Biofuels make no sense. That's something even environmental groups are starting to recognize. Last week, the New York Times showed that even the biggest supporters of biofuels are now rethinking the issue.
"Western governments have made a wrong turn in energy policy by supporting the large-scale conversion of plants into fuel and should reconsider that strategy, according to a new report from a prominent environmental think tank," the Times reported. "Turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity is so inefficient that the approach is unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand, the report found. It added that continuing to pursue this strategy — which has already led to billions of dollars of investment — is likely to use up vast tracts of fertile land that could be devoted to helping feed the world's growing population."
That think tank is the World Resource Institute. It also found that biofuels simply aren't as "green" as advertised.
"Most calculations claiming that bioenergy reduces greenhouse gas emissions do not include the carbon dioxide released when biomass (e.g., from maize) is burned," the Institute explains. "They exclude it based on the theory that this release of carbon dioxide is matched and implicitly ‘offset' by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants growing the biomass feedstock. Yet if those plants were going to grow anyway (e.g., for food), simply diverting them to bioenergy does not remove any more carbon from the atmosphere and therefore does not offset emissions from burning that biomass."
More importantly, biofuels divert food (and land needed to grow food) from people who need it.
"The world needs to close a 70 percent ‘food gap' between crop calories available in 2006 and those needed in 2050," the Institute says. "If crop-based biofuels were phased out by 2050, the food gap would shrink to 60 percent. But more ambitious biofuel targets — currently being pursued by large economies — could increase the gap to about 90 percent."
Still, the Obama administration is committed to biofuel mandates. In fact, he mentioned biofuels, obliquely, in his State of the Union speech. He spoke about "converting sunlight into liquid fuel," and for now, the only way to actually do that is to grow plants and process them into biodiesel. Artificial photosynthesis is still a lab experiment.
But even some Republicans still back biofuels — at least, when they're in corn-growing Iowa, which likes the mandate and the higher corn prices the mandate yields.
"When you have a vertically integrated oil industry, it's important that other types of competitive products are allowed into that stream," potential presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in Iowa last week. "And that's what the (Renewable Fuel Standard) is meant to do."
But that's just it. Biofuels aren't "competitive products." They make gasoline and diesel fuel more expensive and less efficient, and they degrade engine parts.
When President George W. Bush signed the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) into law in 2005, the goal was to lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil. We hadn't yet heard the word fracking.
Who needs biofuels? Certainly not us.