[permaculture] The Biofuel Illusion

Saor Stetler 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 
University researcher.  

-- 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 
energy use.  

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 
Writers Circle.

          © 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
          View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/38540/

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