By on October 29, 2007

triop8190013_jpg.jpgThe 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." 

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33 Comments on “Smithsonian Mag Rips “Bio-Fools” A New One...”


  • avatar

    It’s about time the mainstream media catch on to the foolishness of biofuels. It took me about five minutes of thinking and research to realize what a boondoggle biofuels are. I love the “…switching from heroin to crystal meth” snark. Summarizes the situation very well.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Just more farm subsidies with a thicker cloud of what the cows turn them into.

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit

    Actually, one of my friends is a transportation engineer at georgia tech, and they did a project on biofuel based on switchgrass (i think… it was not corn), and determined that it would be far more positive to focus on that for long-term usage than corn. It will grow in nearly any soil, requires less water, and won’t negatively impact food prices the way using corn for fuel does. Biofuel isn’t in itself bad, it’s using CORN for biofuel that will have devastating long-term impacts on the economy. But leave it to the farmers to be the downfall of America…

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    I don’t think it really matters what crop you pick as a fuel source because land will still be diverted from growing food to growing fuel.

  • avatar
    Steve_K

    What about biodiesel from algae? There was no consideration of this source in the article. If the claims are correct, the energy density from algae is light years ahead of corn/cellulose sources, plus the refining process is far less energy-intensive. Algae grows like wildfire, it’s not food, and it yields far more energy than acres of normal crops. It’s not theoretical either; there are companies scaling up production of their bio-algae plants currently. Use the Google!

  • avatar
    KixStart

    There’s lots of criticism of ethanol, if you look around. Smithsonian is not first. However, there’s big bucks and farm-state votes (which count really big in the Senate), so we’ve got to expect a fair amount of stupidity, obstinacy and inefficiency.

    It’s also crazy to burn ethanol in engines designed to handle 87 octane gas. Ethanol can tolerate higher compression and is more efficient in engines purpose-built for ethanol.

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    finally a media outlet not from the right wing speaks out on this so the main stream media might pick up on it. i can list a lot of things the environmentalist push thats worse than the problem there trying to solve. lets replace light bulbs with ones that contain 5 grams of mercury. lets not allow any more nuclear plants be built so we have to use coal. lets not let forest burn when theres a fire so that the underbrush grows so thick that when there is one it burns hot enough to incinerate the larger trees .lets not allow stores to use plastic bags but paper bags because they’re bio degradable(i think it takes trees to make that paperbag) i could go on but i think biofuels are an environmental disaster.

  • avatar
    917K

    guyincognito :
    I don’t think it really matters what crop you pick as a fuel source because land will still be diverted from growing food to growing fuel.

    I very much agree. The world taken as a whole doesn’t have an overabundance of food, except in highly developed countries like the US. Diverting a food crop to meet a fuel need will create another problem far worse than a carbon footprint- a tightening up of the food supply and an elimination of some surplus for future needs. Plus, if all that happens is that fuel consumption switches from fossil to biofuels without anyone bothering to reduce fuel consumption, then nobody gets nowhere and it becomes another case of demand outstripping supply. I hate to sound Malthusian about this but… Biofuels, like gas-electric hybrids, are and can only be temporary solutions and not permanent ones. I just feel like we need to cheer on all the engineers working on this problem, not that they ain’t already working on it, and we need to have the media and public stop getting wound up about how wonderful this is and how it will solve all our worries and problems. This may be the the Smithsonian article’s point; I haven’t ready it yet. So you get 4 cents, my 2 and theirs.

    I’ll shut up now.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Yay – finally some people are not afraid to comment on the facts of ethanol and the biofuels. The US does not have the sugar cane crops whose waste is very useful in creating ethanol – the mantra if Brazil can do it so can we is so misguided (that’s back at you Dubya who fanned the flames of the ethanol craze – probably so some preferred interest group got paid lots of cash from the gov’t).

    Nope – our best way of improving our sitation in both the short and long run is…conserving our assets by wasting less and becoming more efficient. But in the US where the mentality is waste not want not it takes a major hit on the average consumer’s wallet before they see the light.

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    jaje : no it wasnt bush that pushed it so much as it was the democrats doing it for the farmers votes–you got to be consistant-is he big oil or small farmer? evil genious or bumbling idiot?

  • avatar
    willbodine

    More like “switching from crack to crystal meth.”

  • avatar
    whatdoiknow1

    I’m sorry but there are forces on both the Left and Right in this country that are pushing Biofuel as an alternative.
    I find it is those on the Right (think ADM) that are making the big push to make Ethanol the next Gasoline. I find it is the silly leftys that think there is enough old cooking oil lying around to power every diesel engined vehicle currently on the road in the USA.

    Once again we wonder why people all over the world hate US or think we are all a bunch of bumbling idiots. “Now Americans want to consume
    all the grain they can’t manage to stuff down their throats to fuel their freaken oversized cars”.

    So let me get this strait, we are now willing to pay $5.00 for a $2.00 loaf of bread so we can have gas for less than $4.00 per gallon! Oh wait I almost forgot that all those cows, chickens, and pigs need grain also to live and grow so I we must be willing to pay $8.00 for a lb of chicken and $11.00 for a lb of cheap beef.

    Considering that the price of grain will rise I guess all of those countries that send us all of those cheap imports we are addicted to will need to raise prices on their exports to cover the new high cost of “NECESSARY” grain they need to feed their citizens.

    Now the we Americans are paying so much to feed our families we will no longer be able to afford those imports anyway. This will cause Walmart & Co. to lay-off a good deal of the American workforce which the rest of us we need to pay higher taxes to support because the price of food is so high because we are using all of our “excess” grain to make biofuel because the price of gas was so high in the first place!

    And folks this is what we call a RECESSION!

    Can we all say BAD IDEA together?

  • avatar
    jthorner

    ” What about biodiesel from algae? ”

    If and when it works, great. A whole lot of money has been spent chasing that dream, starting with a big government funded project in the Carter years. To date nobody has made the first tanker load.

    It’s a great idea if somebody can get it working.

    Burning our food to drive around is, on the other hand, a horrible idea.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Subsidizing the biofuel industry is doing nothing but harm to our economy.

  • avatar

    Stuntnun: i can list a lot of things the environmentalist push thats worse than the problem there trying to solve. lets replace light bulbs with ones that contain 5 grams of mercury. lets not allow any more nuclear plants be built so we have to use coal. lets not let forest burn when theres a fire so that the underbrush grows so thick that when there is one it burns hot enough to incinerate the larger trees .lets not allow stores to use plastic bags but paper bags because they’re bio degradable(i think it takes trees to make that paperbag) i could go on but i think biofuels are an environmental disaster.

    Re compact fluorescents: yes, they contain mercury, but not as much as gets emitted by the grid to supply the extra power for conventional light bulbs.

    Don’t blame environmentalists on Smokey the Bear forest fire prevention. That predates environmentalism.

    I’m in complete agreement about the problem of corn-based ethanol, and I am wary of biofuels generally. In fact nearly 30 years ago I wrote an op-ed predicting that ethanol for cars would boost the price of land and everything that dependended on land.

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    David Holzman—ya i know but mercury is diluted better when its vaporized and it will only become less prevalent with cleaner burning technologies,the bulbs on the other hand will end up in a land fill somewhere in concentrated form and after a couple hundred thousand accumulate in about 5 years im wondering if that can get into an underground aquifer. –or if kids are still like i was- i liked smashing them into something and i know that if they did that now they defiantly wouldn’t wanna inhale that stuff.

  • avatar

    “To produce all the petroleum, coal and natural gas on earth, it took an entire planet’s worth of plants and animals growing and dying over about 700 million years.”

    700 million years to produce, and we burn though the whole lot in just a couple of thousand (even taking the wildest optimistic view of reserves into account). Growing corn for ethanol may not be the best answer, but we can’t keep burning dead dinosaurs at any rate for much longer.

    Let’s face it, the planet just can’t sustain six billion people; conflict, hunger, environmental destruction and disease epidemics are classic signs of over population; humans just do it on a bigger and more destructive scale than the rest of the animal kingdom.

    Fossil fuel conservation will buy us more time, but in the end we need to adjust our consumption to match the only energy input the planet has (ie. sunlight) because no-one wants to wait another 700 million years for the oil, gas and coal fields to replenish themselves.

  • avatar

    Good points, [email protected] If people were really smart, among other things there would be a kyoto type agreement to start cutting the population. People talk about reducing gh emissions 80% by 2050. That would be a lot easier if the world could make serious reductions in the population by then.

  • avatar
    jl1280

    So the key is that bio-fuels are the problem, is that right? Maybe if we admitted that cars are the problem we might be closer to the real problem. Imagine what it might be like if we had actually developed some public transportation and designed our cites for people instead of suburbs for cars. Me thinks we should stop playing the game of what fuel to feed to our cars. But then again maybe its not really that important since we are on the verge of not having enough time to do anything serious about all of our problems such as climate change, peak oil and gas and water, not to mention the other 6 billion who want to live at our standard of living. But tell me what do you think of the next generation F150?

  • avatar
    Pitchfork

    Bio-fuels are a scam perpetuated by this coalition of agribusiness and pie eyed dreamers. My solution to the high oil prices and peak oil talk is a sort of Manhattan Project. The federal government should fund the development of a nation wide nuclear power grid. The power grid should be powered by nuclear, solar, hydroelectric and wind power. This leaves the transportation grid. Tariffs should be placed on foreign oil. Rather than turning food into fuel, we should turn coal into liquid fuel, like the Germans did in WW2 and Sasol does in South Africa. Gov. Schweitzer of Montana has suggested this. Turning American coal into liquid fuel will keep American coal miners employed after the grid goes atomic and while this is hardly a perfect solution, it will keep transport going until advances in batteries, fuel cells etc. are made.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    If the trend continues towards bio-fuels, the most sad result will the destruction of many of our fellow primates.

    In a report released Friday in Bangkok, Thailand, the World Conservation Union reported that 114 of the world’s 394 primate species are threatened with extinction, due to rampant habitat destruction. Habitat loss caused by the clearing of tropical forests for agriculture, logging and fuel wood continues to be the major factor in the declining number of primates, according to the report.

    The list includes the Sumatran orangutan of Indonesia, as well as an Indonesian tarsier that has yet to be named.

    “The situation is worst in Asia, where tropical forest destruction and the hunting and trading of monkeys put many species at terrible risk,” said Russell Mittermeir, president of Conservation International, in an interview with AP’s Michael Casey. “Some of the new species we discover, are endangered from the get-go.”

    So the next time someone starts to tell you about how they’re running biodiesel to help the environment, ask them, “Whose environment might that be?”

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    Terry Parkhurst-i have another example, some farmers in south Dakota are draining the slews and swamps i duck hunt in(rain water ends up flowing into a river,lake or stream now) . in a year they can till that up and plant corn for fuel/grain on it because they’ve tilled up almost all land they own. now the fishings going to probably suck on the rivers there in the spring because all that loose soil makes the smaller streams cloudy with runoff and kill the fish and eggs. the only reason for me now to go there if the duck and fish population get to small to hunt is to find a straight quiet piece of road to see if my car really goes 180 mph as it says on the speedo. maybe the extra co2 from my tail pipe will make the plants in the area happy i guess.

  • avatar
    EJ

    Richard Coniff also concludes: “None of this means we should give up on biofuels.”
    And he is right. The world faces the daunting task of turning away from fossil fuels to something better. Ethanol from corn is just an early chapter in a long book that is not finished yet. Many people are working hard this very moment on the next chapters of that book and they deserve our support.

  • avatar
    EJ

    By the way, do you know who is eating all that corn that is not used for fuel? Pigs…
    So, for the vegetarians amongst us, the rising price of corn is not really a problem…

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    ej its the other way around= excess if there is any is sold as fuel,and corn is fed to every farm animal including dairy cattle,so the price of anything with milk in it goes up . same is true for chickens and eggs,corn syrup is a major ingredient in alot of stuff.this being a car site you should not want it in your gas just for the fact that an engine doesn’t work as efficient with it and might actually harm it(some internal gaskets don’t like alcohol on them)

  • avatar

    EJ
    So, for the vegetarians amongst us, the rising price of corn is not really a problem…

    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.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Sometimes capitalism defies common sense – this is one of those cases.

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    shaker– it isnt capitalism(its communism) that caused this–states mandated a certain amount of ethanol per gallon–10 percent my state and going to 15,government caused this because a vocal minority(greenies) demanded it and some lobbiest for the farm industry helped fund it.wait till we have a large drought -this will cause an artificial price spike in the cost of gas even if oil is cheap because they have to add mandated bios to the mix. its not capitalism by any means unless your the company selling the equipment or profiting from the governments stupid decisions just to appear like we’ve solved the problem without really thinking it through.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    The problem I have with articles like this is that it’s easy to tear down someone else’s idea as impractical or pie-in-the-sky. Recall that virtually every technology – every one – that we use today was at one time dismissed as being impractical or fantastic. Automobiles themselves were nothing but expensive toys 100 years ago because there wasn’t a reliable road network on which to use them (if you wanted to travel across the state, you drove down to the train station, had your car put on a flatbed, had it trained to it’s destination, then had it taken off and then you could drive around.)

    We all agree there’s a crisis in fuel, yes? Okay, so biofuels may not be a perfect solution (though I doubt there is any one perfect solution) but they are at least working on the problem. Most everyone else here seems to think it’s sophisticated and cool to just fold their arms and smirk and the dummies investing in alt fuels, because “it’ll never work.”

    Okay, smart guy, what’s your solution? (sound of crickets chirping.)

    It seems that the bio-skeptics are content to let us keep going our merry way towards depleting our fossil fuels until there’s an even worse crisis that probably forces us to make even more drastic sacrifices than the current bio fuels do now. I guess that’s a plan, but not much of one.

    And one final point: The most common thing you hear about the likes of ethanol is that “it’s government subsidized” as though that, by itself, somehow invalidates it. I would point out that many of the technologies that developed this country (including the telegraph and the railroads) were heavily subsidized in their time but that doesn’t mean they weren’t important and significant achievments that produced very positive results for the country as a whole.

    And is anyone here seriously going to make the argument that the oil industry isn’t subsidized?

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    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

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    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?

  • avatar
    EJ

    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”.

  • avatar
    stuntnun

    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.

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