NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 12, 2006

Biofuels -- liquid fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, made from plants -- promise to reduce our dependence on oil.  But before you rush out to buy an E-85 pickup, says Julia Olmstead, a graduate fellow at the Land Institute, consider:

  • The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy than all the energy produced by the country's plant life, including forests and plants used for food and fiber, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and Cornell University researcher David Pimentel.
  • To produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet current U.S. demand for gasoline, we would need to nearly double the land used for harvested crops, plant all of it in corn, and not eat any of it.
  • A greener fuel source -- such as the switchgrass Bush mentioned in his State of the Union address -- requires fewer petroleum-based fertilizers and ingredients than corn and reduces topsoil losses by growing back each year -- but would provide only a small fraction of the energy we demand.

Corn and soybean production as practiced in the Midwest is ecologically unsustainable, says Olmstead:

  • The corn and soybeans that make ethanol and biodiesel require huge quantities of fossil fuel for farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizer.
  • Its effects include massive topsoil erosion; pollution of surface and ground water with pesticides; and fertilizer runoff that travels down the Mississippi to deplete oxygen from a New Jersey-sized portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

The focus on biofuels to solve our energy and climate-change crises is at best misguided.  At worst, it could have disastrous environmental consequences.  And it will have little effect on our fossil-fuel dependence, says Olmstead.

Source: Julia Olmstead, "Focus on biofuels is foolish," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 12, 2006.

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