Unintended Consequences

The Politics of Biofuels

In response to a recent query from an independent student newspaper in the UK, I wrote up this editorial piece on the politics of biofuels. The original can be found here.

One of the intentions was to explain for European readers why the U.S. and the EU have begun to diverge on their biofuel policies. In the U.S. this is mostly a political issue, because our primary biofuel is home grown. In the EU, biofuels are mostly imported, so the EU can take a more objective view.


Government policies often generate unintended consequences. This has turned out to be the case with the aggressive biofuel policies pursued over recent years by the European Union and the United States. While the EU was developing action plans and setting targets to promote biofuels, many states in the U.S. – especially those with high levels of corn (maize) production – were enforcing mandates to turn that corn into ethanol.

Superficially, this may sound like a great idea. The world obviously can’t continue forever down the path of fossil fuels. Global Warming is a serious concern worldwide. Much of the remaining fossil fuel resources are located in areas hostile to the West. What better way to address these concerns than a movement toward renewable fuels? Furthermore, if the market won’t encourage that move because of poor economics, wouldn’t it make sense for governments to be proactive and force a move to biofuels? Of course this is the path we have taken, but we didn’t sufficiently consider the potential consequences before doing so.


While corn farmers and palm oil plantation owners have been elated by the policies, critics have warned all along about the short-sightedness of these policies. Some, like Cornell Professor David Pimentel and Berkeley Professor Tad Patzek, argued that a full life-cycle analysis showed that most biofuels are actually net energy negative – that is it takes more fossil fuel energy to produce biofuels like ethanol than is returned in the process. This assertion, if true, would imply that expansion of biofuels would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. However, Professors Pimentel and Patzek have their own critics, who assert that their studies made flawed assumptions.

But the criticisms of the rush into biofuels didn’t stop there. Some argued that the diversion of grains and edible oils away from food and toward biofuels had the potential to starve the poor. The United States Department of Agriculture, longtime staunch supporters of the biofuels expansion, published a study that concluded that the policies of the U.S. and the EU would raise prices across the food sector. Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute – a group that advocates environmental sustainability – famously noted in a Washington Post opinion piece that “the grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol would feed one person for a full year.” Brown further wrote:

“Plans for new ethanol distilleries and biodiesel refineries are announced almost daily, setting the stage for an epic competition. In a narrow sense, it is one between the world’s supermarkets and its service stations. More broadly, it is a battle between the world’s 800 million automobile owners, who want to maintain their mobility, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people, who simply want to survive.”

Thus, at best the critics suggested that the impact of biofuels policies would increase food prices. Worse, biofuel mandates may be mandates for starving the poor.

Additional criticisms emerged. It soon became clear that the new policies were resulting in land usage changes. Grassland was turned into farmland, and tropical forests into palm plantations. As a result of EU-fueled demand for palm oil, Indonesia was destroying peat bogs to make room for new plantations, and this greatly increased their greenhouse gas emissions. This move reportedly made Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas polluter.

In the U.S., former ethanol proponents such as Dan Kammen and Alex Farrell of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley have recently abandoned their position that corn ethanol is environmentally beneficial. In a January 12, 2008 memo to California regulators attempting to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector, they wrote:

“Simply said, ethanol production today using U.S. corn contributes to the conversion of grasslands and rainforest to agriculture, causing very large GHG emissions. Even if only a small fraction of the emissions calculated in this crude way [through land use change] are added to estimates of direct emissions for corn ethanol, total emissions for corn ethanol are higher than for fossil fuels.”

A pair of studies in the current issue of Science was apparently the basis for their change of heart. The Wall Street Journal reported on the studies:

While the U.S. and others race to expand the use and production of biofuels, two new studies suggest these gasoline alternatives actually will increase carbon-dioxide levels.

A study published in the latest issue of Science finds that corn-based ethanol, a type of biofuel pushed heavily in the U.S., will nearly double the output of greenhouse-gas emissions instead of reducing them by about one-fifth by some estimates.

“Even if we’re dramatically wrong, it’s hard to get to a result that says you get a benefit over 50 years,” said Timothy Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University and a co-author of the paper on corn-based ethanol.

In the second study, researchers found that . . . draining and clearing peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia to grow palm oil emits so much CO2 that palm biodiesel from those fields would have to be burned for more than 420 years to counteract it.

I made my own criticisms, on several fronts. I criticized what I felt were misleading energy balance studies, which inflated the attraction of corn ethanol. I criticized the morality of using food for fuel. I challenged venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who was promising the world something I didn’t feel that he could deliver, and in the process wasting taxpayer money and precious time. I also challenged the hype of cellulosic ethanol, pointing out issues that the critics were ignoring. As I was warning about the folly of U.S. ethanol policy, I also cautioned over the irrational exuberance of ethanol investors. (I should also note that I wrote several essays in favor of certain ethanol applications. See here, here, and here.)

The World Responds

The criticisms didn’t go unnoticed. The Chinese recognized the threat to their food supplies, and put a halt to new corn ethanol projects, noting that “the current maize-ethanol production capacity has far surpassed what the corn output can provide as an important grain resource.” The European Union began to recognize the dangers. EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said that “the EU had initially underestimated the danger to rainforests and the risk of forcing up food prices from its policy of setting binding targets for the use of biofuels.” The EU further announced that they would be issuing a certification scheme and promised a “clampdown on biodiesel from palm oil which is leading to forest destruction in Indonesia.”

The U.S. government continued to show short-sightedness, however, and mandated an enormous expansion of the ethanol program. To understand this, one has to understand that ethanol policy in the U.S. is dictated almost entirely by politics, and not by science. Because the source of U.S. biofuels is largely domestic, the issue impacts upon a large segment of voters. Former presidential candidate Bob Dole once explained the issue to oilman T. Boone Pickens: “Bob Dole once told me that there are 42 senators from farm states and that pretty much means the government is going to be into ethanol.”

The prominence of the Iowa presidential caucuses also plays a major role. The Iowa caucuses are held prior to the elections in most other states, and presidential candidates hope to do well there and gain momentum going into the rest of the campaign season. Since Iowa is the heart of ethanol production country in the U.S., candidates pander to the voters there who have greatly benefited from U.S. ethanol policies. In order to win Iowa, you must support ethanol policy. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and John McCain provide perfect examples of the Iowa influence. Longtime critics of U.S. ethanol policy – both changed their positions during the most recent presidential campaign. In 2003, McCain had come out strongly against U.S. ethanol policy:

“Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it. Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business – tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests – primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”

Contrast that with his statements in 2006 as he prepared for a presidential run:

“I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects.”

Thus, while the world wakes up to the overall social and environmental ramifications of a broad expansion of ethanol policy, the U.S. is unlikely to deviate from the current policy. If there was a major Midwestern drought that caused the corn crop to fail, it might cause a reevaluation of the policy as corn supplies disappeared. But barring some sort of catastrophe that impacts ordinary Americans, the policy of turning food into fuel will continue unabated in the U.S.

Lessons Learned

The consequences from these biofuel policies was foreseen by a number of scientists. However, their criticisms were often shouted down, and their motives were questioned by some proponents. In the U.S., proponents cast the ethanol debate in terms of national security, energy independence, and the benefits to farming communities. Opponents were cast as being anti-farmer and un-American. This had the unfortunate effect of largely quelling the public debate as these policies were being unveiled and expanded.

Yet these debates must take place, preferably before a well-intentioned policy begins to have such undesirable consequences. Our political leaders need to carefully consider not only the arguments of proponents, but they also need to give the critics a fair hearing. Had this been done, we may have been able to focus our attention on renewable options that do not compete with our food supply.

15 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences”

  1. As long as biofuels competes for farmland, fertilizer, and water, it will have some unintended consequence on food prices. Even cellulosic ethanol won’t solve this problem as farmers could opt for growing switchgrass or jatropha for fuel instead of wheat and corn for food.

    Plowing under Indonesian jungle to grow palms or Brazilian jungle for sugar cane is just a bad idea.

    I suspect in a few decades we will look back on the biofuels experiment and say “What were we thinking?”

  2. I suspect in a few decades we will look back on the biofuels experiment and say “What were we thinking?”

    The enlightened already say that. 😉

  3. You are right, King.

    That’s why we need to cut our teeth on converting waste to liquid fuels. Once we get close to exhausting that source (minimum unintended consequences) we’d be in a much better position to judge how to proceed with fuel crops. I would say we need to keep farmers out of it.

    I still think we’ll end up growing wild type (no high oil) algae in the open ocean. If we do it in the Gulf of Mexico we can even use those high temperatures to boost production.

  4. I think I’m on record as saying not more than 5 % of our current oil consumption can be practically replaced by biofuels without excessive soil mining. I’m not sure if that’s a low enough fraction anymore. Certainly, it’s too high a figure for ethanol derived from maize.

    As prices increase, the global supply is bound to go up as all those peat bogs are burned to the ground. If kids in Africa are going to starve due to biofuels, it will be due to the price of grain rather than a flat-out shortage.

    On the ‘fuel from waste’ issue, keep in mind, as you drive efficiency processes, you produce less waste. Even at current levels, you aren’t going to get back more than 1 % of our oil consumption from waste. It’s more effective to eliminate the waste in the first place, then to try to dig through the landfill and squeeze oil from dirty diapers.

  5. “I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects.”

    Not to split hairs or anything but he does not mention “corn” in that statement. He just says “ethanol”, granted that most of our current ethanol production is from corn but he does not mention that explicitly. Gotta love politics!

  6. One of the big “unintended” consequences is going to be that biomass-gasification leads directly to wider use of coal-gasification.

    Which gets particularly dicey when, outside of any significant global regulatory framework, means that there’s nothing we can do about it in other countries.

    As of yet, coal gasification is relatively expensive. But if that were not the case, it becomes a lot harder to deny it unless we monetize the cost of greenhouse emissions.

  7. I think I’m on record as saying not more than 5 % of our current oil consumption can be practically replaced by biofuels without excessive soil mining.
    That’s a pretty brave statement. Care to share how you calculated that?

    On the ‘fuel from waste’ issue, keep in mind, as you drive efficiency processes, you produce less waste.
    You are exactly right. But the savings you get from increased efficiency is even better. And there will alwayd be some waste.

    Even at current levels, you aren’t going to get back more than 1 % of our oil consumption from waste.
    Now for the real numbers. After recycling, Americans waste about 167 million tons of municipal solid waste a year. You can find the breakdown here – see Table 4. To do a rough estimate of how much energy that is, assume that plastic has the same energy value as crude oil (~44 GJ/t) and all the rest has the same energy content as wood (~18.5 GJ/t). Probably a conservative estimate. Do the calculation, remembering to convert to metric ton, and you end up with a total of about 2,940 GJ/year. Of course some of this would be lost in the conversion to liquid fuels. Assuming we retain 60% in the final product, we end up with ~1,764 GJ/y.

    America uses about 20 million bbl/d of oil, or about 1,010 million metric ton per year, or ~44,430 GJ/y.

    So municipal solid waste can supply about 4% of our crude oil use. Add in an almost equal amount of industrial waste, manure and sewage sludge, and we may well get up to 10%!

  8. RR has been a real beacon of light on ethanol, especially corn-based ethanol.
    I hope something can be done with jatropha, and also second-gen ethanol plants in the US.
    But, as T. Boone points out, 48 farm state Senators.
    Hey, chalk it up to more subsidies for rural folk. The cities of the US subsidize the boonies by about $100 billion a year. This is just more subsidy.

  9. Waste to liquids won’t work either. The 4-5% figure sounds about right to me.

    Since you never really see the energy you use, most people have no concept of either the volume or the weight of energy. Let’s say you fill up the family car once a week with 20 gallons of gas. That is equivalent to 115 lbs of fuel. In an average week, how much do you think your trash weighs? Our family generates maybe 40-50 pounds. Your trash makes up volume but doesn’t usually weigh much. And much of the waste has water (those dirty diapers are a good example), metals, and inert materials that can’t be converted to energy.

    We recycle grass clippings and yard waste. But even if we didn’t it wouldn’t account for very much liquid fuel.

    Trash to energy plants can make a small difference but they won’t solve the problem.

  10. Trash to energy plants can make a small difference but they won’t solve the problem.
    I beg to disagree. 4 – 5% is pretty decent. Corn ethanol at the moment is 1 – 2%, and that is without counting the energy needed to plant the crop, produce the fertilizer, transport the crop and process the ethanol.

    And, unlike corn ethanol, waste to fuel is win-win-win.

    Our family generates maybe 40-50 pounds.
    Sounds low. Typical estimates are 5 lbm/capita.day or 35 pounds per person per week. Maybe you’re just way above average on efficiency. Or maybe you are missing something. How much waste paper do you generate? And no, only 50% of that gets recycled.

    Regardless, the numbers are what they are. Remember USDA came up with this 1.3 billion tons/year number? Let’s say they were full of it and the real number is only half of that ~650 million tons/year. Well, assuming that would have the 18.5 GJ/t energy content and the 60% conversion, that is ~6,500 [million] GJ/y. That would be almost 15% of the crude oil consumption. This would confirm their claim of 30% replacement if you believed the 1.3 billion tons a year number.

    To me this is the logical, or rather the ONLY starting point for biofuels.

  11. Man, I wish we could have the old John McCain back.

    – when i remember my password i’ll be odograph again

  12. The grow crop and use neolithic technology (e.g. fermentation or oil pressing) to get fuel out of it system, is a bad idea, that has gotten uglier in a very short span.

    This is not the only possible approach. Look at this article from Technology Review last year:
    “Creating Ethanol from Trash” by Kevin Bullis

    The article mentions ethanol as an output of the system, which vaporizes trash with a plasma, but that is not correct. The system outputs syngas, which can be turned into ethanol, or any other hydrocarbon fuel.

    I do not know what the yields of this system are like. It might be cheaper and faster to just pyrolyze the organics, make weight with coal and process the resulting syngas.

    Of course, trash is not the only stuff we can use. There is old land fill, liquid municipal waste, dredging spoils, kudzu, water hyacinth in canals, algae grown in waste ponds, etc.

  13. We produce the huge amount of waste we do in the USA because cheap energy makes it possible. As energy costs increase our waste output will go way down to a fraction of current levels. The throw away society is fueled by cheap oil. So though we will be generating some energy from waste in the future it’s a dog chasing it’s own tail proposition.

  14. We produce the huge amount of waste we do in the USA because cheap energy makes it possible.
    Perhaps, we’ll see. Of course, in the bigger scheme of things, conservation is even better than recovery.

    But there will always be some waste, just because efficiency will never hit 100%.

    Energy is still cheap, just less ridiculously so. And though cheap oil may be gone, there are other sources of energy that will remain cheap in the foreseeable future.

    Recovering energy from waste is the obvious low hanging fruit, the obvious starting point. You can worry about feedstock when waste generation rates start to go down. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

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