Smithsonian Mag Rips "Bio-Fools" A New One

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
smithsonian mag rips bio fools a new one

The tide may be turning against bio-fuels– at least amongst the chattering classes. The semi-prestigious Smithsonian magazine has just published a piece by Richard Conniff that rips the bio-fuels industry to bits, piece by bloody piece. After laying out the case for growing go-juice– renewabilty, carbon neutrality, recycling waste– Conniff takes bio-fuels to task for all the right reasons. We're talking food price inflation ("Cargill's chief predicted that reallocation of farmland due to biofuel incentives could combine with bad weather to cause food shortages around the world"); CO2 pollution ("when ethanol refineries burn coal to provide heat for fermentation, emissions are up to 20 percent worse for the environment than gasoline"); supply unreliability ("Switching to corn ethanol also risks making us dependent on a crop that's vulnerable to drought and disease"); soil erosion ("…growing corn requires large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and fuel. It contributes to massive soil erosion, and it is the main source, via runoff in the Mississippi River, of a vast "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico"); and wildlife destruction ("The United Nations recently predicted that 98 percent of Indonesia's forests will be destroyed within the next 15 years, partly to grow palm oil"). Other than that, he loves it! The article concludes with the usual conservation mantra and a plug for solar energy (so to speak). But I gotta tip my hat to Conniff for this gem: "…the switch to corn ethanol sound[s] about as smart as switching from heroin to crystal meth."

Join the conversation
4 of 33 comments
  • Stuntnun Stuntnun on Oct 30, 2007

    Okay, smart guy, what’s your solution? (sound of crickets chirping.)-----hydrogen/gas powered rotary motors,diesel hybrids and just gas piston. getting the electricity from nuclear power plants if a battery is involved or for hydrogen production(solar thermal and hydro if available ) --easy answer

  • Martin Albright Martin Albright on Oct 30, 2007

    Stuntnun: Is anybody making those? Is anybody selling those? Is there a hydrogen/gas infrastructure in place? Fuel industries can't spring up overnight. Biofuels aren't perfect (nor is any other source of alt fuel) but unlike many other ideas it's available right now. My point is that if we kill these industries in their infancy then we'll never know whether they could have become economically viable once they got large enough that economies of scale could take over. I completely understand the frustration of those who think biofuels have been oversold. Certainly they have, but that's just marketing (you could say the exact same thing about hybrid technology, BTW.) But there's a huge difference between saying on the one hand, that the benefits of biofuels are overhyped and the negatives are being ignored, and on the other hand saying that biofuels are completely impractical, always will be, case closed. The fact that biofuels are being overhyped is irrelevant to the discussion of whether they can become viable in the future. And shooting holes in biofuels may be fun, but it seems to be based on a presumption that our current system of using primarily oil-based fuels for most of our transportation is just hunky dory. Does anyone want to seriously make that argument?

  • EJ_San_Fran EJ_San_Fran on Oct 30, 2007
    EJ: So, for the vegetarians amongst us, the rising price of corn is not really a problem… Frank: It will be when they start using land currently used to grow other crops to grow corn because they can make more money off of it. Frank, that was a joke (I'm not a vegetarian myself). But, seriously, the majority of corn and soy in this country are fed to animals in giant feedlots. And farmers are still getting billions in subsidies from the government because the price of corn is so low... So, there is really nothing wrong with rising corn prices. That said, I think ethanol belongs in a good glass of wine and not in a car. The future is with 2nd generation biofuels that look a lot more like gasoline than ethanol does. They will be made from energy crops like Miscanthus Giganticus or sugar cane. Those energy crops will mostly be grown in tropical places like Brazil, where plants grow a lot faster than in the US. In the US we can still easily allocate 30 million acres to energy crops to produce 60 billion gallons of biofuel, about a third of total current gasoline and diesel production. If at the same time we cut fuel consumption by two-thirds using advanced plug-in hybrids (like the Toyota 1/X concept) we won't need any gasoline at all anymore... Really, it's quite doable to end addiction to oil. Check out Amory Lovins' "Winning the oil Endgame".
  • Stuntnun Stuntnun on Oct 30, 2007

    Martin Albright : yes to the rotary gas hydrogen motor -its in a mazda rx-8 ,flip a switch and your on hydrogen or gas its being sold to businesses in japan--and yes the oil refinery 12 miles from me just spent a couple years building a hydrogen production plant on the south end of it. my point is its much less destructive to the environment to use straight up gas than to till up every thing to make corn. hey ej you dont wanna put grain alcohol in your wine it will kill ya or seriously mess you up.