Special Report

Biofuels Meltdown

New confirmation of what's been known for years: turning corn into ethanol won't improve anyone's energy independence.

By 2.12.08

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Last week two studies published in Science announced what anyone might have suspected all along. "Biofuels," rather than reducing carbon emissions, are adding to them -- possibly by a factor of nearly 100!

The two studies may finally puncture the myth that anything is to be gained from burning crops for fuel. From the very beginning, there was never any indication that turning corn into ethanol was improving our energy independence. As that effort faltered, the myth arose that at least it was reducing carbon emissions. Now it has been shown to do neither.

How did we ever get into this? The historical record makes it fairly clear. It was a combination of ill-thought-out ideas from "alternate energy" enthusiasts (most of them trying to find a way around nuclear power), plus politicians who think they can override the laws of nature by passing legislation. With these two to guide us, we have ended up in the position of General Jubilation T. Cornpone of the L'il Abner cartoon:

With our ammunition gone and facing utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops so we had nothin' to eat?

Maybe we should erect a statue of General Corpone outside the Department of Energy.

Meanwhile, thanks to a 51-cents-per-gallon tax break, 25 percent of the American corn crop is being turned into ethanol. Farmland prices are soaring and food prices are escalating all over the world.

Untangling that mess will be a job for the next President. The only candidate who has been willing to tackle the issue so far is GOP favorite John McCain, who bravely criticized ethanol subsidies during the Iowa caucuses.

From the beginning, the entire biofuels effort has been built on flimsy projections and dubious accounting that were seized upon by politicians eager to demonstrate they were "doing something" about energy. The whole fiasco can probably be traced to a single paragraph in Amory Lovins Soft Energy Paths, the 1976 book that inspired President Carter's embrace of "alternate energy" and convinced California Governor Jerry Brown that his state didn't need to build any more power plants. (Google "California Electrical Shortage" to see what happened there.) In one hasty brushstroke, Lovins outlined what a national biofuels industry might look like:

[E]xciting developments in the conversion of agricultural, forestry, and urban wastes to methanol and other liquid and gaseous fuels now offer practical, economically interesting technologies sufficient to run an efficient U.S. transport sector. The required scale of organic conversion can be estimated. Each year the U.S. beer and wine industry, for example, microbiologically produces 5 percent as many gallons (not all alcohol, of course) as the U.S. oil industry produces gasoline. Gasoline has 1.5 to 2 times the fuel value of alcohol per gallon. Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale (in gallons of fluid output per year) of U.S. cellars and breweries, albeit using different processes, would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States....The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable.

In other words, since beer and wine were already one-twentieth the volume of our gasoline, a reasonable expansion of distilleries could supply us with one-third of our transportation needs. Unfortunately, this analysis contained a single oversight that has bedeviled biofuels ever since.

Notice that while Lovins estimated the size of the distilling industry, he never mentions the amount of land required to produce the crops. Hops and vineyards currently occupy 40 million acres of farmland. Using Lovins' figure of "roughly ten to fourteen times the scale," that gives us 480 million acres -- more than all of U.S. cropland put together.

Lovins also made a mistake. Although he mentioned that beer and wine are "not all alcohol," he forgot to factor this into the final equation. Wine is 12 percent alcohol and beer is about 5 percent, so let's take 7 percent as an average. This means we must again multiply those 480 million acres by a factor of fourteen. That leaves us with 6.5 billion acres - three times the area of the United States, including Alaska -- in order to produce one-third of our transportation fuel needs in 1977. On this fatal error was the entire U.S. ethanol industry built.

Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, James Jordan and James Powell, two former enthusiasts of biofuels at Brooklyn's Polytechnic University, showed that the numbers have hardly changed:

It's difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addition....[T]he entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of demand....And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

Oblivious to these concerns in 1979, Carter and Congress rushed ahead and exempted all biofuels from federal gasoline taxes. Farmers and agricultural conglomerates leaped to the bait. Archer Daniels Midland (56th on the Fortune 500) now produces 1.6 billion gallons a year, 20 percent of U.S. ethanol production.

More than 25 percent of American corn is now being refined into ethanol. This has diverted corn from other uses, mainly animal feed. As a result, milk prices jumped 33 percent in 2007. Yet all this effort is replacing less than 2 percent of our oil consumption.

EVEN AS THIS STAMPEDE into ethanol took shape, no one ever bothered to determine whether biofuels were saving any energy. Contemporary corn requires huge inputs from fertilizer and irrigation. Distillation is also energy intensive. Ordinarily, prices would inform us whether anything was being accomplished. But price signals have been overridden since 1979.

Instead, there is the "battle of the studies," in which various scientific groups -- some overtly political -- try to prove on paper whether energy is gained or lost. Although some investigators have claimed that corn ethanol loses energy, the consensus seems to be that there is a modest gain of about 10 percent.

Everyone agrees, on the other hand, that sugar would make a much better base crop. Brazil has replaced 40 percent of its gasoline consumption with sugar-based ethanol, although it has a much smaller fleet of cars. The American sugar industry is protected by a 4-cents-per-pound import duty, however, and there is a 54-cents-per-gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol. There are constant cries to remove the duty, but that means tackling a powerful farm constituency, the sugar lobby.

The dream of environmentalists is that we will eventually produce ethanol from cellulose, the fibrous material that makes up about 95 percent of most plants. (Currently only seeds and sugars can be distilled into alcohol.) The only thing in nature that breaks down cellulose is the bacteria that live in the gut of cows and termites. Numerous efforts are being made to domesticate these microorganisms and deploy them on an industrial scale, but none has succeeded. No one even knows if it is possible. Meanwhile, corn-based ethanol remains uneconomical.

Undaunted, biofuels enthusiasts soon cooked up the rumor that at least fuel crops were reducing global warming. The logic went like this: Burning fossil fuels releases carbon that has been buried in the earth for hundreds of millions of years. Burning crops, however, only releases carbon that was photosynthesized last year. Therefore the process is "carbon neutral."

All this works as long as you don't ask one question, "What was growing on the land before the bio-crops were planted?" If it was food or fiber, then it would be a long, long time before most of the carbon returned to the atmosphere. If it was a standing forest, then planting biofuels is the equivalent of setting fire to the trees.

All this was glossed over as long as biofuels remained an American Midwestern phenomenon. As it moved to the tropics, however, the outcome has been devastating.

IN AN ERA WHEN "Save the Rainforests" is an international crusade, tropical rainforests from Brazil to Malaysia are now being cleared for palm oil plantations sending "biodiesel" fuels to Europe and America. Three years ago, Friends of the Earth discovered that the clearing was threatening the last refuge of the orangutan. Trumpeting an "oil-for-apes scandal," environmentalists have since convinced the European Union to end biofuels imports. Ironically, Friends of the Earth was Lovins' home organization when he first proposed all this in 1976.

Even so, growing crops for fuel is having a worldwide impact on food prices. Mexico has had "tortilla riots" over the high corn prices. In December, a report from the International Monetary fund warned that "a significant part of the latest jump in food prices can be traced directly to biofuels policy." As Jordan and Powell of Polytechnic concluded: "It is morally wrong to divert cropland needed for human food supply to powering automobiles."

Last week's reports in Science makes the whole biofuels effort seem even more ridiculous. One study, headed by environmental economist Timothy Searchinger of Princeton, concluded that growing biofuels almost anywhere will result in land being cleared somewhere else for food or fuel. The other study, headed by Joseph Fargione of the Nature Conservancy, calculated that clearing grasslands for biofuels increases carbon emissions 93 times in the first year. "So for the next 93 years you're making climate change worse," concluded Fargione.

What's the moral of all this? Energy issues should be resolved in the marketplace, not by legislation. Put a price on carbon emissions -- either through a straight carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system -- and then let the market sort things out. (Once again, McCain is in the lead, proposing such a measure in the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.)

In what direction is this likely to take us? I don't know any more than anyone else, but I do know that nuclear reactors are now making so much money that the attorney general of Connecticut has proposed a windfall profits tax.

I also know if we're ever going to develop electric cars, we'll need a lot more electricity. Putting a price on carbon emissions would make the economics of carbon-free nuclear electricity even more favorable. But that's another story.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.