response to the lack of croplands just cleared more land to grow their own foodcrops.

While this is not the end of the biofuel story–for there is evidence that a more careful approach to production, especially using waste products instead of feedstocks, may still provide some useful gasoline substitutes—this is a great lesson for those wishing to rush forward with solutions, however well intentioned.

Here’s another great one! Let’s make gasoline from air!!!

For a minute there, I thought I would have egg all over my face—and my biodiesel Bug.

Why Should We Care?

Annette del Sur publicizing salvage campaign, 1942. Taken from
Annette del Sur publicizing salvage campaign, 1942. Taken from

There were a lot of comments to my last post (many thanks) and since only some are offered in the Comments section I would like to share some good points with you.

“Those of us who try to avoid using plastic or paper bags at the grocery store, walk or bike whenever possible, recycle paper, cardboard, plastic and food items that can be mulched, sometimes feel as if it is hopeless because of the millions who don’t…and don’t care either.”

I hear you. And I feel your pain. But herein lies the challenge. I agree that we are not going to beat this by going bagless, hybrid or organic. No amount of bus rides, CFLs or tap water is going to turn this thing around. It is bigger than all of us and requires international action. But it also requires a new consciousness of our interconnectedness and our relationship with the planet. Humankind must emerge from its so self-involved adolescence. So, as you lug your reuseable bags while biking to the store after turning off all the lights and unplugging your cell phone charger and shutting down your computer–remember that you are modeling behavior that is the new standard of the right way to be.

“…nothing will be done until the rich nations of this world begin to suffer and the situation is almost too late to reverse. That’s if we’re lucky. Otherwise, be glad that you are living your life now and that you won’t be around to see what the future has in store.”

My sister would reply that in fact, she plans on being back so she’ll pay attention to the now, thank you very much. I can’t count on that but I care when I look at my grandchildren and try to imagine what life will be like for them. Supposedly, with enough political will, we can demand that our leaders address the issue of global warming. I understand your skepticism, however; as a student of political science I know that there are many forces pushing in many directions. I console myself with the stories of World War II and how the US pulled together–and did some remarkable things! So many examples! Because canned goods were needed to supply troops overseas, Americans turned to Victory Gardens, planting 20 million of them to provide vegetables for their families. Drivers received coupons for 3 gallons of gas per week…not to save gasoline but to save on automobile tires and the supply of rubber.

And, as the 1942 poster above depicts, the people were asked to conserve, collect and recycle everything from rags, metal, rubber and paper.

“…There are lots of people with their heads in the sand about what we humans have unconsciously been doing to our earth. This is not a liberal vs conservative matter and getting into stereotypes clouds serious issues for our survival…This is an ethical matter and ignoring evidence worldwide is unconscionable.”

It will take some time to bring some into the fold but overall I am hopeful. And that’s why I’m here.