Before We Get Drunk on Ethanol, Let’s Make Sure We Get It Right

Not all biofuels are created equal: in fact, depending on how they are produced, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel can be environmentally destructive, raise the price of food, and even hurt efforts to tackle global warming.

Biofuels – ethanol and biodiesel – present a potentially important (partial) solution to concerns about global warming and our over-reliance on oil. However, to paraphrase a great LA Times op ed on the ethanol craze, alcohol is best enjoyed in moderation, and the same goes for these alcohol-based biofuels.

So before we all get drunk on ethanol, we’d better take a close look at the benefits and potential drawbacks of biofuels and make sure we get it right.

The Benefits – In Pursuit of Energy Independence and a Safe Climate

Biofuels offer the potential to displace foreign oil and depleting fossil fuels with a more sustainable and domestic fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, depending on how they are produced, ethanol and biodiesel require considerable fossil fuel inputs – diesel for tractors, natural gas for fertilizers, fuel to transport the feedstocks, and typically fossil fuels to produce the biofuels at a biorefinery. So while the biofuel itself may be made from renewable crops and contains only carbon that was absorbed from the atmosphere during the growth of the plants, the total net benefit of biofuels after taking into account inputs is far from carbon neutral nor fossil fuel free.

Exactly how much net benefit there is to biofuels depends largely on the production methods and feedstocks and has been the subject of much debate. While some have repeatedly made the case that conventional biofuels – corn-based ethanol and soy or rapeseed-based biodiesel – take even more fossil fuels to produce than the offset, the consensus has been that conventional biofuels offer a moderate reduction in fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emissions – on the order of a 10-30% reduction when compared to conventional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.

Next-generation biofuels produced from cellulosic feedstocks – a fancy term for a wide variety of generally inedible plant matter including wood, straw, and grasses as well as agricultural wastes like corn stalks and rice hulls – are an exciting prospect and could maximize the potential for biofuels to offset oil and fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Making ethanol or biodiesel from cellulosic feedstocks can be a much more energy efficient process than conventional corn or soy-based biofuels, can be made from inedible crops and even agriculture, forestry, or urban waste materials.

However, next-generation, cellulosic biofuels are currently in the early stages of commercialization. The first pilot and commercial scale cellulosic biofuel refineries are under construction or on the drawing boards these days and how long it will take to fully scale up and commercialize the emerging biofuel technology remains to be seen.

Up in Smoke – How Slash and Burn Agriculture Wipes Out the Climate Benefits of Biofuels

Land use changes – most notably the loss of tropical forests – account for about 20 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions – roughly the same as both the total annual emissions from the United States or China.

That’s right: slash and burn agriculture can be just as large a threat to the climate as China’s rampantly growing economy or the hundreds of millions of cars plying American highways!

So if we’re going to start replacing oil with biofuels, we’d better not be trading one problem – rampant oil consumption – for another equally devastating problem – accelerating the conversion of tropical rainforests into farm and grazing lands.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re beginning to see, with massive swaths of tropical forests, savannas and grasslands – all productive carbon ‘sinks’ – being slahed, burned and replaced by biofuels plantations. Massive expansions of palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, soy and sugar plantations in Brazil, and jatropha plantations in China’s forested Southeast have all been proposed to feed the growing global demand for biofuels.

Slashing massive swaths of forests to clear the way for biofuel plantations clearly amounts to a devastating ecological loss. These tropical and semi-tropical forests are some of the most biologically-diverse habitats in the world and have already been devastated by traditional timber and agricultural demands. It’s no wonder the Worldwatch Institute has called China’s biofuels expansion “an ecological disaster,” and the same can be said for similar biofuel expansion plans across the world.

But even beyond the massive loss of biodiversity and habitat when forests are converted to biofuel plantations, the destruction of these forestlands also wipes out any global warming benefits of biofuels.

According to a new study published in Science last week ($ub req., see this New Scientist summary) the climate benefits of ethanol and biodiesel are completely wiped out by tropical deforestation.

When you destroy forestlands, grasslands, savannas and other wilderness, much of the carbon stored in the ecosystem’s living matter ends up in the atmosphere – burned, decomposed or otherwise oxidized. Additionally, forestlands represent an important carbon sink, ‘breathing’ carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it as trees and other plants grow.

The loss of these important natural carbon ‘scrubbers’ more than makes up for the moderate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from burning biofuels instead of gasoline or diesel: according to the study, it would take up to a century for the benefits of biofuels to recoup the initial loss of the tropical forestland and the emissions associated with slashing and burning the land to make way for biofuel plantations!

“We cannot afford that, in terms of climate change,” says Renton Righelato, co-author of the new study.

Furthermore, the study concludes that the climate benefits of biofuels are trumped by reforestation efforts, even in temperate climates. “You get far more carbon sequestered by planting forests than you avoid emissions by producing biofuels on the same land,” says Righelato.

The study’s authors found that reforestation would store and sequester between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than would be saved by burning biofuels produced on the same amount of land instead of gasoline (see bar chart below).

[Graphic: the carbon savings from burning biofuels instead of gasoline (top six bars) compared to the carbon emissions resulting from clearing tropical forestland for biofuel plantations (red bar) and the carbon savings from reforestation efforts (bottom three bars). Figures are expressed as metric tons of carbon equivalent saved or emitted per acre devoted to biofuel production or reforestation. (Source: New Scientist)]

No Free Lunch When Fuel Competes with Food

We all know the old adage: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, when fuel competes with food, everyone’s lunch gets more expensive (as the LA Times accurately observes).

The vast bulk of global biofuels production utilizes edible feedstocks like corn and soy. As demand for corn to make ethanol has soared, corn prices have shot up, nearly doubling in the past year. Record high prices are encouraging a record acreage of corn planted in the United States – the highest in 63 years – and prices for other foods are on the rise as farmers plant corn in acreage they have otherwise planted wheat or soy.

Prices for all kinds of food have soared in the first half of 2007 (see chart below) and the LA Times op ed reports that grocery-store food prices rose 8%. It’s unknown how much of that hike is attributable to corn, and rising fuel and fertilizer costs are certainly a major factor in rising food prices, but soaring demand for corn for ethanol production is certainly playing a significant role as well.

[Graphic: Food prices on the rise in 2007. (Source: McClatchy Newspapers)]

Middle class Americans may be able to shrug off higher prices at the grocery store, but increasing food costs hit lower income folks harder.

And if low-income Americans are feeling the crunch, things are even harder in the developing world. When you get buy on just a few dollars a day, doubling corn prices are no small matter. Rising corn prices have already launched public outcry and even riots in Mexico, which depends on imported American corn for tortillas and other affordable, nutritious stables.

Producing biofuels from inedible cellulosic feedstocks could provide a solution to this fuel-or-food dilemma, although producing energy crops like switchgrass – an excellent biofuel feedstock and native North American grass that once dominated much of the Great Plains – on limited agricultural land could continue the competition between biofuels and foodstuffs.

Clean Green Fuels? – Other Environmental Effects

Industrial farming to produce biofuel feedstocks, particularly corn, consumes large amounts of water and chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Many of these chemicals seep into waterways, polluting the water and providing nutrients for algae blooms that suck up all the oxygen and kill everything else. A ‘dead zone’ the size of Connecticut and Delaware put together has repeatedly formed in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by algae gorging on chemical fertilizers carried into the Gulf by the Mississippi river.

Additionally, farmers ordinarily rotate crops annually to avoid soil exhaustion, but high corn prices encourage them to plant corn in the same fields year after year. This high-intensity farming accelerates the loss of topsoil and depletes soil nutrients and the only way to make this work is to pour on more fertilizers, further exacerbating problems.

Finally, while ethanol may be “cleaner burning” when it comes to many pollutants and is a better fuel additive or “oxygenate” than toxic MTBE, burning ethanol in high concentrations could increase certain air pollutants. A recent Stanford University study argued that E85 – a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline – produces so much ozone, a key ingredient in smog, that if it were used in Los Angeles instead of gasoline, it would raise ozone-related deaths 9%.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater – If We’re Smart, Biofuels Still Have a Role to Play

Given all of these concerns about increased use of ethanol and biodiesel, should we just bag the whole idea and move on to something else? No, I would argue.

When it comes to confronting the climate crisis and ending our oil addiction – two massive problems – we’re going to need all the tools we can get. Biofuels, if done right, still have an important role to play in reducing our reliance on oil and our contribution to global climate change.

I present the above concerns about biofuels because understanding the potential pitfalls, problems and limitations of biofuels – both conventional and next-generation – will be crucial to developing the standards that are necessary to ensure that biofuels can help make a dent in our oil addiction and help solve the climate crisis without exacerbating other environmental problems.

We should focus on developing cellulosic biofuels that rely on readily available cellulosic biomass in existing waste streams – timber slash and mill residues, urban wood wastes, agricultural residues, etc.

These feedstocks offer the least environmental impacts, do not compete with food crops, and according to this study (pdf) are available in large enough quantities to be worth pursuing – roughly 3/4 of a billion dry tons each year, or enough to produce around 75 billion gallons of ethanol or biodiesel if estimated yields from next-generation biorefineries prove correct.

That is enough biofuel to provide about 1/3rd of all the energy consumed by cars and light trucks in the United States.

Additionally, unlike producing ethanol from corn, which typically requires large amounts of coal or natural gas, converting cellulosic biomass to biofuels requires little or no fossil fuel inputs. In fact, cellulosic biorefineries should be able to utilize the lignin portion of the biomass left over after the cellulose is removed to produce all of the energy inputs for the refinery process and even produce electricity for export (potentially offsetting electricity from coal or natural gas).

Getting on the Right Path – Time for a New U.S. Biofuels Strategy

To be done right:

  • Biofuels should not come from edible feedstocks, including corn, soy or wheat.
  • Biofuels should preferably be produced from readily-available, existing waste streams of cellulosic biomass.
  • If produced from an energy crop, sustainable harvesting practices should be employed, the crops should be grown on existing farmland and should be planted as part of a regular, sustainable crop rotation so as to not compete with foodstuffs.
  • The full, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of all biofuels should be considered, including (and especially) emissions from land use changes. Under no circumstances should a biofuel feedstock be utilized that results in the clearing of rainforest or other wilderness areas or results in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Employing these kinds of standards in our public policy would necessitate a dramatic shift away from heavily supporting corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel.

    It would necessitate the creation of environmental sustainability standards for the U.S. biofuels industry and would imply a ban on imported biofuels from countries that do not adopt satisfactory sustainability standards on their own domestic biofuels industries.

    It would require a focus on commercializing next-generation cellulosic biofuel technologies and exploring the most sustainable feedstock sources and harvesting/collection methods.

    So, given all of the concerns about biofuels, why aren’t any of our elected officials calling for a change in direction for the U.S. biofuels industry? Why do we continue to subsidize the corn ethanol industry to the tune of several billion dollars a year? Why do all of the presidential candidates pay at least lip service to corn ethanol, even those like Hillary Clinton and John McCain that have been openly critical of corn ethanol in the past?

    Well, the political power of agri-giants like ADM and Cargill and the importance of corn-growing Iowa in presidential elections are certainly standing in the way of a sensible biofuels policy. It’s hard to find another explanation for an energy policy that is so clearly designed to do little to actually solve any of the problems it’s supposed to solve while so clearly benefiting narrow but politically powerful special interests.

    The latest Senate energy bill continues this trend with a massive 36 billion gallon/year by 2022 biofuels requirement, 40% of which will likely come from good old corn-based ethanol, necessitating a quadrupling in the U.S. corn ethanol industry! (To be fair, the bill does require that 60% of the standard is met with next generation biofuels…)

    It’s time for a change in American energy policy when it comes to biofuels. It’s time to actually have an energy policy when it comes to biofuels, and not a massive agricultural subsidy program disguised as an energy policy.

    Let’s heed the warnings of climate scientists, ecologists and rioting Mexican peasants: the path we’re on right now means biofuels exacerbate the climate crisis, amount to an environmental disaster, and drive up prices for food around the world.

    But there’s another path, a path where sustainably-harvested, next-generation biofuels coupled with a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency and the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles makes gasoline a thing of the past.

    It’s time to get ourselves on the right path.

    [A hat tip to Glenn Hurowitz at Gristmill]

    13 Responses to “Before We Get Drunk on Ethanol, Let’s Make Sure We Get It Right”


    1. 1 Sujay Rao Mandavilli Aug 21st, 2007 at 5:04 am

      algae is the way to go!

    2. 2 Bob Moffitt Aug 21st, 2007 at 11:53 am

      Biofuels should not come from edible feedstocks, including corn, soy or wheat.

      (Reality check: cellulosic ethanol is not yet commercially viable. Make biofuel cost 4-5 times more than it currently does, and people who have chosen an alternative fuel will go back to oil-based fuels.)

      Biofuels should preferably be produced from readily-available, existing waste streams of cellulosic biomass.

      (Good idea. But that’s still years away, if it happens at all.)

      If produced from an energy crop, sustainable harvesting practices should be employed, the crops should be grown on existing farmland and should be planted as part of a regular, sustainable crop rotation so as to not compete with foodstuffs.

      (Okay. Sustainable is good. You DO know that we are not running out of food in the USA, don’t you?)

      The full, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of all biofuels should be considered, including (and especially) emissions from land use changes. Under no circumstances should a biofuel feedstock be utilized that results in the clearing of rainforest or other wilderness areas or results in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

      (We do that already at the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, which strongly supports the use of E85 and biodiesel. We Minnesotans are not cutting down rain forests, starving the world’s poor or plowing virgin prairie to plant more corn. We ARE establishing a real alternative fuel infrastructure, using more biofuels than any other state and keeping tons of greenhouse gases and other pollutants out of the air.)

      Come see us under the big wind turbine blade (Eco Experience) at the 2007 State Fair and learn more — or visit http://www.CleanAirChoice.org.

    3. 3 Doug Aug 21st, 2007 at 12:32 pm

      One big thing that people don’t look at is the amount of energy to get fossil fuels to your tank and how much heat and steel that takes too. I guess I look at it even if it is equal or a little worse it is better to spend the money here in the US then sending our guys to the Middle East to try and protect our “interest”. We really needed to start on this problem a long time ago, if we started working on biofuels with other countries like Brazil started on ethanol we would be in a much different position.

    4. 4 Stan Cotton Aug 21st, 2007 at 2:21 pm

      Everybody knows corn-based ethanol is a boondoggle and the fix is in for farmers and ethanol producers. Not enough people know that alternative ethanol’s are the future independence from foreign oil.

      It’s going to take unique,provocative promotions, even incendiary graphics and messages to gain consumer attention, acceptance and demand for ethical alternative energy.

    5. 5 jessejenkins Aug 21st, 2007 at 5:10 pm

      Looks like I forgot to mention perhaps the worst tragedy of all when it comes to biofuels: increasing demand for biofuels in Europe is driving up the price of German beer! Dear god, the tragedy…

    6. 6 Christina Z Aug 22nd, 2007 at 12:29 am

      Brazil’s ethanol program is far from perfect. The production of ethanol, assuming it’s corn based, drives up the price of corn. Deforestation also takes place as farmers clear land to reap the benefits of the new alternative energy. The US is not the only country in the world (other nations are, in fact low on food), and accomodating both biofuel production and food will be difficult, therefore, we will have to purchase biofuels from other areas, which will have social implications there (increase in food prices in poor countries, etc). Biofuel production, as of now, should only happen on a small scale and be mixed with other alternative energies until more research can be done on cellulosic ethanol and other similar biofuels based on waste products. A bit of government funding (imagine diverting the money spent on oil and subsidizing oil to biofuel research and alternative energies) would help, as would some studies on the matter. So ethanols and biofuels are far from a perfect solution, but they have the potential to be improved (especially the exciting cellulosic ethanol)

    7. 7 Wontonotnow Sep 7th, 2007 at 2:42 am

      I think a parallel between the oil industry and biofuel industry would be really helpful as well, and you seem to stray away from talking about the oil industry, except perhaps mentioning it in passing.

      My point is this: yes, e-fuel isn’t perfect. But I’m almost positive it’s a step forward and your one-sided argument that leaves out our current situation is not at all good for the industry to get rolling. The alternate methods you mention involve inhibiting the industry from getting on it’s feet. It is a disservice, and although the facts you put in the article are very important and have educated me greatly, the method of writing you use is ultimately a smear campaign and only benefits us by stopping our movement towards alternate energy.

      In short: STOP IT! Balance your article, you sound like a spokesman for exxon.

    8. 8 jessejenkins Sep 7th, 2007 at 4:24 pm

      Wow, thanks Wontonotnow. “A spokesperson for Exxon,” eh? That’s probably the worst insult I’ve gotten in two years of blogging! Brings a smile to my face…

      However, I certainly don’t think I’m ignoring oil and the problems of the status quo. In fact, the baseline for all of the calculations of the climate benefits (or lack thereof) of ethanol is the conventional gasoline that it displaces. Of course oil is bad. Ethanol can displace our use of oil. But at what cost? That’s the whole point of this essay. It’s not simply enough to offset oil if we’re doing it in a way that utilizes significant fossil fuel inputs (albeit subbing natural gas-based fertilizers and coal at ethanol plants for some of the oil) while driving up fuel costs and, if grown in areas of recently cleared forests, actually contributing much more to climate change than the oil it displaces.

      You say “I’m almost positive it’s a step forward,” yet you seem to ignore all of the concerns I lay out above that, in many cases, biofuels are actually a step backward. Are you just going with your gut instinct here, or do you have reason to believe that all biofuels are better than conventional gasoline or diesel when it comes to climate change? Do you agree that they can worsen the climate crisis, but that some other benefits outweigh this cost?

      Additionally, despite all of the concerns with some biofuel production methods I mention above, you seem to have missed the conclusions of this whole essay, which are not that biofuels are a complete waste of time. I began the essay by saying, “Not all biofuels are created equal” and it’s important that we distinguish between the ones that are beneficial and the ones that are actually a step backward. As I wrote above: “Given all of these concerns about increased use of ethanol and biodiesel, should we just bag the whole idea and move on to something else? No, I would argue.

      When it comes to confronting the climate crisis and ending our oil addiction – two massive problems – we’re going to need all the tools we can get. Biofuels, if done right, still have an important role to play in reducing our reliance on oil and our contribution to global climate change.

      I present the above concerns about biofuels because understanding the potential pitfalls, problems and limitations of biofuels – both conventional and next-generation – will be crucial to developing the standards that are necessary to ensure that biofuels can help make a dent in our oil addiction and help solve the climate crisis without exacerbating other environmental problems.”

      ExxonMobil spokesman I am not! Neither though am I an Archers Daniel Midland spokesman, and I have no particularly vested interest in the success of corn-based ethanol. What I am concerned with is finding the tools that will help us solve the two most pressing problems facing us today: the climate crisis and peak oil.

      Depending on how they are produced, biofuels may hamper or help efforts to solve both of those problems, and why wouldn’t we want to steer away from those production methods that actually make the problem worse – worse than conventional old oil?!

    9. 9 Captain Entropy Jun 25th, 2008 at 10:35 am

      You say:

      “Additionally, farmers ordinarily rotate crops annually to avoid soil exhaustion, but high corn prices encourage them to plant corn in the same fields year after year. This high-intensity farming accelerates the loss of topsoil and depletes soil nutrients and the only way to make this work is to pour on more fertilizers, further exacerbating problems.”

      You are likely talking about the Norfolk crop rotation method developed in the 19th century. It is NOT happening in the corn-belt, not for quite some time, so current corn prices are not going to make it any worse. There are still some farmers rotating soybeans, but I’d hardly call that sustainable. Does anyone have sources out there on rotation methods in the cornbelt that can prove me wrong?

      The subsidy system was put in place to profit corn processors (agribusiness) and not farmers. The subsidy system was designed to keep prices low for the processed food (and now ethanol) industry. Processed food is the easiest way to make profit in an economies-of-scale marketplace. Raw food is too volatile – ie – it rots.

      Crop rotation would PERMANENTLY shut down approximately 25% of the arable land currently raising corn and soybeans.

      Regardless of rotation, the soil will continue to erode. Look at the numbers for the cornbelt since the “green revolution” – not very hopeful. The soil has a cycle, like everything else in nature. You cannot keep taking from it and magically expect it to be replenished.

    10. 10 wontonotnow Sep 11th, 2010 at 12:07 pm

      Jesse,

      Sorry my earlier comment came out so harshly. It’s great to dig deep and find solutions to the problems while they happen. My frustration was that once the bio-fuel industry was attacked (from political sides as well as scientific/economical), it sputtered and died within a couple years. Cost/Benefit can be tricky with a huge industry like this. I hope we can keep trying and find the right “formula”.

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    About Jesse


    Jesse Jenkins is an energy and climate policy analyst, advocate, and blogger. Jesse is the Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California, where he works to develop and advance new energy solutions to power America's future, secure our energy freedom, and halt global warming. He joined Breakthrough in June 2008 and previously directed the Breakthrough Generation fellowship program for young clean energy leaders. Jesse worked previously as a Research and Policy Associate at the Renewable Northwest Project in Portland, OR, helping to advance the development of the Pacific Northwest's abundant renewable energy potential. A prolific author and blogger on clean energy issues, Jesse is the founder and chief editor of WattHead - Energy News and Commentary, a featured writer and advisory board member at the Energy Collective, and a frequent contributor at Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Grist.org.

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