Biofuels on the defensive

No Comments

A couple of items today on biofuels. First, from Grist, is a report out from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing that such fuels will remain firmly within the subsidized realm for quite some time:

Then there’s this bit: The analyst doubts cellulosic can be “commercially economical” enough to get beyond 250 million gallons by 2013. According to the same report, corn-based ethanol producers churned out 5 billion gallons in ’06 and will likely hit 10 billion by ’09.

What the researcher is saying is that six years from now, in 2013, cellulosic still won’t be economically viable.

For decades now, cellulosic boosters have been promising a major breakthrough within five years. And the future cellulosic utopia keeps receding ever-further into the future.

Meanwhile corn, our most environmentally devastating crop, entrenches its grip over the nation’s cropland.

The second punch in the anti-biofuels combo lands over at Stratfor, where we learn about the some backlash against biofuels here and in Europe. Here’s where we begin:

The political support for biofuels already is paying dividends in both Europe and the United States. Corn prices are now more than 40 percent higher than they were a year ago, despite a 15 percent increase in planting. The rising price of corn meant reduced acreage of wheat planting, and this has coincided with a terrible drought in Australia and a falling dollar. As a result, wheat prices have doubled in the past year, to $9 per bushel for the first time ever (more than $10 in France). These are good times for farmers, and ethanol is playing a role in it.

The Stratfor article contains one of the most concise explanations of the biofules debate I’ve ever seen:

The creation of biofuels produces dramatically different levels of pollution, depending on the plant used. Ethanol is the same and burns similarly regardless of its source, but the pollution and emissions associated with the specific plant’s production cycle vary widely. Corn ethanol, for instance, produces 0 percent to 3 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline when the factors of planting, fertilizing and harvesting the corn are taken into consideration along with the processing and transportation of the fuel, which in the best case requires dedicated pipelines and currently requires overland transportation. Sugar ethanol from Brazil, over its lifecycle, produces 50 percent to 70 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

There are a few quibbles (there is no “one” environmental lobby in the U.S. — rather, a vast array of groups with different goals and positions) but the basic arguments seem sound:

  1. The emissions reductions offered by the next generation of biofuels (which, as we saw above, may not arrive for some time) will be essential in combating climate change.
  2. The agriculture lobbies (and now I’m lumping all farm interests into one lobby — sheesh) in the U.S. and Europe are going to keep pushing for increased production of biofuels at home, while governments may continue protective practices (like America’s 53-cent-per-gallon tax on imported ethanol).

Because the best places to grow the new fuel crops are “Southeast Asia, Central Africa and South America,” it looks like we’ll continue to see points 1 and 2 in conflict during the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: 10:35 a.m. — A knowledgeable reader sent in this link:

The Biofuels Innovation Program would provide financial and technical assistance to landowners to produce native perennial energy crops and crop mixes in a manner that protects the nation’s soil, air, water and wildlife.