US Continues Down Perilous Biofuels Path

US car manufacturers plough a lonely furrow on biofuels

When the motor manufacturers are in dispute with the US Environmental Protection Agency, you wouldn't win much for guessing which side I'm likely to be on. But this time you'd be wrong.

EPA has to decide whether or not to allow more ethanol to be blended
with gasoline. At the moment the limit for ordinary motor gas (petrol)
is 10%. The agency is inclined to raise this to 15%. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is trying to prevent or postpone it.
I'm with the car makers, though not for the reasons they cite;
ethanol's effect on a vehicle's performance is not what keeps me awake
at night. Since 2004 I've been banging on about the impact of biofuels on the environment and global food supplies, and I've been horribly vindicated. In 2008 the expansion of biofuel production was directly responsible for the decline in global food stocks, which caused grain prices to rise, catalysing famines in many parts of the world. Cereal stockpiles declined by 53m tonnes;
the production of biofuels, mostly by the US, consumed almost 100m
tonnes, according to a piece in the Economist on 6th December 2007. As the UN's special rapporteur, Jean Ziegler says, turning food for people into food for cars is, "a crime against humanity".

also a crime against the environment. In almost all cases, biofuels
made from grain or oil crops create more greenhouse emissions than
petroleum. This is partly because they lead to an expansion in total
crop production, which means that forests must be cut down, unploughed
pastures must be tilled and wetlands must be drained to accommodate it.
The carbon stored in both the vegetation and the soil is released and
oxidised. Two papers in Science (here and here) show that when land clearance is taken into account, biofuels made from grain or oil crops cause a big increase in emissions.

also because grain crops require nitrogen fertilizers, which produce
emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas roughly 300 times as
powerful as carbon dioxide. All told - apart from used chip fat (which
can supply only a tiny fraction of motor fuel demand) - we're better
off using petroleum.

But while other countries are starting to
re-assess their biofuel programmes, the US is still ploughing ahead.
Fuel suppliers are legally bound to blend 9bn gallons of biofuels into
gasoline every year. This will rise to 36bn gallons a year in 2022. The
Waxman-Markey Bill, passed recently by the House of Representatives,
leans heavily on biofuels to meet US greenhouse gas targets. This is
only because their total greenhouse impact has been deliberately
ignored by legislators.

The US is committed to ethanol not
because of concerns about the environment but because of the power of
the agricultural lobby. Big Farmer grows all the policies it wants in
Washington, as cornbelt representatives rely on grain barons and crop
chemical manufacturers for political donations. Ethanol is the best
thing that has happened to US agro-industry in decades: it greatly
raises demand for grain while disproportionately rewarding the biggest
growers (there are no niche markets here). So stand back and watch the
battle of the lobbyists: Big Motor versus Big Farmer.

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