Are Biofuels Worse For The Environment Than Oil?

February 23, 2009 18 Comments

Let me state for the record that I have been against the development of biofuels for a long time. I think it is just the taking of one kind of burning fuel and replacing it with another, and in the mean time nothing changes. We are still extracting something from the earth, lighting it on fire, and polluting the air with the exhaust. I am not talking here about fuel made from waste oil coming out of your local fast food joint; I am talking about the planting and harvesting of things like corn and palm oils. And it looks like I might not be alone in this thought.

This month’s Mother Jones magazine has a story about the dangers of biofuels, and it confirms my worst fears – that these new modern biofuels could possibly be worse for us and the earth than regular old petroleum is. We don’t necessarily see the dangers yet here in the U.S., as most biofuels are being grown and harvested in places like South American and Asia. In this article, the author writes about biofuel development in Indonesia:

Biodiesel emits less than one-quarter the carbon of regular diesel once it’s burned. But when production – and the destruction of ecosystems in the developing countries where most biofuel crops are grown – is factored in, many biofuels may actually emit more carbon than does petroleum, the journal Science reported last year. Because oil palms don’t absorb as much CO2 as the rainforest or peatlands they replace, palm oil can generate as much as 10 times more carbon than petroleum, according to the advocacy group Food First. Thanks in large part to oil palm plantation, Indonesia is now the world’s third-largest emitter of CO2, trailing only the U.S. and China.

This is the kind of thing that bothers me about the biofuel industry. While looking for oil, we have gone around the world digging into the earth or setting up rigs in the middle of the ocean. For biofuels, we are burning rainforest to make fuel – how is this any smarter that what we have been doing with oil? In the article I just read, it is said that if the clearing in Indonesia continues at the present rate, most of their rainforest (one of only 3 that large in the world) will be gone in a mere 13 years. Thirteen years, and an entire rainforest will be wiped out so we can continue using fuel as we have been, even if it is in a different form. This is not progress, this is more of the same. They might not be called fossil fuels, but it is basically the same idea and concept. For all that the human race has and can accomplish, I just cannot accept that this is the best we can do. I would like to see real development forward, not a slide sideways into just another thing that will damage our environment. Do I have an answer? Nope. But I am not one of those brilliant people working on these issues. For transportation, I see the future as increased public transportation options and electric cars powered & charged by solar panels or wind energy (which hopefully our homes will be powered by as well eventually). That seems easily within our reach starting today. Let’s hope that those working on alternative energy can come up with something better than yet another “fossil” fuel. What do you guys think?

Filed in: Oil • Tags: , , ,

About the Author:

After a varied past of being a test driver for automotive television programs, a Hollywood studio lackey, and an online media sales director, David is now the publisher and editor of The Good Human. In his spare time he rides motorcycles, drinks good beer, and builds stuff in the garage. You can follow him on Twitter at @thegoodhuman or G+ at Google
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Comments (18)

  1. David says:

    Melissa, what don’t you like about the facts being put forth about biofuels?

  2. David says:

    Great point Pam, and yes – the water is an issue. Just because a Wiki article might be off for a single state, does not mean that this process is a total waste of water. Great point.

  3. David says:

    I don’t think farmers are backwards, wasteful hicks at all. I think they are being ripped off by our government and giant corporations, and eventually the family farm will all but disappear. However, it’s kind of a separate issue from what biofuels will do to our environment. We don’t even come close in this country to making the amount of them that other countries do, so we are not seeing the negative effects yet.

  4. Pam in Taos says:

    Aside from the issue of the air, another nail in the coffin on biofuels, I believe, is WATER.

    Do we really want to WASTE that precious resource on growing the crop and then processing it into FUEL? From Wikipedia on the Ogallala Aquifer: “About 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States overlies this aquifer system, which yields about 30 percent of the nation’s ground water used for irrigation. In addition, the aquifer system provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundary”…and….. “The Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at a rate of 12 cubic km (420,000 million ft3 or 9.7 million acre feet) per year, amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers. Some estimates say it will dry up in as little as 25 years. Many farmers in the Texas High Plains, which rely particularly on the underground source, are now turning away from irrigated agriculture as they become aware of the hazards of overpumping.”

    Enough said?

  5. Pam in Taos says:

    Info from different sources:
    Nebraska from the Weather Channel and from an ethanol “friendly” site, a non-figure toward the bottom of the page RFA
    (I’m a html rookie, sorry if links don’t work)

    Melissa, I agree with you about “vanity” lawns to keep up with the neighbors. When I lived in Colorado, I tore out 90% of my grass and put in perennials and bushes and a drip sprinkler system. I started a trend in my neighborhood, with several other homeowners doing the same thing. I have NO lawn in NM, a high desert location.

    My parents were both raised on farms and I spent much time there as a kid. I just think that farms should be for food, not fuel.

    As far as dams are concerned, I agree with you, also…but were the dams originally built for recreation OR flood control??

  6. Melissa says:

    The research that has been performed on the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska is not correct. The study is being performed again because the data used to come up with the current numbers dates as far back as the 1950s to 1970s. Agriculture is completely different today than it was back in those eras. Corn and soybeans planted today require a fraction of the amount of water they required in the ’70s.

    Local individuals who drill wells in my area site the aquifer levels to be higher than it was even ten years ago. Also keep in mind that many of the extreme statistics you read site water levels during the months of July or August, not the yearly average. Not nearly enough research has been done on the Ogallala aquifer to come to any sort of solid conclusion.

    Be careful about what you read on Wikipedia. It’s a wonderful source of general information, but it does not always produce statistics you can bank on.

  7. Pam in Taos says:

    Thanks for your reply about Wikipedia. I’ll be more careful about using that source.

    I still stand by my belief that is not a good idea to grow crops for FUEL instead of human consumption.

  8. Melissa says:

    I can’t speak for states other than Nebraska, but the majority of our crops were never used directly for human consumption, but for animals. For people who don’t consume meat, the crops that are turned into fuel in Nebraska don’t have a huge impact your food prices.

    While I don’t disagree with the facts being put forth about biofuels, I do like to cheerfully remind people to research all sides of the issue. By using a news source that comes from a completely different perspective you can solidify your own argument.

  9. Melissa says:

    I think there is considerable misinterpretation about biofuels causing spikes in food costs. It’s amazing just how little compensation the farmer receives from their crops.

    As far as the water argument, I agree that there is uncertainty with the longevity about the aquifer and that we absolutely must protect this resource. I have a problem with cutting off irrigation to the agricultural community, while people water their front lawns like there’s no tomorrow. I have problems with building dams for recreational purposes which is reducing stream flow to farmers further down.

    I have no problem with regulating water use as long as it is done fairly. Agriculture should receive priority over recreation and green lawns.

    I really enjoy reading all information about biofuels, especially that put forth in this blog and other research. I can be fairly narrow-minded coming from the farm and not understanding why people often think of farmers as backwards, wasteful hicks.

    As I read I realize that biofuels are not a long term solution, however, I just want to remind people to look at situations from every angle.

  10. Pam in Taos says:

    or…some of those dams (in Nebraska??) make clean hydro-electric power.

  11. B. Wilde says:

    I am so hopeful that we can come up with an alternative solution. It is so needed for our environment and the continuation of our energy needs.

  12. Linda says:

    There is no need for other fossil fuels. There are cars that have been designed to use air and/or solar. There have been great advances on wind turbines that can be used anywhere.

    With more folks becoming aware or awakened, we should see a tremendous movement towards going green.

  13. The palm oil industry is guilty of some truly heinous ecological atrocities, including the systematic genocide of orangutans. The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are the only place where these gentle, intelligent creatures live, and the cultivation of palm oil has directly led to the brutal deaths of thousands of individuals as the industry has expanded into undisturbed areas of rainforest.

    When the forest is cleared, adult orangutans are typically shot on sight. These peaceful, sentient beings are beaten, burned, mutilated, tortured and often eaten. Babies are torn off their dying mothers so they can be sold on the black market as illegal pets to wealthy families who see them as status symbols of their own power and prestige. I am not trying to be overly dramatic. This actually happens. It has been documented time and again.

    Some of the luckier orangutans are confiscated and brought to sanctuaries such as the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center, which is now home to nearly 700 orphaned and displaced orangutans in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). Many of these orangutans are only several weeks old when they arrive, and all of them are psychologically traumatized and desperate for their mothers– who are no longer alive.

    Nyaru Menteng is managed by a remarkable woman named Lone Droscher Nielsen and is featured on Animal Planet’s series ‘Orangutan Island’.

    To learn more about the crisis facing wild orangutans and see how you can help protect them, please visit the Orangutan Outreach website: http://redapes.org

    Thank you for taking the time to read my long comment!

    Best wishes,

    Richard Zimmerman
    Director, Orangutan Outreach
    http://redapes.org
    Reach out and save the orangutans!
    Join our Facebook Cause: http://causes.com/redapes

  14. david says:

    Bio from waste is definitely the way to go, in my mind. There should be plenty to go around, seeing as how Americans love their crappy fast food. But I am worried about the long term effects of growing crops to power our cars.

  15. Rene says:

    I drive a Dodge Ram diesel pickup, and one of the reasons we got it in 2007 was to have the option of using biodiesel. Whenever we can fuel up with it, we do, preferably made from recycled cooking oil. Also, bioD is far better for my truck’s engine than regular diesel. We’d love to make our own someday when we aren’t fulltime RVing.

    I understand the ramifications of using biodiesel, but what other better choices do I, average Jane Consumer, have at the moment?

    I’d buy an alternative energy vehicle if it met my needs, but there is no heavy duty truck on the market powered by alternative means that does. Until auto companies give consumers that option, I’ll keep driving my Ram.

    And if it makes anyone feel any better, biodiesel is becoming increasingly harder for us to find here in the U.S., and when we do, it’s often 2x as much as #2, which has a big influence on whether or not we buy any.

  16. Matt SF says:

    Good news about the Ogallala Aquifer data being reexamined. I guess T. Boone might have to reconsider buying up all the water rights that point in Cali’s direction if the aquifer really isn’t is low as previously thought.

    Personally, I hate the idea of using any biofuel that can potentially take away from human and animal consumption. If the aquifer issue isn’t as bad as once thought, my focus shifts to soil chemistry. Once the soil loses it’s nutrients to the point of depletion, it’s essentially worthless and that’s a problem if we get hungry and still want to drive. I know the farming community can do much to prevent this from occurring, but I’d rather not gamble my Cheezy Poofs on filling up someone’s SUV. Additionally, I’m not a huge fan of using industrial based fertilizers b/c Mosaic Company just has to produce more industrial acids to feed fertilizer demand, so you continue the negative feedback cycle.

    As with any new technology, the 1st or 2nd generation technologies are usually outdated by the time it’s scaled up for mass production. So most of what we’ve seen thus far won’t have a substantial impact upon the “war effort” because it’s not scalable at this time.

    The eventual solution will likely be a genetically engineered microbe that can survive & thrive in a fuel based environment and converts CO2 to ethanol or perhaps methane. Gene jockeys are already moving ahead with this process, and in 2 decades we will be designing basic microbes like you decorate a Mr. Potato Head. Just pick & click the enzymes you want, and a day later you’ve got a microbe customized to your specs.

    Here is a TED Talk from Craig Venter discussing the current technologies. It’s 30 min long, but will blow your mind if you’re not a follower of modern GE trends.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKZ-GjSaqgo

  17. David says:

    Great stuff, thanks Matt. I agree – hopefully the geniuses out there will come up with something way better than continuing to burn “fossil” fuels.

  18. fpteditors says:

    Simple solution. Stop subsidizing autosprawl. Fortunately there is already a world-wide movement for Free Public Transit

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