Are Biofuels Finally Over?


Corn-based ethanol has been part of our fuel supply for longer than most Americans have been alive. Originally, it was introduced as a way to lower carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions back in late 1960’s, when America first began to worry about smog and the environmental damage from gasoline powered internal combustion engines.

Then the OPEC countries rocked the world with two oil embargoes in the 1970’s. That’s when America first became fixated with reducing its dependence on foreign oil. Ethanol seemed like the miracle fuel, as it had lower emissions than gasoline and could be made in abundance right here in the USA. We were growing so much corn we practically had to give it away to needy people in other lands. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. As reported by Forbes, in 2000 only 5% of the US corn crop was used to make ethanol. But by 2007 the price of ethanol had risen so much that it was more profitable to use corn for fuel than for food. Less corn for feeding livestock sent the price of meat and poultry soaring. By 2013, 40% of our corn harvest was going to make ethanol. We were literally starving ourselves and the rest of the world so we could drive our cars.

One of the main reasons for the shift to corn based ethanol in 2007 was a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) that praised the use of ethanol as a way to reduce global CO2 emission and save mankind from global warming. Just seven years later though, the INIPCC has completely changed its tune. Citing the environment damage caused by growing corn to make ethanol, its 2014 year end report now claims:

Biofuels have direct, fuel‐cycle GHG emissions that are typically 30–90% lower than those for gasoline or diesel fuels. However, since for some biofuels indirect emissions—including from land use change—can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products, policy support needs to be considered on a case by case basis. Increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity.

In other words, “Whoops. Our bad.”

Some of the unintended effects from the increase in ethanol production leading to the new UN report include: increased land costs, increase in natural gas and chemicals used for fertilizers, over-pumping of aquifers like the Ogallala that serve many mid-western states, and clear-cutting forests to plant fuel crops. That last point pertains especially to Brazil, which is devastating large swaths of rain forest for sugar cane production.

So what’s next for ethanol? Legislation has been introduced  in the US Senate to eliminate the federal mandate which requires adding more ethanol to gasoline over the next decade. The bill is fiercely opposed by the corn lobby and just as fiercely supported by the oil industry. Presumably the new UN report will play a role in the fate of that legislation. In addition, federal tax credits and import tariffs designed to benefit ethanol producers have expired. They are unlikely to be renewed.

Now is the time to look to other sources of non-fossil based fuels. Switch grass and other inedible plants can be used to make ethanol. Now that the national hysteria over marijuana has cooled, hemp might also be used as a fuel source. Diesel fuel from algae is a promising new technology that has the added benefit of eliminating many of the pollution concerns associated with diesel made from petroleum.

When it comes to making broad policy decisions based on reports from so-called “experts”, policy makers of the future would do well add a dollop of common sense to their deliberations and keep these words from Mark Twain in mind: “What you don’t know won’d hurt you as much as what you do know that ain’t true.”

Image: Corn via Shutterstock

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.