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06 March 2007 Blog Home : March 2007 : Permalink

Biofuel - Bad Because Bush Likes It

The Instapundit linked to this independent article on the problems of biofuel. Given that the Independent is usually the sort of rag that has never seen a trendy green idea it didn't like it is rather a surprise to find that they are skeptical about the value of biofuel. My assumption is that the reason why they are against it is basically the title to this post. Anyway while I sort of agree with the conclusion (biofuel is not a perfect solution to fossil fuel consmption and "devil gas" emissions) the article is jam packed with stuff to complain about so I think a little fisking is in order. Let's start with the lede:

The Big Green Fuel Lie

George Bush says that ethanol will save the world. But there is evidence that biofuels may bring new problems for the planet

By Daniel Howden in Sao Paolo

Published: 05 March 2007

The ethanol boom is coming. The twin threats of climate change and energy security are creating an unprecedented thirst for alternative energy with ethanol leading the way.

That process is set to reach a landmark on Thursday when the US President, George Bush, arrives in Brazil to kick-start the creation of an international market for ethanol that could one day rival oil as a global commodity. The expected creation of an "Opec for ethanol" replicating the cartel of major oil producers has spurred frenzied investment in biofuels across the Americas.

When exactly did George Bush say "ethanol will save the world"? or even hint at it? and since when does a creation of a international forum to promote a market in biofuel mean a cartel?

But a growing number of economists, scientists and environmentalists are calling for a "time out" and warning that the headlong rush into massive ethanol production is creating more problems than it is solving.

To its advocates, ethanol, which can be made from corn, barley, wheat, sugar cane or beet is a green panacea - a clean-burning, renewable energy source that will see us switch from dwindling oil wells to boundless fields of crops to satisfy our energy needs.

Dr Plinio Mario Nastari, one of Brazil's leading economists and an expert in biofuels, sees a bright future for an energy sector in which his country is the acknowledged world leader: "We are on the brink of a new era, ethanol is changing a lot of things but in a positive sense."

Actially I think very few people believe that Ethanol or other biofuels will replace all fossil fuel consumption. Just as with the saving the world line above what we see here is a deliberate overstating of the advocate's viewpoints so that we can rip them to shreds in a bit.

In its first major acknowledgment of the dangers of climate change, the White House this year committed itself to substituting 20 per cent of the petroleum it uses for ethanol by 2017.

Firstly this is not the first major acknowledgment of climate change, or at least not the first one to look at alternative fuel sources that would nd up reducing CO2 emissions, google Bush Hydrogen and see what you find. Secondly 20% of petroleum is not full replacement, it is merely introducing a diversity of fuel sources. Usually the Independent likes "diversity" but apparently not in this case.

In Brazil, that switch is more advanced than anywhere in the world and it has already substituted 40 per cent of its gasoline usage.

Ethanol is nothing new in Brazil. It has been used as fuel since 1925. But the real boom came after the oil crisis of 1973 spurred the military dictatorship to lessen the country's reliance on foreign imports of fossil fuels. The generals poured public subsidies and incentives into the sugar industry to produce ethanol.

Today, the congested streets of Sao Paolo are packed with flex-fuel cars that run off a growing menu of bio and fossil fuel mixtures, and all filling stations offer "alcohol" and "gas" at the pump, with the latter at roughly twice the price by volume.

Remember readers this technology was pioneered by military dictators! no wonder GWB likes it

But there is a darker side to this green revolution, which argues for a cautious assessment of how big a role ethanol can play in filling the developed world's fuel tank. The prospect of a sudden surge in demand for ethanol is causing serious concerns even in Brazil.

The ethanol industry has been linked with air and water pollution on an epic scale, along with deforestation in both the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, as well as the wholesale destruction of Brazil's unique savannah land.

I don't want to be rude, but practically everything has been linked to "air and water pollution" and "deforestation in both the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests". Unfortunately, no dounbt for reasons of space, the Independent is unable to back up most of these claims with facts.

Fabio Feldman, a leading Brazilian environmentalist and former member of Congress who helped to pass the law mandating a 23 per cent mix of ethanol to be added to all petroleum supplies in the country, believes that Brazil's trailblazing switch has had serious side effects.

"Some of the cane plantations are the size of European states, these vast monocultures have replaced important eco-systems," he said. "If you see the size of the plantations in the state of Sao Paolo they are oceans of sugar cane. In order to harvest you must burn the plantations which creates a serious air pollution problem in the city."

However the Independent does manage to come up with this claim. I'm not sure I understand it completely; the burning refered to is, I assume, something similar to stubble burning and may be bad though one could presumably be more eco-friendly and burn some of the refuse in a biomass electric generator. On the other hand the monoculture argument is no different to any other sort of agriculture and is equally bogus - if you want efficient production then you will have monocultures of relevant crops. "Organic biofuel" is simply not going to be efficient.

Despite its leading role in biofuels, Brazil remains the fourth largest producer of carbon emissions in the world due to deforestation. Dr Nastarti rejects any linkage between deforestation and ethanol and argues that cane production accounts for little more than 10 per cent of Brazil's farmland.

However, Dr Nastari is calling for new legislation in Brazil to ensure that mushrooming sugar plantations do not directly or indirectly contribute to the destruction of vital forest preserves.

There is a sentence here that could do with rewriting. Is Brazil the country that is the fourth largest producer of carbon emissions from burnt forests or is it the fourth largest total carbon emitter due to the birning of its forests? If the former then this is an example of how to pick your statistics, however I believe it is supposed to be the latter. As this article notes, deforestation has slowed in Brazil:

About 13,000 square kilometers (5,019 square miles) of rainforest were destroyed in the 12 months between August 2005 and 2006. This is about half the rate reported during the same period between 2003 and 2004, and the second lowest rate since recordkeeping began in 1988.

And the article also mentions that Brazil is the fourth largest carbon emitter and that 75% of Brazil's emissions are due to forest clearance so it looks like Brazil will drop down the carbon emissions list quickly if it continues to reduce forest clearance. Back to the Indy:

Sceptics, however, point out that existing legislation is unenforceable and agri-business from banned GM cotton to soy beans has been able to ignore legislation.

"In large areas of Brazil there is a total absence of the state and no respect for environmental legislation," said Mr Feldman.

"Ethanol can be a good alternative in the fight against global warming but at the same time we must make sure we are not creating a worse problem than the one we are trying to solve."

I think this is what hurts the Indy the most. The state is not all powerful Big Brother in Brazil.

The conditions for a true nightmare scenario are being created not in Brazil, despite its environment concerns, but in the US's own domestic ethanol industry.

While Brazil's tropical climate allows it to source alcohol from its sugar crop, the US has turned to its industrialised corn belt for the raw material to substitute oil. The American economist Lester R Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, is leading the warning voices: "The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its two billion poorest people who are simply trying to stay alive is emerging as an epic issue."

Speaking in Sao Paolo, where the ethanol boom is expected to take off with a US-Brazil trade deal this Thursday, Fabio Feldman, said: "We must stop and take a breath and consider the consequences."

So implicitly the Indy admits that the US is feeding the world. Evil capitalists that they are they insist on providing the cheapest grain to feed 2 billion. And of course the rest of the world is unable to produce grain so all those EU grain mountains of years past can never be replicated. Sorry this is a particularly feeble bit of text.

When Rudolph Diesel unveiled his new engine at the 1900 World's Fair, he made a point of demonstrating that it could be run on peanut oil. "Such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time," he said.

And so it has come to pass that US President George Bush has decreed that America must wean itself off oil with the help of biofuels made from corn, sugar cane and other suitable crops.

At its simplest, the argument for biofuels is this: By growing crops to produce organic compounds that can be burnt in an engine, you are not adding to the overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The amount of CO2 that the fuel produces when burnt should balance the amount absorbed during the growth of the plants.

There is a logical flaw here that lets you really cock this argument up. If we want to reduce overall carbon emissions then it is not necessary to stop emitting all carbon or 100% compensate for it with carbon storing methods, all we need to do is produce less of it for the same amount of total energy output.

However, many biofuel crops, such as corn, are grown with the help of fossil fuels in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and the petrol for farm equipment.

One estimate is that corn needs 30 per cent more energy than the finished fuel it produces.

Another problem is the land required to produce it. One estimate is that the grain needed to fill the petrol tank of a 4X4 with ethanol is sufficient to feed a person for a year.

Having complained above I agree with this conclusion. If production/distribution of ethanol requires more fuel consuption than it can produce then it is a waste of time and it may well be highly inefficient. These are real problems and it would have been useful if the entire article had talked about them instead of leading us down 1001 false trails.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin