[permaculture] The Biofuel Illusion
saor at ycbtal.net
Fri Jul 7 10:23:20 EDT 2006
The Biofuel Illusion
By Julia Olmstead, AlterNet
Posted on July 7, 2006, Printed on July 7, 2006
There's been a lot of talk lately about the promise of biofuels --
liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel made from plants -- to reduce
our dependence on oil. Even President Bush beat the biofuel drum in his
last State of the Union speech.
Fuel from plants? Sounds pretty good. But before you rush out to buy an
E-85 pickup, consider:
-- The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy
than all the energy produced in a year by the country's plant life,
including forests and that used for food and fiber, according to figures
from the U.S. Department of Energy and David Pimentel, a Cornell
-- To produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet current U.S. demand for
automotive gasoline, we would need to nearly double the amount of
land used for harvested crops, plant all of it in corn, year after year,
and not eat any of it. Even a greener fuel source like the switchgrass
President Bush mentioned, which requires fewer petroleum-based inputs
than corn and reduces topsoil losses by growing back each year, could
provide only a small fraction of the energy we demand.
-- The corn and soybeans that make ethanol and biodiesel take huge
quantities of fossil fuel for farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizer.
Much of it comes from foreign sources, including some that may not be
dependable, such as Russia and countries in the Middle East.
-- Corn and soybean production as practiced in the Midwest is
ecologically unsustainable. Its effects include massive topsoil erosion,
pollution of surface and groundwater with pesticides, and fertilizer
runoff that travels down the Mississippi River to deplete oxygen and
life from a New Jersey-size portion of the Gulf of Mexico.
-- Improving fuel efficiency in cars by just 1 mile per gallon -- a gain
possible with proper tire inflation -- would cut fuel consumption equal
to the total amount of ethanol federally mandated for production in 2012.
Rather than chase phantom substitutes for fossil fuels, we should focus
on what can immediately both slow our contribution to global climate
change and reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels: cutting
Let's be bold. Let's raise the tax on gasoline to encourage consumers to
buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks. We can use the proceeds to fund
research and subsidies for truly sustainable energy.
Let's raise energy efficiency standards for vehicles, appliances,
industries and new buildings.
Let's employ new land-use rules and tax incentives to discourage
suburban sprawl and encourage dense, mixed-use development that puts
workplaces, retail stores and homes within walking distance of each
other. Let's better fund mass transit.
Let's switch the billions we now spend on ethanol subsidies to
development of truly sustainable energy technologies.
And why not spend money to make on-the-shelf technology like hybrid cars
more affordable? Fuel-efficient hybrids aren't the final solution, but
they can be a bridge to more sustainable solutions.
The focus on biofuels as a silver bullet to solve our energy and climate
change crises is at best misguided. At worst, it is a scheme that could
have potentially disastrous environmental consequences. It will have
little effect on our fossil fuel dependence. We must reduce energy use
now if we hope to kick our oil addiction and slow climate change.
Pushing biofuels at the expense of energy conservation today will only
make our problems more severe, and their solutions more painful,
Julia Olmstead is a graduate student in plant breeding and sustainable
agriculture at Iowa State University and a graduate fellow with the Land
Institute, Salina, Kan. She wrote this for the institute's Prairie
© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/38540/
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