How Good are Biofuels for the Environment?

Another warning about rushing too fast into biofuels

Ethanol and other biofuels will cause more environmental harm than good if the industries continue to expand rapidly, according to a new study by Minnesota scientists published Thursday.

“If we keep moving to get large amounts of energy by growing it on newly-cleared land, which is what’s happening around the world, we’re going to be releasing much more greenhouse gas than the benefits we get from those biofuels,” said David Tilman, ecology professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the study’s authors.


This isn’t news to many readers here, I’m sure. These researchers are sure to draw more than their fair share of flak for this report, since the University of Minnesota is part of the corn belt, and ethanol production is a major part of our agricultural & economic policies in rural parts of the state. Bashing biofuels, especially corn ethanol, is almost an act of treason it seems.

The ethanol backers have already fired back, calling the report ‘overly simplistic,’ which is hilarious when you read their rebuttals. You can read the Strib article for a couple of their normal boilerplate defenses of their business. They aren’t refuting the scientists’ claims as much as they are rationalizing their industry. Yawn…

On a related note, here are two interesting links that have calculated the amount of corn needed to produce 1 gallon of ethanol at somewhere between 14 and 21 pounds. For my humble little 4-cylinder sedan, each tank fill would then require somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds of corn. I fill up my car on average about twice per month, so my yearly corn usage would be somewhere in the ballpark of 7200 pounds of corn, or somewhere around 1 acre of corn production. There are 144,000,000 or so automobiles in the USA… tell me again what percentage of gasoline usage we’ll be able to replace with corn?

Will ethanol and other biofuels play a part of our energy future? Yes. The situation will be such that we won’t be able to ignore any possible energy source, at least for a while.

Will ethanol and biofuels become the primary source of transportation fuel? Very, very unlikely in our current living arrangements. Cut the number of cars in America by 50% or more and maybe an argument can be made.


3 Responses to How Good are Biofuels for the Environment?

  1. mike says:

    Just remember what our govt encouraged us to do after 9/11 – ‘Go shopping!’. Its no surprise that our solution to the energy problem in transit will be ‘drive more – we’ll make more fuel’.

    What would happen if we took the subsidies and potential investment $$ going into ‘bio’fuel and pumped it into livable cities, public transit, and high speed rail? – no one would get rich from the bubble…

  2. Bart says:

    I think part of the reason that is so popular right now is that a small group of people stand to make a lot of money from it. The corn ethanol industry wouldn’t have so many defenders if it weren’t so profitable.

    Just yanking the federal corn subsidies would be about enough to wreck the corn ethanol industry all by itself I think.

    Or here’s another idea: Mandate that no new cropland can come under corn production, and ban high fructose corn syrup use in the USA. That stuff is nasty anyway, and if people must make fuel from corn, there would be a large amount of acreage suddenly available. 🙂

  3. mike says:

    Maybe Bloomberg will run for pres. After he’s done outlawing trans-fats he can work on the high fructose corn syrup nationwide. And with his ability to sift and sort through information – perhaps he’ll be able to see through the smoke and mirrors of a net energy losing industry.

    I am curious to see how / when if he plays a hand – with Romney out, McCain firmly entrenched with Huck as a potential veep and Obama and Hillary willing to bloody each other to a pulp prior to anyone casting a real vote – Mayor Mike could step in and win quite a bit of indy voters – the fiscal conservative and the environmental kind. I do like what he’s trying to do in NYC – some days I wish I still lived there…

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