Biofuel and Global Warming

The Christian Science Monitor has a good article on the effects of global warming in six different countries, including Indonesia. One aspect of global warming in that country is the aggressive nature of deforestation in order to grow palm trees for palm oil for biofuel.

I am not in favor of biofuels. They do not address the problems, which is to make more efficient machinery, depend more on solar energy, and frankly, do with less. Instead, people can now have their SUVs and drive them, too, by planting corn in their tanks.

We had an issue with biofuels in this state in that one company wanted to build a corn biofuel plant using water tapped from one of Missouri’s precious non-replenishing aquifers. When asked what he would do if the plant sucked the aquifer dry, the owner just stated he would have to deal with the situation. Of course, he neglects to mention about how everyone who lives around the plant would also have to deal with the situation.

What about turning corn into biofuel? Most of the surplus corn grown in the US is sent to countries where the people are suffering drought and famine. When the corn is diverted to fuel, starvation results.

I now read that a Canadian company is building a biofuel plant here in Missouri to make fuel from wood scraps. This sounds commendable: use scrap wood to create cleaner biofuels. However, what is never mentioned in these stories is that all biofuel production requires a great deal of water, and can have serious consequences on the land surrounding such plants.

Missouri is attractive to biofuel producers like Oregon and Washington are attractive to companies wanting to install computer server plants: we have a seemingly abundant supply of the natural resource they need. In the northwest, it’s electricity; here in Missouri, it’s water. However, as we’ve seen in Georgia, there is no guarantee that the water we have in the ground today, will be there tomorrow.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with the use of biofuels. Their use postpones the decisions we will inevitably have to make as to lifestyle; they gloss over the real issues facing the world; and they let the greedy continue their wasteful ways of life. More than that, we don’t need more industry profiting from our natural resources.

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15 Responses to Biofuel and Global Warming

  1. John says:

    No, there is no free lunch. Unless something is done to make the whole process more efficient end-to-end, you don’t actually get anywhere useful particularly. I believe biofuels may be an important piece, but the way the industry is developing, we are just squeezing one end of the balloon, and there are tangible benefits at the squeezed end, but other end is just expanding to compensate.

  2. fp says:

    Energy solutions that rely on combustion and output CO and CO2 are not solutions.

    We have to stop burning things and figure out how to get the CO2 out of the air.

  3. Bud Gibson says:

    I think there’s a natural limit to biofuels anyway. We grow bio to eat, so the amount we can burn for fuel is limited by how much we have to eat. Even if we did not eat any of the potential fuel material, it’s not that efficient a fuel source.

  4. Elaine says:

    Bud, I have this vague recollection of reading somewhere that the amount of corn needed to create enough biofuel to replace oil in the US would require planting something like EVERY acre of arable land with corn. (I may, of course, be talking out of my hat. I do remember being boggled by the statistic, whatever it was.)

  5. fp says:

    There are “cellulosic” alternatives being touted (from wood chips to switch grass) that wouldn’t take any grain out of food production, but again I have to emphasize that any alternative that relies on combustion may be a stopgap as far as oil shortages are concerned, but it is not a solution because it contributes to the degradation of the atmosphere and to global warming.

  6. Bud Gibson says:

    I did research on theoretical world capacity for biofuel production. Using the publicly available info. put together by this article:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/11/7/2174/63619

    It appears that theoretical biofuel production capacity is about 4 days of current petro consumption.

    So, a few things to conclude:

    1. A total switch to biofuel is not possible under current conditions.

    2. Such a total switch in the future would imply that we had figured out some way to dramatically decrease our consumption.

    Therefore advocating a switch to biofuel implies advocating more conservation.

  7. dave rogers says:

    To Frank, I believe most biofuels are regarded as being “carbon neutral” as the CO2 released in combustion is theoretically sequestered back again as new biological precursors are grown; and the CO2 (or, worse, methane) would have been released anyway, as the mass decomposed. Coal and petroleum release carbon that has been effectively sequestered for millions of years, and cannot be effectively re-sequestered. Bio-fuels are part of the answer, as we feel our way through this. More fundamental questions regarding how we choose to live need to be answered as well.

  8. fp says:

    Dave, the dynamics of the cycle of carbon sequestration are much like you describe them to be; but, the assessment of “carbon neutrality” is predicated on several erroneous assumptions. The biggest flaw in the assumption of carbon neutrality for biofuels comes from ignorance of the fuel and chemical inputs that will be mandated by corporate production. If we assume organic production techniques and manual labor, then something close to carbon neutrality can theoretically be achieved. To the extent that chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and mechanical cultivation are inputs to the process, they negatively affect the bottom line of “carbon neutrality.”

    Refinery processes are another critical component.

    Your point is well made that the current carbon cycle is more easily managed than the pell mell conversion of archaeological stores of biomass to greenhouse gases that we have suffered for over a century. But carbon sequestration is a natural process that is interrupted by combustion, whether current cycle carbon or archaeological stores are inputs to the equation. Leaves on the forest floor, the rich soil of the prairie, the muck in the marshes and the peat in the bogs all represent current accumulations. Subtraction from that accumulation, whether by cellulosic conversion of switch grass to alcohol and burning the alcohol or burning a pile of leaves involves an addition to the CO2 and CO burden we face. The field of switch grass will not automagically suck up the CO2 and breathe out rich oxygen in equal amounts for us.

    “Carbon neutral” arguments all seem to fall before mathematical analysis. Combustion remains a problem.

    Here is a link detailing carbon costs of oil palm plantations… http://alwayson.goingon.com/permalink/post/9705

    Here is a link to a story about one biodiesel plant that will be ALMOST carbon neutral on the fuel refinery end. In other words it will be cleaner than the typical petroleum refinery, but not carbon neutral, and this cleanliness is claimed only for the refinery, not for production of inputs or transportation of inputs to the refinery, or end-user carbon burden when the product is consumed…
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/08/worlds_first_ca.php

  9. Ethan says:

    Without getting into all of the blah blah and woof woof (technical terms, sorry) about alternative fuels, I’ll say simply that I cast a wary eye in the direction of claims regarding “carbon neutrality” in the same way one might over claims of “trash neutrality”. Where being “trash neutral” means that for every square mile of trash, there must be one square mile of natural, unspoiled land to compensate (yeah right). The point being that while we might feel good about the natural, unspoiled land, there’s still the issue of the square miles of trash. Thus, we can feel good about planting two trees per person to allegedly balance our personal carbon emissions, but there’s still the issue of pollutants wherever they might be found. Dig?

    This doesn’t mean “do nothing”, but I’m a bit tired of the would-be easy answer that doesn’t remotely take into account the holistic nature of the problem. However, I’m on board with Dave’s suggestion that we not only conserve, but reconsider outright the things that we believe to be essential to our daily lives.

  10. James says:

    In Australia the term is climate change, not global warming, and water usage is a big issue here. E.g. power stations using water, vs. desalinisation plants that use lots of electricity. Biofuels are pork barrels both here (Queensland sugar growers) and in the US (Iowa corn primary voter^W^Wgrowers). Fatih Birol Presents the IEA World Energy Outlook 2007 is an interesting look at the overall energy market, and notes that oil demand is inelastic because it’s increasingly used for transportation where there are no significant alternatives.

  11. fp says:

    I still think finding energy alternatives to combustion is the ticket. But maybe that’s a little too blah blah and woof woof.

  12. Ethan says:

    Frank, that may be well and good (for reals), but until I take the time to look into this, I’m a mite skeptical that the solution is simply a matter of replacing combustion with something else.

    Actually, off the cuff, replacing combustion with say, walking sounds good to me. But that doesn’t necessarily do away with combustion in and of itself. That’s where we get into the blah blah and woof woof that I’d rather not cram into a comments box.

  13. Robert says:

    By far the funniest piece I’ve read on biofuels is Can whales solve the oil crisis?.

    According to industry website SaveTheWhales.org, a sperm whale could produce 2000 gallons, or 47.6 barrels, of oil. Thus a touch of long division tells us that we will need to slaughter approximately 630 million sperm whales each year in order to completely replace our petroleum production. Since there are only an estimated one million sperm whales currently living on Earth, wiping out the entire species would power the global economy for about half a day.

  14. James says:

    “I am not in favor of biofuels. They do not address the problems, which is to make more efficient machinery, depend more on solar energy, and frankly, do with less. Instead, people can now have their SUVs and drive them, too, by planting corn in their tanks.”

    Agreed 100%.

    I think replacing petroluem fuels with biofuel is a very bad idea. I remember seeing a page on wikipedia that outlined a variety of potential biofuel sources, and corn ranked among the very worst in terms of energy ROI and land required. I’m not sure why exactly corn is being pushed as it is, but algae or hemp would be a much better choice for use as a fuel crop. Using the last remaining decent farmland and topsoil to grow fuel is a very bad idea as the ripple effect on food prices will be insane. Not to mention that swapping petro fuels for biofuel via fertilizers seems rather pointless. We haven’t got topsoil to spare, so I hope farmers will think long and hard before converting their farms to biofuel production plants.

    I’m just glad they’ve finally stopped pushing hydrogen fuel cells as the alternative of the future.