11 Mar 2010: Opinion

The Case Against Biofuels:
Probing Ethanol’s Hidden Costs

Despite strong evidence that growing food crops to produce ethanol is harmful to the environment and the world’s poor, the Obama administration is backing subsidies and programs that will ensure that half of the U.S.’s corn crop will soon go to biofuel production. It’s time to recognize that biofuels are anything but green.

by c. ford runge

In light of the strong evidence that growing corn, soybeans, and other food crops to produce ethanol takes a heavy toll on the environment and is hurting the world’s poor through higher food prices, consider this astonishing fact: This year, more than a third of the U.S.’s record corn harvest of 335 million metric tons will be used to produce corn ethanol. What’s more, within five years fully 50 percent of the U.S. corn crop is expected to wind up as biofuels.

Here’s another sobering fact. Despite the record deficits facing the U.S., and notwithstanding President Obama’s embrace of some truly sustainable renewable energy policies, the president and his administration have wholeheartedly embraced corn ethanol and the tangle of government subsidies, price supports, and tariffs that underpin the entire dubious enterprise of using corn to power our cars. In early February, the president threw his weight behind new and existing initiatives to boost ethanol production from both food and nonfood sources, including supporting Congressional mandates that would triple biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Congress and the Obama administration are paying billions of dollars to producers of biofuels, with expenditures scheduled to increase steadily through 2022 and possibly 2030. The fuels are touted by these producers as a “green” solution to reliance on imported petroleum, and a boost for farmers seeking higher prices.

Yet a close look at their impact on food security and the environment — with profound effects on water, the eutrophication of our coastal zones
Subsidy supports are a testament to the power of the farm lobby and its sway over Congress.
from fertilizers, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions — suggests that the biofuel bandwagon is anything but green. Congress and the administration need to reconsider whether they are throwing good money after bad. If the biofuel saga illustrates anything, it is that thinking ecologically will require thinking more logically, as well.

Investments in biofuels have grown rapidly in the last decade, accelerating especially in developed countries and Brazil after 2003, when oil prices began to climb above $25 per barrel, reaching a peak of $120 per barrel in 2008. Between 2001 and 2008, world production of ethanol tripled from 4.9 billion gallons to 17 billion gallons, while biodiesel output rose from 264 million gallons to 2.9 billion gallons. Together, the U.S. and Brazil account for most of the world’s ethanol production. Biodiesel, the other major biofuel, is produced mainly in the European Union, which makes roughly five times more than the U.S. In the EU, ethanol and biodiesel are projected to increase oilseed, wheat, and corn usage from negligible levels in 2004 to roughly 21, 17, and 5 million tons, respectively, in 2016, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In the U.S., once a reliable supplier of exported grain and oilseeds for food, biofuel production is soaring even as food crop export demand remains strong, driving prices further upward. Government support undergirding the biofuels industry has also grown rapidly and now forms a massive federal program that may be good for farm states, but is very bad for U.S. taxpayers.

These subsidy supports are a testament to the power of the farm lobby and its sway over the U.S. Congress. In addition to longstanding crop price supports that encourage production of corn and soybeans as feedstocks,
The rapid increase in grain and oilseed prices has been a shock to consumers worldwide.
biofuels are propped up by several other forms of government largesse. The first of these are mandates, known as “renewable fuels standards”: In the U.S. in 2007, energy legislation raised mandated production of biofuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022. These mandates shelter biofuels investments by guaranteeing that the demand will be there, thus encouraging oversupply.

Then there are direct biofuel production subsidies, which raise feedstock prices for farmers by increasing the price of corn. In the U.S., blenders are paid a 45 cent-per-gallon “blender’s tax credit” for ethanol — the equivalent of more than $200 per acre to divert scarce corn from the food supply into fuel tanks. The federal government also pays a $1 credit for plant-based biodiesel and “cellulosic” ethanol.

Finally, there is a 54 cent-per-gallon tariff on imported biofuel to protect domestic production from competition, especially to prevent Brazilian sugarcane-based ethanol (which can be produced at less than half the cost of U.S. ethanol from corn) from entering U.S. markets. These subsidies allow ethanol producers to pay higher and higher prices for feedstocks, illustrated by the record 2008 levels of corn, soybean, and wheat prices. Projections suggest they will remain higher, assuming normal weather and yields.

The rapid increase in grain and oilseed prices due to biofuels expansion has been a shock to consumers worldwide, especially during 2008 and early 2009. From 2005 to January 2008, the global price of wheat increased 143 percent, corn by 105 percent, rice by 154 percent, sugar by 118 percent, and oilseeds by 197 percent. In 2006-2007, this rate of increase accelerated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “due to continued demand for biofuels and drought in major producing countries.” The price increases have since moderated, but many believe only temporarily, given tight stocks-to-use ratios.

It is in poor countries that these price increases pose direct threats to disposable income and food security. There, the run-up in food prices has been ominous for the more than one billion of the world’s poor who are chronically food-insecure. Poor farmers in countries such as Bangladesh can barely support a household on a subsistence basis, and have little if any surplus production to sell, which means they do not benefit from higher prices for corn or wheat. And poor slum-dwellers in Lagos, Calcutta, Manila, or Mexico City produce no food at all, and spend as much as 90 percent of their meager household incomes just to eat.

But the most worrisome of recent criticisms of biofuels relate to their impacts on the natural environment. In the U.S., water shortages due to the huge volumes necessary to process grains or sugar into ethanol are not uncommon, and are amplified if these crops are irrigated. Growing corn to produce ethanol, according to a 2007 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, consumes 200 times more water than the water used to process corn into ethanol.

In the cornbelt of the Upper Midwest, even more serious problem arise. Corn acreage, which expanded by over 15 percent in 2007 in response to ethanol demands, requires extensive fertilization, adding to nitrogen and phosphorus that run off into lakes and streams and eventually enter the
Biofuels have made the slow fade from green to brown.
Mississippi River watershed. This is aggravated by systems of subterranean tiles and drains — 98 percent of Iowa’s arable fields are tiled — that accelerate field drainage into ditches and local watersheds. As a result, loadings of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico encourage algae growth, starving water bodies of oxygen needed by aquatic life and enlarging the hypoxic “dead zone” in the gulf.

Next is simply the crop acreage needed to feed the biofuels beast. A 2007 study in Science noted that to replace just 10 percent of the gasoline in the U.S. with ethanol and biodiesel would require 43 percent of current U.S. cropland for biofuel feedstocks. The EU would need to commit 38 percent of its cropland base. Otherwise, new lands will need to be brought into cultivation, drawn disproportionately from those more vulnerable to environmental damage, such as forests.

A pair of 2008 studies, again in Science, focused on the question of greenhouse gas emissions due to land-use shifts resulting from biofuels. One study said that if land is converted from rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels, it causes a large net increase in greenhouse gas emissions for decades. A second study said that growing corn for ethanol in the U.S., for example, can lead to the clearing of forests and other wild lands in the developing world for food corn, which also causes a surge in greenhouse gas emissions.

A third study, by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen in 2007, emphasized the impact from the heavy applications of nitrogen needed to grow expanded feedstocks of corn and rapeseed. The nitrogen necessary to grow these crops releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere — a greenhouse gas 296 times more damaging than CO2 — and contributes more to global warming than biofuels save through fossil fuel reductions.


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Jatropha Falls Short of Hype

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Thus have biofuels made the slow fade from green to brown. It is a sad irony of the biofuels experience that resource alternatives that seemed farmer-friendly and green have turned out so badly.

What’s needed are a freeze on further mandates to slow overinvestment, reductions in the blenders’ tax credit — especially when corn prices are high — and cuts in tariff protection to encourage cost-reduction strategies by U.S. producers. And the high environmental and human costs of using corn, soybeans, and other food crops to produce biofuels should spur government initiatives to develop more sustainable forms of renewable energy, such as wind power, solar power, and — one day, perhaps — algal biofuels grown at waste treatment plants.

Yet sadly, as in so many areas of policy, Congress and the administration prefer to reward inefficiency and political influence more than pursuing cost-effective — and sustainable — energy strategies.

POSTED ON 11 Mar 2010 IN Biodiversity Energy Policy & Politics Science & Technology Asia 


There's is a lot more wrong with ethanol that's being kept under the table while there are better ways to use it that would actually work that no one is talking about either. Read the article below to learn more


Posted by Bobby Fontaine on 11 Mar 2010

Nice propoganda.. now the reality

Corn Prices have FALLEN from $8 a bushel in late 2007 to $3.75 a bushel now.... even though we produce 3 BILLION gallons more ethanol today then we did then

Corn ethanol isn't driving the cost of food up for anyone..it is ludicrous ..$3.75 for 56Lbs of corn
cbot.com (The last rise was speculators..had nothing to do with reality of corn supplies which have always been strong..you want to keep corn prices low..kick the speculators out)

There is literally a few pennies worth of corn in any food product . The costs of food is not the grain but rather the processing, packaging , storage , wages and profits up the line from farmer to ..to retailer.

More nonsense.. "Next is simply the crop acreage needed to feed the biofuels beast. A 2007 study in Science noted that to replace just 10 percent of the gasoline in the U.S. with ethanol and biodiesel would require 43 percent of current U.S. cropland for biofuel feedstocks." Too funny. We already produce enough ethanol that displaces 10 percent of the gasoline we need.

And besides Corn Ethanol is regulated 15 Billion Gallons.. Ny LAW we cannot use more than 15 Billion gallons of Corn ethanol.. we already produce 12 Billion gallons. The RFS was designed so that corn ethanol would be the stepping stone to cellulosic ethanol..which will supply the next 21 billion gallons (out of the 36 billion gallons required by 2022)

Which is where we are now.


http://Coskata.com can make ethanol out of any carbon based material including garbage, industrial waste and even old tires.. GM is invested in them ..they are already producing ethanol and selling licensing rights.

Range Fuels uses waste wood

Algenaol ..Algae to ethanol

Mascoma.. Wood and Switchgrass

So on and so on.. The bottom line is you guys are barking up the wrong tree. Corn ethanol is just a stepping stone. it isn't perfect but even corn ethanol is FAR superior to the enviro effects of drilling and burning oil based gasoline.

So we continue subsidizing Oil with the blood of our troops let along the hundreds of billion each year. Or we develop out ethanol. American-made(American jobs ..billions going to American communities rather than to Saudia Arabia, Dubi , and the Middle East mess , Corn Ethanol greener than Oil ..not perfect yep.. but as long as we have the combustion engine no solution will be perfect.

Posted by Dan McCullough on 11 Mar 2010

Dan McCullough is right on in his comments. I noticed your article did not address the billions of dollars in tax breaks and direct subsidies to the petroleum industry. Nor does it address the fact that we are growing five times more corn on 20 less acres than we did a few decades ago. We are looking at nearly 300 bushels per acre corn by the next generation. We can choose to embrace it as the asset it can be or let it depress prices and put family farmers out of business, thus making us more dependent on true corporate farms. Farming is a business and we can only afford to give away so much and continue to feed, fuel and clothe Americans. As for you environmental criticism...we have cut the fertilizer needed to grow a bushel of corn by 36 percent, cut soil erosion 44 percent thus keeping soil out of rivers, and we have made significant cuts in pesticides thank to advances in biotechnology. You really should do your research or refrain from addressing an industry you clearly do not understand.

Posted by Mark on 11 Mar 2010

Wherever did the author get the silly idea that ethanol would absorb half the corn supply?

Posted by Ken on 11 Mar 2010

Another aspect of the biofuels calculation that is again overlooked in this discussion is the inefficiency with which corn and soybeans are used in the prevailing food economy. Very little of these crops are eaten directly in the U.S. Most of the nutritional content of these foods is used in a woefully inefficient and environmentally harmful way as animal feed. An analysis of the effects of diverting corn and soybeans to biofuels that does not consider the impact of the alternative uses for these crops is fatally flawed.

Posted by Bob on 11 Mar 2010

Although Mr. Runge's bio seems to cast him in the light of an expert, it appears he fails to do much home work, or wishes to ignore most of the facts. This is yet another biased opinion piece focusing on a personal cause. Interesting correlation... the more market share biofuels take from big oil the more pieces like this are generated... hmmm.

This piece contains more myth than reality, less fact than opinion. Get the real facts from real, veteran experts. www.ingreenuity.com

Posted by Fran Swain on 11 Mar 2010

There is no scientific consensus that ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions. There are no commercially viable next-generation biofuels. To meet government mandates it will be corn ethanol. More corn ethanol increases the dead zones in the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico. This is, of course, in direct conflict with President Obama's recent Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Executive Order.

Posted by For Obama Against Ethanol on 11 Mar 2010

Corn Ethanol is lessening our dependence from foreign oil. It is obviously not the long term solution but is currently creating a market and infrastructure for future biofuels. There is no doubt that ethanol is bettering our economy and environment. Also, last time I checked, it didn't take any soldiers to give their lives for this home-grown, clean burning, renewable energy.

Posted by johnjames on 11 Mar 2010

Corn is one of the most efficient users of nitrogen in the U.S. On our farm we supply the plants 85 percent of the recommended rate on our soil sample reports. Soil sample recommendations are now being lowered to reflect corn's increased Nitrogen efficiency and farmer's ability to place and timely application to lower the need for it. I wish wheat was becoming more efficient at using resources.

In states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, big irrigation states, Grain Sorghum is used for ethanol production rather than corn. Grain Sorghum is a 1 to 1 replacement for corn in terms of amount of fuel produced in addition to being a more drought tolerant crop that is largely rain fed or uses limited irrigation.

Posted by Tom Tibbits on 11 Mar 2010

Not much new here, pretty much the same line of arguments repeated since the biofuels backlash broke out in mid-decade. Estimates of how much biofuels have affected food prices run all over the map, and Dan McCullough is right to note that corn prices are substantially down (even though grocery prices are not - funny that). Also to be noted is that the Tim Searchinger 2008 Science articles on indirect land use which Runge quotes have already impacted greenhouse gas calculations by California Air Resources Board and USEPA, neither of which assigns the impacts to corn ethanol that Searchinger does.

The title, "The Case Against Biofuels," sets up a general tone of opposition, which is what this article seems to be really about, rather than a nuanced review of biofuels options. The bottom line is that everyone considers corn ethanol a limited contributor to freeing us from petroleum dependence. The article does not treat cellulosic follow-ons from dedicated energy crops such as deep-rooted priarie grasses which could be carbon-negative, and waste streams from farming, forestry and cities, except a brief mention of algae from sewage.

The biofuels industry has interest in developing these sources, as the troubles of both biodiesel and ethanol producers with high commodity prices over recent years demonstrate. They need lower cost feedstocks that do not compete in food markets to preserve their own long-term viability.

Posted by Patrick Mazza on 11 Mar 2010

To johnjames

Wrapping ethanol greed in an American flag is disturbing. Ethanol is not going to stop terrorism but it will line the pockets of the greedy with our tax dollars while pretending to be good for the environment. All oil export countries are not our enemies. Isn’t Canada our largest supplier of foreign oil? Oh yeah, those Canadians are scary.

Posted by For Obama Against Ethanol on 11 Mar 2010

Being from MN I'm sure Runge consulted with others at his own institution that will verify that over 95 percent of the corn raised in MN is not irrigated; that ethanol processing has decreased its water usage from near 6 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced to under 3 gallons; that golf courses in the greater metro use more water than all of the ethanol plants combined. I wonder if they talk about that quietly in the corner on the 19th hole?

Posted by E for You on 11 Mar 2010

Mr. McCullough should have written this article, he is more informed that the author. As the mother of a Marine Corp officer killed in Iraq I can speak firsthand about the cost of oil from the Middle East. I just can't figure out where all this misinformation keeps coming from. How can we not support a clean renewable American product? Doesn't anyone understand that we are puppets controlled by the oil producing nations? This is a national security issue, we need energy independence before it is too late.

Posted by Nola Hector on 11 Mar 2010

I represent Growth Energy, the coalition of U.S. ethanol supporters. I appreciate the opportunity to comment on Prof. Runge's opinion piece here, because there is a vast pool of scientific evidence and data that runs counter to his opinion.

A couple of facts: U.S. is experiencing record grain harvests, with per-acre yield going up at a record clip. In 1978, when President Carter established E10 in response to the OPEC-driven oil crisis, yield was less than 80 bushels an acre. Today we are getting more than 163 bushels an acre -- and are on pace to double that. So there is more than enough grain for food, feed and fuel.

Second, while biofuels receive some tax production credits, they pale in comparison to what taxpayers are forced to pay for our addiction to foreign oil. We subsidize foreign economies at the equivalent of nearly $1 billion a day draining out of the U.S. economy. And these petrodollars don't all go to Canada (where Alberta tar sand extraction generates five times the greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline). They go to nations that are unstable, or don't support U.S. values.

Third, while we do maintain a tariff on Brazilian ethanol, it is important to remember that Brazil imposes a similar tariff on U.S. ethanol. And Brazil's labor and environmental standards are far laxer than what we have here in the U.S. On top of that, why would we seek to break our addiction to foreign oil only to become addicted to foreign ethanol? It makes no sense.

Lastly, a body no less than the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Laboratory found in August that there is little empirical evidence supporting the claim that US ethanol production is forcing other crops out of production or inducing indirect land use change.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

Posted by Chris Thorne on 11 Mar 2010

Regarding "For Obama against ethanol's" remark: "Isn’t Canada our largest supplier of foreign oil? Oh yeah, those Canadians are scary."

- What's scary, FOAE, isn't Canadians, it's the environmentally disastrous methods needed to get the oil out of the ground up there. Inform yourself about the Alberta Tar Sands and the unholy mess that's being made in order to extract oil from the ground to our north. Corn ethanol is not perfect, but it's light years ahead of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands in terms of environmental degradation.

Posted by Jack on 11 Mar 2010

This was a very informative article about the cost of biodiesel fuel. I think it's important for the companies to understand the importance and relevance of using biodiesel fuel. People looking for more information should definitely check out www.greencollareconomy.com.

Posted by Megan C on 12 Mar 2010

I am surprised to read yet another anti ethanol rant even after Brazil has slapped close to $1 billion in punitive sanctions against US exports as a punishment for the cotton subsidy.

We had several rounds of global trade talks sabotaged by India and Brazil. The free trade area of Americas negotiations fell apart because of the US farm subsidies.

The third world is not begging the West to increase food production. It's demanding from the West to stop overproducing and dumping its agricultural surpluses onto the global market.

Come on, guys. What sort of the food vs fuel argument can be there when export crops are subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars every year? You are worried about land and water? Don't make me laugh

Do you really want to help the world's poor? Demand from the government to switch all those farmers to biofuels. In fact, this is the only way to eliminate export subsidies as far as I can see. There is no other way to stop overproduction which is the real problem and not the food vs fuel competition for resources.

Posted by NB on 12 Mar 2010

I chair the International SCOPE Biofuels Project, a group established through the International Council of Science that has been working closely with United Nations agencies to objectively evaluate the consequences of biofuels on the environment. Our first report was published in April 2009 and is available on-line: http://cip.cornell.edu/biofuels

We strongly conclude that the environmental consequences of producing ethanol from corn are high, and the energy potential for society very, very small. Producing ethanol from cellulose is better, but is still an inefficient use of biomass. The best use of biomass for energy, and the one that generates the least environmental side effects, is to burn the biomass to co-generate heat and electricity. Even still, this is a limited resource.

Our report reflects the consensus of a broad range of scientists, chosen for their objectivity and disciplinary knowledge, from 21 different nations. I urge anyone interested in this topic to read our report.

The article by Prof. Runge is well reasoned, timely , and broadly consistent with the findings of our report.

Posted by Robert Howarth on 12 Mar 2010

For those ethanol lobbyists claiming that corn yields will compensate for diverting food into gas tanks I reference this quote from a recent study published in the journal Science:

"...to meet the recent Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security target a 38% increase over historical increases in production must be sustained for 40 years. This scale of sustained increase in global food production is unprecedented..."

How exactly will biofuels help with this situation?

Posted by Russ Finley on 13 Mar 2010

For those who don't buy the US studies documenting how biofuels displace carbon sinks, Europe researchers have just come to the same conclusion:


"The findings show that the Department for Transport’s target for raising the level of biofuel in all fuel sold in Britain will result in millions of acres of forest being logged or burnt down and converted to plantations."

Posted by Russ Finley on 13 Mar 2010

I think most of the weaknesses with Dr. Runge's deeply one-sided portrait of biofuels have already been mentioned above. I would like to point out one more that deserves special emphasis: energy prices. Corn prices followed, they did not lead, the recent rise in oil and natural gas prices. Since a major cost of corn production is the fertilizer (natural gas) to grow it and the oil (diesel fuel) required to plant, till and harvest the corn crop, this is not surprising. Since 1970, every time we have had a real, sustained increase in oil prices, we have also had a recession. We will not have sustained, long term prosperity until we decouple economic growth from oil dependence. Biofuels offer one of a very few ways to provide liquid fuels for sustainable growth, and corn ethanol is an important start down the biofuels path. Corn ethanol is not perfect, but it certainly is better both economically and environmentally than continuing our near total dependence on oil. I would be really grateful if Dr. Runge and other economists could pay a little more attention to the perils of our oil dependence, instead of focusing on "demon corn".

Posted by Bruce Dale on 14 Mar 2010

To Robert Howarth:

The executive summary of your first report is highly comprehensible and I think it depict the big picture in which biofuel production should be viewed.

Thank you for this great reading.

Posted by William J on 14 Mar 2010

At a time when the need for public understanding of environmental science and energy technology issues has never been greater, the debate over biofuels illustrates a serious problem. Because the issues are extraordinarily complex, participants often resort to misleading oversimplifications even when their concerns are quite legitimate.

C. Ford Runge’s article illustrates the point.

For instance, Prof. Runge argues that biofuels require massive federal subsidies. A more helpful approach would include a comparison of all subsidies received by energy industries. The Environmental Law Institute reported that ethanol received some $16.8 billion in subsidies over the 2002-2008 period, while the oil industry received $72 billion over the same period. Not surprisingly, the gap between federal subsidies for traditional energy industries (coal, oil and nuclear) and federal subsidies for renewable energy industries (biofuel, wind and solar) increases with historic perspective.

The point is also made that biofuels drive up food costs, contributing to famine in the developing world. Again, the concern is legitimate but the issues are extraordinarily complex. Ethanol's actual contribution to food costs, according to the Congressional Budget Office, was between 0.5 to 0.8 percent, compared to an overall food price increase of 5.1 percent in 2006-2007. Other factors, including the rising cost of petroleum, were far more significant. And the 2009 decline in corn prices, given the continued increase in biofuels production, argues against Runge's simplistic conclusion.

Nearly all U.S. corn production goes to livestock feed. Most of this corn is sent through grain mills that separate starch, oils, proteins and other components. If the starch is not used for high fructose corn syrup, it is often used for ethanol or other products. It has little if any impact on world food supplies.

Yet there are very serious concerns in the food or fuel debate. One is that competition from energy industries can displace cropland and farm infrastructure in developing nations.

Another serious concern involving the management of risks involves potential loss of biodiversity with the expansion of biofuels production into tropical rainforests. Again, the issues are complex. Most of the loss of tropical rain forests is associated with timber and livestock production for export.

The policy question is how to apply international standards (or certification) to the biofuels trade in order to penalize production that leads to higher carbon footprint or loss of biodiversity.

Critics also point out that the corn ethanol industry is currently dependent on a highly carbon-intensive agricultural system. Farmers are well aware of the problems, and changes are taking place in agriculture in ways that have very little to do with ethanol, which is, after all, only a very small component of that very large system. Overall, fertilizer and pesticide use is dramatically declining. Farmers are switching to cheaper, more biologically based, less fossil intensive methods.

Critics rightly note that the ethanol industry has had its own air and water pollution problems which are only beginning to be addressed. And the industry has been astonishingly deaf to criticism, and has not really explained the complexities of its issues to the public. As a result, many people have concluded that the case against biofuels has been proven. We couldn't disagree more.

There is great danger in simply killing off the emerging biofuels industry and leaving the future fuel problem entirely in the hands of the oil industry, which has never been particularly interested in putting environment or national security ahead of its own profits.

The Obama administration's move to stimulate non-food ethanol through cellulosic biofuels and research on third generation biofuels has risks, true, but the policy is meant to cap the amount of corn ethanol and move into far more environmentally benign forms of biofuels production. Whether that can happen remains to be seen, but at least the policy direction is a generally positive one.

At the very least, the biofuels debate should be seen as one of many complex science and technology issues that we oversimplify at our peril.

(Scott Sklar and Bill Kovarik are co-authors of "Forbidden Fuel: A History of Power Alcohol.")

Posted by Bill Kovarik and Scott Sklar on 15 Mar 2010

The solution is simple and elegant...Use. Less. Energy.

Posted by Kate on 16 Mar 2010

Dear For-Obama:

Wanting a home-grown energy source is nothing to do with patriotism, and everything to do with pragmatism. When the Gulf or Iran stops shipping oil in a crisis, do you want a petroleum or biofuels vehicle? I know which one I want.

Yes, Canada and Mexico are our closest oil importers, and both are fraught with long-term sustainability issues, Mexico's Canteral field is dropping yield at a fast rate, with little on the horizon for new production. Canada is tearing up the Alberta tundra, and pollution thousand of square miles of land and water to produce a barely profitable product, which is using natural gas to generate it. Why dont we use that natural gas to produce the fertilizier needed for corn or other bio-based fuels in north america, with a mch less enviromental cost, and a pay-as-you-go sustainability model.

Sorry, Bio-fuels are THE way to go in the near to medium term. You can't argue it any other way.

Oh, bio-fuels are theoretically carbon neutral, excluding the fertilizer component, which can constantly be improved over time.

Posted by Stefan Chex on 17 Mar 2010

In support of the analysis by Professor Runge:

Solar to chemical energy conversion efficiency (photosynthesis) of corn crop approx. 0.1%. Photovoltaics, non-concentrating, solar to electric efficiency approx. 20% (More than an order of magnitude). Solar thermal, hot water or electric output, higher. Wind power for transit etc., also beneficial (and crops grow under wind turbines).

Planning on using about half the corn crop for biofuels will create more problems for society than biofuel's corporate agribusiness advocates solves, except for lobbyists and profits from transfers of public funds. It seems to attempt to maintain the status quo of petrofuels.

Thanks for great information, professor.

Posted by James Newberry on 21 Mar 2010

We spend much more to prop up the already mature oil industry than we do on the young ethanol industry.

For some reason our world values production of transportation fuels more than food. Perhaps because we in the western world have never been truly hungry.

Consider that more of our food dollar goes to getting our food to us than actually goes to those who produce the food. Because of this our food prices have remained high while farmers are getting about half the price for corn today than they were in at the end of 2008. If the farmer is getting less for his crop, how come he and ethanol made from corn are still being blamed for the high price of food? Food prices rose as dairy and pork producers were receiving less each month for their production.

The so called surge in clearing of land for ethanol production has come at a time when farmers are holding a record number of acres out of production for wildlife and ecological use. When cities and roads continue to gobble up farm land faster than forests are cleared to supposedly make more crop land. The big winners if we stop producing ethanol from corn will not be the poor, but oil companies.

Posted by Michael on 25 Mar 2010

What the author and most commentators are ignoring is one of the most important and overlooked problems with Ethanol.

Ethanol is burned to create energy, while the CO2 emissions are substantially less than with petroleum burning, there are MORE total pollutants released into the atmosphere when Ethanol is burned, most importantly formaldehyde. The two largest cities in the world where Ethanol is widely used (Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paolo where Ethanol is one of the four major fuel types), have increasingly higher amounts of formaldehyde in the air.

The author also fails to mention that ethanol produces less energy per amount burned (in fact it produces approximately 1/3rd the amount of petroleum), so it ends up being far more expensive to use.

Ethanol is another one of those overhyped combustibles. The real solution is an alternative source of power where there does not need to be internal combustion; a process that inherently leads to emissions.

Posted by MC on 05 Apr 2010

Corn ethanol is not where the future of biofuel lies rather investments like Exxon's $600-million development of Algae Biofuels and other non-edible -- as well as enzyme biomass production from waste, switch grass and garbage lead the way ... additionally natural gas, geothermal and wind turbine power will also supplement the transition away from oil...while the solar industry sorts itself out through consolidations and improved manufacturing margins etc.

Posted by James Rickman on 05 Apr 2010

This article quite possibly has the largest number of blog responses I have ever seen for an article. That in itself is impressive.

As noted by several respondents, the author has not done his homework. Several of the data points are far from up to date.

I have never reviewed a report for US ethanol production that suggested a 400+ gallon/acre/year yield and I have never seen a report that suggested an ethanol equivalent of less than $200 barrel (most estimates suggest over $300 barrel).

I am a 6th generation US farmer and I understand the impact of my position, but we have to shutdown large scale production of ethanol - period. Immediately shutoff all government subsidies and it will die in a single year as has soy sourced biodiesel in 2010.

That said, our only viable transportation future is biofuels from 2nd generation feedstocks. We are executing on the plan to eliminate all OPEC petroleum purchases within 5 years.

I will try to contact the author and help him get up to speed on what is going on - we are working with Renewable Energy Super Funds, thousands of farmers, universities, USDA, NRC, DoE, ...


Posted by Steve Frazer on 20 Sep 2010

Food vs. Fuel:

Answer: Develop Algae Based Bio-Diesel Technologies that use little land resources and do not compete with food production. In addition Algae Based Bio-Diesel Technologies could be used to reclaim ponds, rivers, and lakes that have been adversely affected by farming because of exes phosphorous and fertilizer run off that has filled the pond, river, or lake with algae that has absorbed much of the oxygen and other nutrients in the water that has resulted in the death in the indigenous species that lived in the pond, lake, or river.

Answer: Further develop bacteria's and other microscopic organisms that will eat waist products that secrete Bio-Diesel or Bio-Fuels. This again will not compete with food production, and these technologies used to produce Bio-Diesel are fuels are available Now, they just need to be refined so mass quantities can be produced in addition Bio-Diesel can be used current fuel infrastructure.

If not Bio-Diesel and other alternatives that are out there like cellulosic Ethanol then what? Should we continue to use Petroleum Fuels that are increases in price all the time, and that pose a huge environmental impacts. There are not many other alternatives that are available for use know?

Hydrogen is a tantalizing option. However, there there are still many technical challenges to over come with Hydrogen as a fuel source. In addition, to the fact that there is no infrastructure to support the Hydrogen economy.

Posted by Travis on 09 Jul 2011

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c. ford rungeABOUT THE AUTHOR
C. Ford Runge is the McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, where he also holds appointments in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Department of Forest Resources. He is former director of the university’s Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy and has written for Foreign Affairs.



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