Fossil Fuels Better for Environment than Biofuels

If saving the environment is our goal, we’d be better off if “governments steer away from biofuel and focus on reforestation and maximizing the efficiency of fossil fuels instead.”

It sounds counterintuitive, but burning oil and planting forests to compensate is more environmentally friendly than burning biofuel. So say scientists who have calculated the difference in net emissions between using land to produce biofuel and the alternative: fuelling cars with gasoline and replanting forests on the land instead. They recommend governments steer away from biofuel and focus on reforestation and maximising the efficiency of fossil fuels instead.

The reason is that producing biofuel is not a “green process”. It requires tractors and fertilisers and land, all of which means burning fossil fuels to make “green” fuel. In the case of bioethanol produced from corn — an alternative to oil — “it’s essentially a zero-sums game,” says Ghislaine Kieffer, programme manager for Latin America at the International Energy Agency in Paris, France.

What is more, environmentalists have expressed concerns that the growing political backing that biofuel is enjoying will mean forests will be chopped down to make room for biofuel crops such as maize and sugarcane. “When you do this, you immediately release between 100 and 200 tonnes of carbon [per hectare],” says Renton Righelato of the World Land Trust, UK, a conservation agency that seeks to preserve rainforests.

Much more at the link. The story is based on a subscriber-only article in the current Science.

Andrew Samwick observes, “Putting energy reform in the hands of domestic agricultural producers seems like no better an idea than putting it in the hands of domestic petroleum producers.”

And this is in addition to the moral question of whether it’s a good idea to convert a cheap, efficient form of food (say, corn or soybeans) into an inefficient substitute for fossil fuels.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Andrew Samwick observes, “Putting energy reform in the hands of domestic agricultural producers seems like no better an idea than putting it in the hands of domestic petroleum producers.”

    Are those the alternatives? Or are we really talking about putting energy reform in the hands of NOC’s?

    Canada and Mexico aren’t so bad but look at the rest of the major players: KSA, Russia, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela.

    I agree that subsidizing corn production for use in ethanol. The arguments against cellulosic ethanol production don’t seem as strong.

  2. Bithead says:

    After 30 years of work against domestic petroleum refiners, by the enviro-wacko left, we now find ourselves in the situation where we have Insufficient drilling capacities at home, and insufficient refining capacities at home, to meet the demand. Of course, the hope (thought they would never admit it) was that tightening the supply of oil would increase the supply of other forms of energy, such as biofuels. This was supposed to be our energy panacea.

    But, like every other wet dream these people have come up with, it’s turned into a nightmare. It has become clear that we are not going to be able to do that. As a result, we now have an energy starved nation, paying $3.00 a gallon and better for the ability to drive back and forth to work… and all the economic repercussions that invokes.

    The common complaint, and one that I am sympathetic to, is that our environmentalist friends are about damaging the economy of the united states, and with it, our standing in the world. It’s pretty hard argue against that statement, with results like what we have in front of us.

    For 30 years and longer we have, at the behest of the “environmentalist” left, avoided the real solution: increased domestic drilling and increased domestic refining capacity.

    It’s about time we turn that situation around.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    The reason is that producing biofuel is not a “green process”. It requires tractors and fertilisers and land, all of which means burning fossil fuels to make “green” fuel.

    Now, this is pretty strange reasoning. Presumably this would be true in the beginning, but in the long run those tractors would run on biofuels, wound’t they?

  4. M1EK says:

    Alex,

    The EROEI on biofuels is mostly negative – a few promise positive, but low, EROEI. For a negative EROEI, it’s much better to just cut out the middleman and use petroleum. Even for EROEI sufficiently low, it’s dumb to waste time on biofuels which could displace food crops; and frankly, anybody who thinks biofuels can provide more than a fraction of our energy needs is a lunatic – fossil fuels are the equivalent of thousands of years of stored solar energy, and we think we’re going to get enough energy out of exactly ONE year via ethanol or switchgrass? Even old inefficient photovoltaics are a better investment of both energy and money; and wind is nearly competitive with coal these days – stop wasting time on farm subsidy crap and just get going with the stuff that actually works.

    Bithead, you’re a real piece of work.