Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Ethanol? You cannot be serious!

with 13 comments

updated Feb 29, 2008

There is quite an extraordinary letter today in the Richmond News.

I have of course written a letter to the editor which they printed uncut. Anyway I came across this rebuttal in of all places a site called the last item of the Google News search. It is called The Dark Side of Ethanol?

By the way though they provide a link to a Science article, it just goes to the front page, and only subscribers get the whole article, so to save you time here is the abstract

Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 26, 2008 at 11:54 am

13 Responses

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  1. Just a bit of conjecture.

    The notion to replace gasoline as the primary fuel for millions of cars is increasingly dubious not only with the research alluded to in the above Science Magazine piece, but for the reasons reiterated in this blog, mainly concerning auto-oriented sub / urban land use inefficiencies. But that leaves out long distance commercial trucking and rail and farms, sectors that are argueably more important than moving SOVs in cities.

    Perhaps using switchgrass crops on lower grade, disturbed land, and beetle-killed wood from BC to make cellulosic ethanol would help lower overall emissions from commercial transport and existing agriculture. Coupled with biodielsel (growing lower grade oil seed crops … within limits?), it may also help lessen the impact of higher petroleum prices resulting from peak oil, notably on bringing food to the supermarket.

    By significantly increasing public transit in cities, governments could then justifiably limit the exploration of biofuels to the shipment of goods and to fuel farming activity, therein limit the amount of agricultural land devoted to growing fuel crops instead of food.

    Further, farmers, the majority of whom could use an economic uplift, could own the resource and distribution network, much like the Canadian prairie grain co-operative model. Government should set some environmental controls, like mandatory crop rotation, green manure, fallowing, pest / herbicide use, etc.

    Incidently, most of my prairie relatives got out of farming a generation ago because of the brutal hours, backbreaking work and low return. But the recent rise iin commodity prices (not just in corn for ethanol) and new hope for a new economic lifeline could raise farmer’s profile in a positive way. So could growing produce in solar-heated greenhouses in winter within view of our cities before the petroleum price shocks arrive and the water crises becomes unmanagable in California in the not-so-far future.


    February 26, 2008 at 2:24 pm

  2. Like a lot of people, I saw biofuels as being a great hope. I now see them as a great illusion. While there are all sorts of possibilities of producing biofuels from waste, generally speaking that is not happening, and we are seeing more food production being diverted to run Americans’ SUVs which is unconscionable.

    Increasing personal incomes and changing tastes in China are increasing demand for wheat, and that is really helping Canadian prairie farmers. As is the last disastrous Australian harvest. There is some substitution possible between grains, but the combination of climate change and continuing rapid growth of population makes the Malthusian forecasts only too likely.

    Of course, we could see North Americans eating less – especially of things like corn syrup (and other corn products) as well as cane sugar – which will do us no harm at all. But what we really need to see is a change in our priorities. Biofuels are merely a way to keep on doing what we are doing now at the expense of the world’s poor.

    Stephen Rees

    February 26, 2008 at 3:20 pm

  3. I wonder what alternatives for farmers will be left then, when petroleum hits outer space in price before 2020? They have to run tractors and combines on something. Electric or hybrid John Deeres have not even been thought of to my knowledge. There may be a market for tiny Zenn electric trucks (with solar panels on the roof?) for the the smallest Lower Mainland market gardens and organic farms who need them, but I’m wondering about the entire agricultural and goods transport industry too.

    It’s true that biofuels have not matured to support realistic markets yet, but a balance could still happen. It’s just that it may occur with brutal force with the first wave of huge oil price increases, and the food vs. fuel crop dabate could evolve to conflict. It’s always the small guy who drops first.


    February 26, 2008 at 3:44 pm

  4. That article raises a pretty valuable and shocking point, and both of you are right. When Kunstler was in town, he emphasized that replacing gasoline with something else isn’t going to solve our problem.

    On top of heading further in the direction we are now, I think people would dramatically abuse it. As for the food vs fuel thing, I agree with you Stephen, we could be eating less. Michael Pollan pointed out that corn is in almost everything we eat, from corn syrup, corn starch and corn flakes to corn-based products like corn chips and popcorn. It really became obvious to me when I had to avoid corn completely for several months… the easy part was the fact that most products that had corn starch also had something else I couldn’t eat, like soy or sugar ;) Also factor in that farmers are fattening up their cows with corn, which makes them sick, which then means they need to use antibiotics, which they use preventatively, yadda yadda. Cows eat grass, but apparently money is more important. I have a concern also that Mexico would bear the brunt of the consequences, as I was told that anything we buy from Mexico (corn, peppers, whatever) is food impoverished Mexicans don’t get to eat. And you think of how much goes to waste when we can’t eat all of it? Mexico also supplies a lot of oil to the US apparently…

    What about running tractors and such on electricity? Stick up some wind farms, the farmers would have their own electricity generated on-site (and solar power too).

    Maybe if they stopped converting so much pasture to housing and roads…

    Erika Rathje

    February 26, 2008 at 5:36 pm

  5. It seems nobody involved in this story does their homework anymore. Maybe they never did. Just because something is “a study” doesn’t mean it was done properly, or that the conclusions stated are either correct or supported by the underlying effort.

    [Moderator's note: Science is a peer reviewed journal. You can read more about it here

    The balance of this comment has been removed. This poster has not appeared here before, and I have been unable to determine why he responded at such length or with so many links. Aksimet treats multi link posts as spam. If the poster wishes to contact me by email an address that will reach me can be found on the about page]


    February 26, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  6. It’s called providing references. “So many” equals what, 304? I’d have expected you to know about providing references. I responded because that’s what blogs are for; your information was inaccurate and misleading since you did not research before posting. I stated in the post what I was replying to and specifically where errors were made. But you’ve chosen to remove that portion to give the appearance of an ignoramus making an unsupported statement.

    Yes, Science is peer reviewed, but need I list the articles that have appeared there that contradict each other (thus showing that they can get things wrong?)? Peer review is no guarantee of accuracy or proper work. Anyone who has been involved knows that.

    I see that you deleted the links to scientists that have done a review of the article and found large gaps and fundamental errors.

    But then again, maybe you aren’t interested in the fuller story. Maybe you have an agenda and I assumed too favorably (that you just didn’t do any investigation).

    Makes one wonder how many other posts that disagree with yours you choose to simply delete as the only ones apparently allowed are ones in support of you.

    If you aren’t interested in full discussion, and just want to post your opinions and ignore discussion, then might I suggest not allowing comments at all?


    February 27, 2008 at 8:28 am

  7. I did invite you to write to me. You chose to just post again. This blog has been the target of both spammers and trolls – I was uncertain to which category you belonged.

    You have your own blog, but it appears to be completely free of any real information. For example, you appear to be a car enthusiast. Do I infer from that that you see ethanol as a way for everyone to keep on driving? There appears to be a remarkable lack of comments and posts on your blog too. I wonder why that would be?

    Or, of course, you could be one of the very large number of people who seem to be doing very well out of the current ethanol policy in the US.

    If you look around this blog for a while, you will see that there is quite a lot of discussion. And people can and do correct me. I make no claim to omniscience. But equally its a blog – not a webinar. And its my blog, not yours. The opening sentence of your post which I left alone I took to be a challenge – a favourite trolling technique. I am in favour of discussion. I am not in favour of this blog being used to promote someone else’s agenda.

    Stephen Rees

    February 27, 2008 at 8:57 am

  8. I’ll vouch that this blog covers a plethora of interconnected topics and relevant ideas generally in favour of public accountability, transit, and an improved environment and quality of life. If Stephen supplied no less than a diverse and intelligent format, I wouldn’t take the time to participate. With apparently well over 10,000 new hits last year, many other people feel the same way.

    Getting back to the discussion, let’s assume that the portion of petroleum fuels burned in the transportation sector devoted solely to transporting cars, minivans and SUVs is in the majority. Does anyone have any idea what that number would be? My guess it’s around 2/3 nation-wide, and of that amount, perhaps 80+% exists in towns and cities large enough to supply transit alternatives.

    With this apportion I suggest it is more beneficial to limit biofuels and liquid petroleum fuel replacement to commercial transport, public transit and agriculture. This is crucial, because I think one of the biggest flaws is the current misdirection in biofuels of using food crops and vital agricultural land to prop up unsustainable car dependency. E-85 Hummers and Expeditions and 30 million cars … what an appalling waste of resources!

    There should also be a real sense of urgency in redirecting biofuels to a more sustainable economy because of the astronomical fuel prices and the associated hardships just around the corner. This is reinforced with the observation in several professional pieces I’ve read on peak oil that there will be an “energy gap” where all the alternatives combined do not add up to the total energy represented by oil. It would be better if the gap/shortage falls where transit alternatives are possible, not on our farms or on the movement of food to market. The only other way to ensure food security would be to increase the current subsidies on farm and commercial diesel to absurd levels.

    It’s important to dump primary food crops for fuel, like corn, and switch to native species like switchgrass which is already adapted to the conditions of the prairies and therein don’t require petrochemicals and exorbitant amounts of water to thrive (perhaps only animal or green manure or other natural fertilzers to replenish the soil). I’ve read that beetle-killed pines from BC could easily be used for cellulosic ethanol — no supply problems either because of the huge number of them currently standing dead.

    We could probably spare a fifth or a quarter of our huge agricultural land base to support fuel crops under regulated cultivation techniques that conserve and build soils, and another third to grow our own food (in fields i summer, and under glass year round) when both imports and exports inevitably slow or stop with peak oil. Vast areas of prairie soil have already been depleted right down to the mineral base from a century of unsustainable farming practices and can only sustain crops with the use of chemical fertilizers, which will become unaffordable. These areas could stand to lie fallow or be regenerated with green manure crops, native grasses or trees.

    Farming will be very hard hit by peak oil and climate change no matter what we do, so it stands to reason that the soils currently in the best condition be used under certain conservation policies while those that are depleted be placed under regeneration programs. Some farmers in Europe are even paid by the EU to grow trees to capture carbon. Many farmers here would leap at the chance to do this as well, especially those who are in their 70s and have not been able to afford to retire. For this reason I’ll also repeat that the farmers should be given the chance to own any biofuels market.

    Regarding producing emissions while producing biofuels, in Canada it may be possible to balance or reduce emissions by confining biofuels to existing farms and to using dead trees. Neither results in live forests being slashed or untouched land being used, and under the right policies could result in no net increase of emissions. Planting trees on thousands of acres of currently depleted or underused prairie farmland and to replace BC pines with beetle-resistant native species would help further balance the carbon budget, or even reduce total carbon. In other words, biofuels must be seen as part of a larger picture.

    In the 70s I helped a cousin farm 300 acres of rye in northern Alberta. He was an organic farmer, which meant he added cow manure to the soil every year, regularly rotated crops, left last year’s crop waste on the ground, maintained treed windbreaks and let a section lie fallow with a nitrogen-fixing green manure crop (like alfalfa) dug in every seven years. One flaw, though, was the common practice then to till the soil at a high rate. Low or no-tilling would help preserve soil moisture, a crucial consideration as the prairies heat up. His return was over 60 bushels per acre, whereas his neighbour (same crop on the next field, but with decades of exclusive petrochemical use) produced only 20 BPA. This was accomplished after his father lost eight inches of top soil during the dry 1930s, that is, a half century of organic farming techniques helped rebuild the soil.

    Stephen’s and Erika’s comment about our diet is good. It’s further illustrated by picturing the five acres of land it takes to raise one cow, and the 27,000 litres of water it takes to produce one cotton tee shirt … just two examples of how wasteful we really are.

    A long post, this one. Of course, the discussion on alcohol-based fuels can be a little less dry with some Cotes du Rhone.


    February 27, 2008 at 12:44 pm

  9. Grasping at Straws.

    When the fuel from crops option first came on the scene I got excited too. Now it looks to me like a bad idea. I’m concerned about growing populations and I hope something can be done about it. For the present, populations will increase, if the current inventory of cropland is reduced due to the demand for biofuel crops I think most people would agree this spells disaster.
    Biofuels from non-food crops grown on marginal land might be viable, if only as a intermediate solution.
    We will need clean fuels for some time to come. In the longer term I have my hopes set on electric propulsion and not necessarily for SOVs. The eternal debate on where the electricity will come from will have to wait for another time.


    March 4, 2008 at 7:52 pm

  10. Again, I am suggesting to:

    - limit biofuels to farming, public transit and the most important componets of commercial transport, like getting food to market; these should initially be subsidized

    - DO NOT use biofuels for cars in cities and towns; instead, build more public transit

    - limit biofuels (cellulosic ethanol) to native species like switchgrass that are already adapted to the dry prairie and don’t require much fertilizer or pest control, and to dead beetle-killed pines of which there is an abundant current supply in BC; replanting billions of beetle-resistant trees would be part of this program

    - impose strict soil and water conservation measures as a condition of qualifying for biofuels farming grants

    - let farmers own (at least be the majority shareholder) the biofuels production and distribution facilities; the Canadian prairies farmer co-operative is a proven and egalitarian model

    - don’t wait until someone invents battery-powered combines to start up a limited biofuels market … you’ll be waiting a long time.


    March 10, 2008 at 9:09 am

  11. The first sentence of your letter to the editor tells it all: “Nathalie Stewart seems not to be keeping up with the ethanol story.” All you’re doing is passing along the “story”, uncut, from the people who started it.

    First of all, the notion that “grain ethanol consumes more energy to produce and distribute than it does when used as fuel” is ridiculous. The study that showed this was by David Pimental. Pimental is an ecologist who was primarily concerned that growing fuel on land would reduce the amount of unused land and that this would be bad for wild species. Most of the complaints about biofuels these days are coming from people who are worried, most of all, about the increase in farming. Hence the talk about the rainforest getting cut down.

    Yes, biofuels do cause land to get used as biofuel plantations, but no, biofuels are not so energy inefficient that it costs more oil to use them than to not use them. That last is a lie promulgated by the ecologists in order to make political points with people who were unconvinced by the arguments against the extension of factory farms.

    As far as the greenhouse gasses emitted in the cutting down of rainforest, this is a subject that it probably requires some expertise to understand. However, it is clear that the motivations of the people who are commenting on it are from the point of view that factory farming is always bad. But the concept that converting fallow ground in the US into farm (which is happening right now because of biofuels) is a cause of global warming because of CO2 released when this happens is ridiculous.

    Think about all the land in the US that has already been converted over to farmland. Did that cause a huge output of CO2? If it did, wouldn’t that big pulse of CO2 have been emitted in the 19th century back when it happened? Hey, if the amount of CO2 emitted when you convert land (or forest for that matter) to farm was significant, the global warming people would have been complaining about that. But no, their complaints were about fossil fuels. Historically, the major conversion of land to farm by humans was probably thousands of years ago over most of the planet, and in the last 150 years in the US. On the other hand, back before 1492, the US was intensively farmed by the Indians (who died off due to Old World disease before the Pilgrims arrived a hundred years later).

    Conclusion: the complaints about CO2 and biofuels and land conversion is just the latest red herring in the fight over how land is used. It has little to do with global warming.


    April 30, 2008 at 4:04 pm

  12. I do not cite Pimental as my source – you seem to be very ready to jump to conclusions. I was unable to access the whole Science article but on the whole I prefer to believe a peer reviewed journal over someone who works on a grain ethanol plant. I am sorry but that picture on your web page really shows that you are hardly an objective commentator – but I note that you chose not to reveal your vested interest in the grain based ethanol industry. Do you spend a lot of time looking for blog posts to rubbish?

    Grain based ethanol requires huge amounts of oil to produce in the US. The machinery used in agribusiness in the US does not run on sunshine! Moreover, huge amounts of fertiliser have to be used because of the monocrop cultivation methods – and this releases more greenhouse gas. And to that the distribution system – mostly trains and trucks, not pipelines – and you have a very energy intensive business. Ethanol was being promoted for its supposed value in reducing common air contaminants long before the current ghg issue – and also to reduce US dependence on imported oil. Canada has no need to import oil (yet we do) and we also have a right wing PM who thinks prairie farmers should get even more subsidies (lots of conservative votoes there too). Ethanol was, is and always will be about rural votes.

    Grain based ethanol mandates have been another huge GWB mistake – and we are all paying for it.

    We simply need to reduce VKT (VMT in your country) – and reducing the size of vehicles used for single occupants wouldn’t hurt either. Ethanol was just a way to let people keep on driving – and that has now been shown to be a busted flush

    Stephen Rees

    April 30, 2008 at 4:20 pm

  13. [...] of my blog shows I have posted about ethanol 21 times – none of them favourably. Perhaps these two will give the flavour to new readers. Now Business Week turns up the heat a bit. Not only is [...]

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