A world turning against biofuels

The USDA still champions ethanol, but Greens now even agree corn ethanol "poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity”

  • corn

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suddenly reversed its support for biofuels. The panel now admits growing crops for fuel “poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity.”

ethanolmakingScientists—and many Green activists—turned against ethanol and biodiesel years ago because it took too much land. However, the United States and EU governments have kept their farmer subsidies. “Environmentalism” had suddenly become political payoff.

The key science for the turnaround was supplied in 2008 by Princeton’s Tim Searchinger in Science (“Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increased Greenhouse Gases Through Land Use Change,” Science 313:1238–1240). The research revealed that plowing up more grassland for renewable energy crops frees massive amounts of soil carbon to gas off into the air. When rainforests are cut in Brazil to grow sugar for ethanol or in Indonesia where peat-lands are drained to grow palm oil for EU biodiesel, the gas-off of soil carbon is far greater. That means tripling our food costs and paying higher costs for auto fuel has achieved no real reduction in greenhouse emission.

I warned them. My 2006 report on President George W. Bush’s higher ethanol mandate was titled Biofuels, Food or Wildlife? The Massive Land Costs of U.S. Ethanol. I warned that the United States might lose another 50 million acres of wildlife habitat.

The USDA, where Secretary Vilsack ardently supports ethanol, gives no report on land conversion despite its voluminous databases. The Environmental Working Group, which opposes ethanol, says it used modern mapping and geospatial technologies to measure converted parcels larger than 10 acres. They found 23.6 million acres of grassland, wetland, and shrubland converted to corn just between 2008 and 2011. Nor does that include the land growing soybeans for U.S. biodiesel, now above 10 million acres per year. Meantime, higher corn and soy prices give increasing incentive to clear woodlots, tear out fencerows and fill or drain wet spots–on tens of thousands of farms across the eastern half of the U.S.

“It is neither moral nor constructive to shift major amounts of the world’s food supply to fuel production when significant elements soybeansof the world’s people remain ill fed,” I wrote then. “It is neither moral nor constructive to needlessly destroy broad tracts of wildlands for fuel crops when alternative energy sources such as nuclear power are not being used. It is a dreadful breach of human ethics to adopt a policy that creates both of these harms at the same time.”

The dream was that cellulosic ethanol, made from crop wastes and wood scraps, would forestall the expansion of cropland for ethanol. Cellulosic has never yet worked. Instead, shale gas fracking has dramatically shifted global oil and gas production, without subsidies and with a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Fracking, however, merely highlighted the basic foolishness of ethanol in a world that has no more prime farmland. We will need twice as much food for the peak high-income human population within the next 40 years. Equally true, we hate losing wildlands to achieve this.

Thus crop yields on the world’s current farmland must be redoubled yet again even without biofuels.

In 2011 alone, more than 200 scientists wrote to the European Commission, condemning the EU biofuels mandate. Meanwhile, ethanol looked like another apparently permanent drain on a U.S. national treasury already $17 trillion in the red. This to “support” well-to-do corn farmers who have only a few votes, even as the many thousands of dairy, livestock, and poultry farmers were being  harmed even more severely by ethanol than  consumers.

difiNow, even Democrats on Capitol Hill are turning against ethanol. Staunch California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and a group of like-minded Senators recently introduced a bill to eliminate the corn ethanol mandate.

Environmental groups have even sought my help in getting rid of the mandate, indicating near-desperation to eliminate their own costly Green mistake.

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About the Author: Dennis Avery

Dennis Avery

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of "Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years." Readers may write to him at PO Box 202 Churchville, VA 24421; email to cgfi@mgwnet.com.

  • steve theman

    No shit sherlock. I said this was a disaster when they first proposed it. TUrning food into fuel? What a stupid and lame ass idea

  • Roy Mallmann

    What nobody seems to want to ackowledge or bring up is that burning ethanol as a fuel requires twice as much fuel as gasoline. I know this because I raced semi-pro for 18 years. we were switching or gas dragster to burn alcohol and it required much larger fuel lines and wh had to get injector nozzles that were almost four times the size. This is why your gas mileage drops 10% when you use ethanol. Whoever thought this requirement up is so very ignorant. Using food for transportation is insane.

    • 4TimesAYear

      And it also needs to be planted, fertilized, and probably sprayed for weeds and bugs, too. I don’t think anyone counts that. It also produces CO2, but by international agreement they don’t count it – like it doesn’t count. *SMH*

  • jameshrust

    Ethanol from corn has been under my criticism since President Carter said he had the transportation problems solved with “gasohol” in 1979. It takes more energy to produce ethanol than is in the product. It take 1500 gallons of water to make one gallon of ethanol. How long can this go on is hard to fathom.
    One solution is to stop presidential primaries from being first in Iowa. All candidates have to go through vetting by Iowa voters on their support for ethanol from corn. Opposition risks being bashed in the first primary. Force Iowa to have primaries after March.
    Iowa’s politicians regardless of party are ardent supporters of ethanol from corn and are lobbying right now to stop any attempts by EPA to lower the RFS mandated by the 2007 Energy Security and Independence Act.
    James H. Rust, Professor of nuclear engineering

    • Poppiexno

      Insightful!

  • geo brecke

    The entire Ethanol Industry is powered by Diesel Fuel. From the Farmers in the field to the trucks over the road, and there is NO way you’d get them to agree to use their own products like E85 UNLESS you agreed to pick up the entire cost. There’s a reason John Deere and Kenworth don’t make vehicles set up to burn ethanol, there is >zero< demand.

  • Poppiexno

    Wow! Dianne Feinstein wants to do something sensible.

  • Ben Blankenship

    Avery’s lone voice crying in the wilderness for high-yield agriculture as the world’s savior is drowned out by the bewildering flood of nonsense from the greens. Also, the silly and costly fight against global climate change subtracts from efforts to create productive employment, which unemployed Americans are finding increasingly difficult to find. Regardless, our economy is kaput and will be until Obama and his minions leave. But cheer up, we’ll someday have a president who appreciates the fact, among other things, that there’s no global warming anymore. And that private enterprise, not government, fuels our economy.

  • klgmac

    All of these so called green solutions hurt or most vulnerable citizens the most. Environmental extremists don’t care.

  • fedupMan

    The pols love farm subsidies b/c it gets them votes. This will never change much.
    But there is NO doubt that corn ethanol has increased prices everywhere around the globe. FOR NOTHING in return except for enriching connected people and corps.