Busting the Biofuels Boom

Busting the Biofuels Boom

By Michael Shank

While I am all for a renewable fuel standard that boosts our production and consumption of renewable energy – as opposed to non-renewable fossil fuel energy – I think it is worth identifying several myths about biofuels first. In a bipartisan column I wrote in The Hill with Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), both of whom no longer serve in the House of Representatives, we discussed three main myths about biofuels that are worth repeating here. Here’s what we said:

First, biofuels can make the United States independent of imported oil. Second, biofuels are good for the environment. Third, biofuels will help America’s farmers. We learned the facts firsthand from farmers and our work on the House Science and Technology Committee. It’s past time to shatter the myth that corn is America’s renewable energy replacement for fossil fuels.

The hard truth is that biofuels will do little to relieve the U.S. of its reliance upon oil. According to the National Academy of Sciences, if we dedicated all 70 million acres of corn to ethanol, it would displace roughly 12 percent of our gasoline demand. If we discount the fossil fuel input, corn ethanol would displace only 2.4 percent of gasoline consumption. Americans would use less gas by keeping our engines tuned and our tires filled at the correct air pressure.

Soybeans won’t help much more. Dedicating the entire 60 million acres of soybean crop to biodiesel would only offset 6 percent of diesel demand; 2.9 percent if discounted for the fossil fuel input. Biomass harvested or cellulosic ethanol derived from perennial grasses on 35 million acres reserved for conservation, 60 million estimated total acres of marginal land, might make a similar small contribution. However, more research and development is needed to develop cost-competitive cellulosic ethanol. Besides, is it realistic to believe we would leave no corn or soybeans for food for people or animals in the U.S. or to export?

On the second myth: though biofuels are, by definition, a renewable energy, they are not inherently environmentally friendly or sustainable. Corn is particularly inefficient, requiring four-fifths of a gallon of fossil fuels to produce one gallon of ethanol. Imported natural gas required to make the fertilizer for corn consumes nearly half of the energy input. As a comparison, the energy once netted from oil used to be in the range of 100 to 1 but is now down to 20 to 1, still substantially greater than corn ethanol.

What about the impact of corn ethanol on climate change? Not much better unfortunately. Adding the fossil fuels exhausted in the planting, harvesting and processing of corn, burning ethanol ultimately produces 16.2 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per gallon. That is 22 percent less than gasoline, but still significant.

On the third myth: Only a few farmers are reaping the benefits of biofuels. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop was diverted for ethanol and the price of corn has doubled. Farmers who feed corn to their livestock, dairy farmers for example, are struggling. Many have already closed their doors. The trend towards corn and soybeans is problematic for other reasons as well.

Incentivized by federal subsidies, agribusiness is expanding corn and soybeans and failing to rotate crops — a critical component of healthy agriculture. This does two things. It damages the soil by depleting it of necessary nutrients and makes it more dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides for future growth. Furthermore, corn accelerates soil erosion and corn ethanol needs water, lots of it. For every one gallon of ethanol, 1,700 gallons of water are required to produce and process it. The Senate bill’s renewable fuel standard (RFS) for mandated expansion of corn and other biofuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022 was a prescription for disaster, not sustainability.

Conferees should take actions to make sure the biofuels boom won’t go bust. Biofuels produced sustainably will be one of many necessary methods to improve our energy security and our environment. But biofuels pursued as a panacea will leave our security, our planet and our farmers wanting.