Published on Tuesday, July 4, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
The Biofuel Illusion
by Julia Olmstead
Thereís been a lot of talk lately about the promise of biofuels -- liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel made from plants -- to reduce our dependence on oil. Even President Bush beat the biofuel drum in his last State of the Union speech.
Fuel from plants? Sounds pretty good. But before you rush out to buy an E-85 pickup, consider:
-- The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy than all the energy produced in a year by the countryís plant life, including forests and that used for food and fiber, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy and David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher.
Rather than chase phantom substitutes for fossil fuels, we should focus on what can immediately both slow our contribution to global climate change and reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels: cutting energy use.
Letís be bold. Letís raise the tax on gasoline to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks. We can use the proceeds to fund research and subsidies for truly sustainable energy.
Letís raise energy efficiency standards for vehicles, appliances, industries and new buildings.
Letís employ new land-use rules and tax incentives to discourage suburban sprawl and encourage dense, mixed-use development that puts workplaces, retail stores and homes within walking distance of each other. Letís better fund mass transit.
Letís switch the billions we now spend on ethanol subsidies to development of truly sustainable energy technologies.
And why not spend money to make on-the-shelf technology like hybrid cars more affordable? Fuel-efficient hybrids arenít the final solution, but they can be a bridge to more sustainable solutions.
The focus on biofuels as a silver bullet to solve our energy and climate change crises is at best misguided. At worst, it is a scheme that could have potentially disastrous environmental consequences. It will have little effect on our fossil fuel dependence.
We must reduce energy use now if we hope to kick our oil addiction and slow climate change. Pushing biofuels at the expense of energy conservation today will only make our problems more severe, and their solutions more painful, tomorrow.
Julia Olmstead is a graduate student in plant breeding and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University and a graduate fellow with the Land Institute, Salina, Kan. She wrote this for the instituteís Prairie Writers Circle.