in Ecological Perspective
Third Edition, March 2008
Biodiesel and ethanol are quickly growing in popularity as “green” fuels. For the proponents of biodiesel and ethanol, they hold out the promise of an age of clean and renewable fuel. But the truth is, if present trends continue, biofuels are going to cause a dramatic escalation of human misery and environmental destruction. Here's why.
A Brief History of Biofuel
The myths of progress are deeply rooted. We tend to think of technology as a progressive force that brings us more comfort and security. The reality of industrial development is that it takes place in response to depletion. We have always used the most accessible fuels first, and then moved on to less accessible fuels. In the earliest days of human life on earth, biofuel was the only energy source used other than human muscle power. Earlier civilizations discovered fossil fuels, but stuck with the use of firewood because it was more accessible and cleaner burning than coal or oil. In Roman times, oil was discovered, and a steam turbine was invented, but there was no need for such items in the economy of the time.1
As Europe was beginning to industrialize, firewood, wind and water power were relied on as the sole sources of energy. Steam-powered machines were invented and reinvented, but never actually used. They were not needed because biofuels, wind and water power were more easily accessible. The limit of the biofuel economy in Europe was reached in the mid 1600s. By then, deforestation was widespread, and all of the easily accessible wind and water power sites were being used. That is when the use of coal began in earnest.2
At first people dug shallow coal, or picked up coal along the beach. As this coal was exhausted, they started digging deeper and deeper mines. As the mines grew deeper and began to flood with water, more sophisticated water pumps were developed to pump out the mines. At first horses (another source of bio-power) were used to power the pumps, but in time the mines grew so deep that that rag-and-chain horse-driven pumps became inadequate. There, more than a thousand years after the first known invention of the steam turbine, steam power finally found its practical application, running water pumps to pump out the mines.
Thus, history shows that industrial development first makes use of the most accessible resources until they are depleted and then turns to less accessible resources. Digging deep coal is a lot more expensive than cutting firewood. Would it make any sense to mine deep, low grade ore before mining shallow, high grade ore? Does it make any sense to mine at all if you can find what you need at the surface? Industrialism exceeded the depletion limits of biofuels a long time ago.
One might think that the United States, having conquered a continent, would not have been subject to the same resource constraints as Europe. But the same patterns of resource use and conversion still took place. After the Revolutionary War, the burgeoning industry of the U.S. relied heavily on biofuels. The eastern U.S. was extensively deforested in this period. As settlers moved west, other states suffered similarly. By the mid 1800s coal had become the dominant fuel because the biofuel economy had become overextended and firewood was too expensive.3 Most of the old growth forests of America were not turned into lumber. They were burned to power the early biofuel economy. We have extensive second growth forests now because we have not been relying on them heavily for fuel.
Using liquid biofuel to power cars and trucks is not a new idea either. The first diesel engine was powered by vegetable oil.4 In the World War II era, more than a million cars in Europe were running on “wood gas,” a fuel that can be made from any kind of cellulose. Wood gas converters were so widely used that the auto-makers of the time installed brackets for mounting them on the frames of cars.5 People were running their cars on corn cobs, wood chips, and other woody debris.
In the 1980s, Brazil converted 70 percent of their transportation fleet to ethanol made from sugar cane.6 As a result of the increased demand for sugar cane, big cane producers pushed out smaller farmers, and many acres previously dedicated to growing beans to feed people were converted to sugar cane production to feed the cars of the rich. Given the superior market power of car drivers, sugar cane took precedence, and the price of beans and other staples went up. According to some, there was greater hunger among the poor while the rich fed their cars well.7 Others have suggested that the increase in Brazilian ethanol was not related to the increase in food prices in the 1980s. However, the 21st century biofuel craze is unquestionably linked to rapidly escalating costs of grain and food.
The history of biofuel should be cause for great caution. When populations were much smaller, and energy use per capita was much lower, widespread deforestation and ecological degradation resulted from the industrial use of biofuel. Every living thing in the forest and the fields can be made into some kind of biofuel. Given the mental disconnection between drivers on the beltway and the source of their fuel, our past should teach us to be very cautious about putting our food and our forests into the gas tank.
But What About Used Frier Oil and Cellulosic Agricultural Wastes?
One great charm of biodiesel is the fact that it is made from discarded cooking oil. But is that oil really waste? Why is it sitting there behind that restaurant anyway? That barrel of oil is there because it was put there by a oil reclamation company. Used vegetable oil is reprocessed into a wide variety of products. Being a long-chain hydrocarbon, vegetable oil, like its fossil cousin, is a highly flexible commodity with many uses.
In my hometown, the barrels behind fast food restaurants have “Valley Proteins” written on them. That turns out to be one of the four largest rendering and used cooking oil collectors in the country, currently serving 17 states. They reprocess dead animals and inedible animal remains from slaughterhouses, as well as used cooking oil. From a report from American Capital (who recently invested $10 million in Valley Proteins) we learn that “Valley Proteins turns the raw materials it collects into commodity goods which are sold to over 170 customers that include producers of livestock feed..., pet food and refiners of fatty chemicals. The company's finished products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities. The primary finished goods include fat and protein products, which are used in hundreds of commercial applications. Fat products are sold predominately to commercial animal feed manufacturers and to manufacturers of pet foods, fatty acids, chemicals and lubricants. The products are also used as an ingredient in bio-diesel (a blend of petroleum fuel and methyl esters derived from animal fats or vegetable oils), a cleaner burning substitute for diesel fuel. The company in fact has modified its own boiler equipment to use the lower priced fats it produces in its rendering plants and thereby minimize boiler fuel expense.”8 About 80% of the reprocessed fats from rendering companies are used in livestock feed. The rest is used by “splitters,” companies that process oils into fatty acids and glycerine, as well as other companies that produce industrial lubricants, as well as cosmetics and soap.9
The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities.” Used cooking oil is not a waste or discarded product. It is reprocessed and put on the market to vie with substitute commodities. Any of the many companies using products from Valley Proteins is likely to simply purchase the cheapest adequate product regardless of its source. If the companies and consumers should run short of products that were originally made with used vegetable oil, they simply turn to products made from virgin oil.
If biodiesel consumption remained within the supply of used vegetable oil, that would all be fine. But the consumption of fossil diesel radically exceeds the supply of used oil. If Americans are convinced that biodiesel is a “green” fuel, and we drive up the consumption of vegetable oil, we simply shift the weight of demand onto the virgin vegetable oil market. Americans use nearly a billion gallons of petroleum a day.10 The entire output of all of the rendering/ used cooking oil collection companies in the U.S. is about a billion and a half gallons per year.11 If all of the used oil presently used for all other purposes were diverted into the fossil fuel market, it would last us a day and half. If you look solely at the consumption of diesel, the entire output of used vegetable oil in the US represents about 3% of how much diesel we use.12 And that leaves the question of where industry would turn to for all that cattle feed.
What About Local, Renewable Biofuel?
Are biofuels renewable? Any resource is renewable only if it is extracted no more quickly than it is replenished. Overcutting a forest or overfishing a fishery renders a renewable resource non-renewable. Given that biofuel potentially involves taking human food and feeding it to automobiles, the renewability issue is paramount.
If we are going to feed human food to cars, we need to know how much surplus food production capacity we have. We get our food from a number of sources. Do you know when the world fish catch peaked? In the early 1980s.13 What about grain production? Per capita production leveled off in the 1980s and has been struggling to grow ever since.14 Irrigated farmland produces the lion's share of human food. How is the supply of irrigated land holding up? Because of salinization, erosion, and other management issues, the global supply of irrigated farm land per capita has shrunk precipitously in the last several decades.15 The final humbling fact is that, even though the U.S. has the most productive agricultural system in the world, we are now a nation that teeters on the brink of agricultural debtorship. The U.S. is the largest importer of food in the world, importing nearly as much food as we export.16 (We import luxury foods – meat, fresh fruits and vegetables in winter. We export grain.) The staggering fact is that all of the aforementioned limits were being reached before the advent of the current biofuel craze which is driving the demand for grain upward.
If the amount of irrigated farmland per person has actually shrunk, how is it that we continue to feed growing populations? The phrase “the oilification of food” was first coined a few decades ago, but it is more relevant than ever. The amount of energy we invest in each calorie of food produced has climbed steadily, and continues to climb. We have been replacing soil with oil. We now invest about ten calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food we eat.17 The global agricultural system is a finite resource that is already heavily utilized. There is not an enormous amount of spare capacity simply waiting to be tapped for fuel.
Any great expansion of biofuel production onto wild lands will come at the expense of what is left of wild nature. That cost is not a far-off, theoretical matter. It is here and now. The new frontier of biodiesel can be found in the palm oil plantations of Malaysia. Thousands of acres of tropical forest land and all of the rare species that inhabit them are now being sacrificed to grow palm oil to feed the cars of the U.S. and Europe. The wild orangutan will likely soon be extinct because of biodiesel.18
One might do well to keep in mind that while tropical rainforests are very rich environments hosting a diverse numbers of rare species, many other environments fit that description as well. The American grasslands were once numbered among the most diverse and rich environments in the world. While we have grown accustomed to corn growing where multitudinous birds and buffalo once roamed, any natural environment that is sacrificed for a biofuel monocrop production will result in species extinctions. Already, a large amount of land has been converted by farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere to grow corn and other crops to take advantage of recent price increases. This is often marginal, easily erodable land. It is also often “edge” habitat, grassland and mixed forest surrounding farms that is the preferred habitat for many wild animals. The large-scale conversion of wild land to biofuel production is already creating extinctions, and the future expansion of biofuel will cause many more.
“It Doesn't Flow”
Oil flows out of the ground in a mighty stream of energy that we have become accustomed to using. While it may be possible to extract cellulosic ethanol or other biofuel from nature, it will not flow like oil. There are grossly conflicting claims regarding how much fossil fuel is required to produce a gallon of biodiesel or ethanol. Ethanol critics claim that ethanol represents a net energy loss from farm to gas tank, and that ethanol/ gas blends are simply a complicated farm subsidy.19 Most studies suggest at best a poor return of five gallons of ethanol from four gallons of fuel equivalent. Oil, by comparison, returns twenty to one hundred barrels equivalent for each barrel invested in extraction.
If biofuels are ecologically expensive, then won't the market correct the problem by keeping biofuels expensive? Maybe, but biofuels convince people that it is acceptable to keep driving to work and living in single family homes if they simply use different fuels. That is the purpose of the biofuel movement. The political support for biofuel is enormous. In the fall of 2004, the U.S. Congress passed a tax relief bill to promote the use of biodiesel.20 The European Union is pursuing a similar strategy. National celebrities are promoting its use in the corporate media.21 President Bush promotes biofuels.
Americans have a buying power in the global marketplace that grossly outstrips the vast majority of humanity. The slightest whim of purchasing fashion in our economy can send waves through the lives of thousands of people very far away. Already, American pets have more buying power than many third-world people. As the fish of the world's oceans have been increasingly swept up in the nets of globe-roaming trawlers, the fish content of American pet food has increased while the fish consumption of poorer peoples all over the world has declined.22 All over Latin America in the 1980s, beef production increased, and domestic consumption decreased as more and more beef was shipped to the McNorth.23 Now global meat consumption is climbing, creating even further pressure on the price and supply of grain. If Americans are willing to eat themselves into obesity, consuming grossly unhealthy amounts of animal foods, why would we imagine that they will be any more restrained when it comes to starving people around the world to feed their cars?
Any widespread purchasing decision in the West can have enormous impacts around the world. In my home state of Virginia, the Soybean Association was, until recently, offering a rebate of up to $500 for first-time volume purchases of biodiesel.24 The only motivation for such action is to bolster the price of virgin oil. This isn't about used fryer oil any longer.
Biofuels are a powerful movement that is rapidly gaining force. Regardless of intent, if the biofuel movement succeeds in convincing millions of Americans that biofuel is an ecological solution, they will create a market, and that market will feed our addiction to energy. The feedstock for that market is the global supply of grain and vegetable oil. The vegetable oil market already shifts spontaneously between reprocessed used oil and virgin stock. Increased consumption of biodiesel beyond the supply of used oil will simply put more demand on virgin stock. Increased demand for grain has put cars with their savage buying power into market competition with the hundreds of millions of humans already trying to live on a dollar a day. The latter are losing that tug of war. The global poor, for whom vegetable oil is already a luxury, will do without. Deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins will escalate.25 People living on meager diets will become even more strained to find food they can afford. It is no exaggeration to say that biofuels will result in the deaths of many thousands of people around the world in the near term. The long term could be even more catastrophic.
Biofuels Exacerbate Climate Change
Some proponents of a biofueled industrial economy have suggested that biofuels can slow climate change. This is not true. Two recent studies in the journal Science indicate that most biofuels do not help the climate change problem, but rather make it much worse.26 “The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, the lead author of the other study and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. "So for the next 93 years, you're making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions."27
The IPCC and other scientists have warned that we do not have decades or centuries to bring down our global emissions. While the public is catching up with the idea that climate change is occurring, the scientific community has come to realize that climate does not change in a slow, incremental fashion. Studying the history of climate change on Earth, scientists have learned that climate exists in a steady state as the pressure of change builds. Then very quickly, in a matter years or even months, the entire global climatic system can enter a chaotic state as it moves toward a different equilibrium. How close are we to a tipping point of severe climactic instability? No one knows.
The aforementioned articles in Science focus on the severe problem of land-use conversion. Modern agriculture also adds significantly to climate change by adding methane and nitrogen oxides to the atmosphere. Although these gases occur in lower concentrations in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, methane is 100 times as potent as CO2 and nitrogen oxides are 200-300 times as powerful in trapping heat in the atmosphere.28 Feeding the industrial consumer economy with biofuels will accelerate global warming, not slow it down.
Solving the Wrong Problem
In a broader environmental context, if we do not substantially alter any other aspects of our economy, any large new energy source would do more harm than good in the long run. How could that be?
Several decades ago, some folks who called themselves the Club of Rome published a book entitled The Limits to Growth.”29 The work was profound, and was vociferously attacked. A discussion of how their work was suppressed can be found in their most recent book, The Limits to Growth, The Thirty Year Update, as well as on the internet.30 They created a computer model that attempted, to the extent possible, to quantify the basic parameters of the modern industrial economy. Their model included resource availability, the capacity of renewable resources to regenerate, and the ability of the land and sea to absorb pollution. The overall shape of the model was shocking to many, though it should not have been. If you put yeast in a petri dish, and provide a food medium, the population of the yeast will grow geometrically, then collapse as food is exhausted and pollution builds up. The Club of Rome model for the planet Earth showed that, if human populations and resource consumption continue to grow geometrically, then ultimately we will overstretch and collapse.
The more subtle and interesting parts of the model came into play when they started to adjust the variables. What if the modelers had grossly underestimated the availability of energy? They tried doubling the total resources in the model. The growth curve was extended only by a couple of decades, and then the system again collapsed. Let us be clear here; collapse in this case means a dramatic decline in both human population and living standards. That is a gruesome prospect.
How could it be that a doubling of all resources still leads to collapse only a couple of decades later? Because our world, and our global economy, is a complex system. There are many limits. Adding energy to industrial production does not increase the ability of the land and water to absorb pollution. Adding energy cannot infinitely expand our food supply. There are many limits, and removing any single limit (such as energy) means that the growth of the system is ultimately brought to a halt by other limits.
The SUV craze of recent years, coming as it did after the energy shortages of the 1970s, should make it obvious that simply adding new energy supplies to our current social system will only exacerbate our problems. If we have new energy sources, with no other substantive changes in our social and political order, we will simply use those energy sources to fuel automobiles, bulldozers, housing construction, and the manufacture of consumables. The biofuel Hummer is now a reality, and is being promoted by governor Schwarzenegger in California as an environmental solution.31 The “alternative” energy sources have been around for centuries. We currently have a plentiful energy supply. We are making poor choices. Simply adding new energy supplies, without addressing the root of that poor decision making, will only expand the scale and impact of those poor choices.
If our purpose is to protect the living Earth, to provide for the viability of plants, animals, and humans into the future, then we have to recognize that the current biofuels movement is going to accelerate the destruction. Industrialism as it is presently practiced has a voracious appetite for resources. If we supply our industrial and transportation systems with biofuel, that biofuel has to come from somewhere. It will come from already overstressed biological systems. Feeding the industrial machine with any new fuel will only increase the ability of people and machines to move into natural areas, to consume forest, fields, and oceans, and to steal resources from the next generation.
We are most often very pleased to entertain any answers except the right ones. If you look at the brightest examples of eco-homes, there is always a detailed explanation of the immediate energy costs, but never is there an analysis of the life-cycle costs of such energy efficient homes. The reason is that if you look at the embedded energy costs of an American model energy-efficient home and extrapolate that across the lifetime of its inhabitants, the final analysis does not approach anything any reasonable person could call sustainable because the house is large and used by only one or two people.
Supply Side Versus Demand Side
All of this raises the question; if not biofuel, then what? We have to have some source of energy, for transportation and otherwise. The choice we face is whether to address the problem from the demand side or the supply side.
If we take any modern energy system and try to address it from the supply side, we will invariably fail. Already, there is a movement to use biofuel to generate the nation's electricity. What does that mean? That means massive tree chipping operations have started descending on our national forest, converting lush green forests into moonscape and chips.32 The chips are then burned instead of coal to generate steam that turns the electric turbines, thus keeping the lights, air conditioners and tumble driers of America in operation. Be careful what you wish for! If we try to meet America's energy demands from the supply side, you are simply going to throw unsustainable weight onto already overstressed biological systems.
If we try to get your energy from any "alternative" source, the same supply-side principle applies. If we tried to supply the average American household with solar electric (photovoltaic) panels, it would cost tens of thousands of dollars.33 Not only is that financially unfeasible, that money also represents a huge environmental price in the energy embedded in the manufacture of those solar panels. The life-cycle payback (ratio of the cost of the system to the energy generated for the life of the system) of such an approach is very high, well beyond any reasonable margin of “sustainability.” The only feasible way to supply a household with alternative energy is to first dramatically reduce the energy consumption of that household.
Neither can we deal with transportation fuel by attacking the problem from the supply side. The environmental costs of automobiles are huge regardless of how they are fueled. Few people realize that the manufacture an automobile releases far more toxic pollution than all the fuel the car will burn in its lifetime.34 As soon as you buy a car, you have already generated thousands of pounds of toxic pollution before you turn the key. Hybrid cars to do not solve this problem because hybrids require a lot more energy to produce than other vehicles. Some estimates suggest that the full life-cycle energy cost of a hybrid car are higher than an SUV.35
Why are we trying to solve our ecological problems with all the wrong answers? Because the right answers challenge our lifestyle. It is absolutely impossible to support the American lifestyle in a sustainable fashion with any energy source. The most destructive aspect of the biofuels movement is that it creates and perpetuates the myth that our lifestyle can continue if only we find the right fuel – biodiesel, hydrogen, etc.
Single-family housing and individual automobiles are simply unsustainable, regardless of our energy source. So what then are the solutions? Live close enough to work so you don't have to drive. Live cooperatively. Refuse to own a car. For many people, that may sound absurd, but that is precisely why the entire discussion about biofuels is misguided – because the real solutions are socially and culturally problematic.
The real solutions have been around for a long time. Even very simple technologies like solar water heating are very hard to pay for in single-family housing because the capital cost is high relative the very low intensity of use in a single family home. With cooperative living, not only is the consumption of many resources divided by the number of people sharing that resource, but the higher capital costs of alternative energy systems becomes a lot more reasonable because they are being used more intensively. If you are looking at housing and energy options, insulate and seal up, then worry about supply.
Most importantly, build a culture around you, in cooperation with the people around you, that supports a lifestyle that is not based on single-family housing and individual automobiles.36 This is the key point, because humans are very social animals, and need the support of our fellow humans. We become our social environment over time. True sustainability comes from consciously creating a social environment that supports a sustainable lifestyle. Convince other people to join you in this great task. And after we have gotten the movement well underway to collectively choose how we live, then we can choose the most benign sources of energy to support us. That is a real answer. Turning the beast of industrialism with its voracious appetite away from fossil fuel and into our forests and fields is not an answer.
Alexis Zeigler is the author of a recently released book, Culture Change: Civil Liberty, Peak Oil, and the End of Empire. The book and other articles by the author are available at conev.org The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Africa, Thomas W., Science and the State in Greece and Rome, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1968
2 Wilkinson, Richard G., Poverty and Progress, An Ecological Model of Economic Development, Methuen and Co. Ltd. London, 1973
3 Wilkinson, ibid
4 Nitske, W. Robert, Wilson, Charles Morrow, Rudolf Diesel, Pioneer of the Age of Power, University of Oklahoma Press. 1965
6 The Brazilian Experiment at http://www.answers.com/topic/alcohol-fuel
7 The Brazilian Experiment at http://www.answers.com/topic/alcohol-fuel
9 Personal Commuication with Valley Proteins, See also Render Magazine
10 http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/usa.html http://www.nationmaster.com/country/us/Energy
11 Personal Commuication with Valley Proteins, See also Render Magazine
13 Brown, Lester, State of the World 1993, Norton, NY, 1993, p.12
14 Brown, ibid., p.13
15 Gardner, Gary, Shrinking Fields, Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion, WorldWatch Paper 131, WorldWatch Insitute, 1996, p. 20
16 Grist Magazine, February 10, 2006, also see US Department of Agriculture Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FATUS/monthlysummary.htm
17 Pimentel, David, Food, Energy, And Society, University Press of Colorado, 1996 , Pfeiffer, Dale Allen, Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture, New Society Publishers, 2006
19 http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug01/corn-basedethanol.hrs.html, see also energyjustice.net and www.energyjustice.net/ethanol/pimentel2001.pdf
21 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6826994/ see also http://wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,66288,00.html
25 Personal Communication, Esther Burns, Dietician
26 Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change, Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu, Science 29 February 2008: 1238-1240. See also Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt, Joseph Fargione, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter Hawthorne, Science 29 February 2008: 1235-1238. Published online 7 February 2008 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747] (in Science Express Reports)
28 The often-quoted figure that methane is 20 times as potent as CO2 is based on a 100 year cycle. The 100X potency is based on a 10 year impact. See Pearce, Fred, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, Beacon Press, Boston, 2007, p.78. http://www.bbc.co.uk/climate/evidence/nitrous_oxide.shtml
29 Meadows, Donella H, The Limits to Growth, A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, New York, Universe Books, 1974
30 Meadows, Donnella, Jorgen Rogers, Dennis Meadows, The Limits to Growth, the 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT, 2004. http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/3551#more
33 Photovoltaic electricity costs a minimum of $4.00 per watt for the panels alone, often closer to $10.00 per watt for a fully installed system. That means an installed cost approaching $1,000 to simply light a 100 watt light bulb. Hence the savings of installing a smaller or more efficient bulb instead of trying to meet existing demand.
35 Trainer, Ted, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2007. p.117
36 Zeigler, Alexis, Conscious Cultural Evolution, Understanding Our Past, Choosing Our Future, Ecodem Press, Charlottesville, 1996, aslo at www.conev.org