Democrats & Liberals Archives

Are Biofuels Good or Bad for Fighting Climate Change?

For a long time I’ve been thinking that burning biofuels, such as ethanol, produces less CO2 than burning gasoline. I thought this was especially so in a setup where new crops are grown to replace those used for fuel. A couple of new scientific studies say this is not so. They also point out the complexity of the climate change problem.

The L.A. Times reports:

One analysis found that clearing forests and grasslands to grow the crops releases vast amounts of carbon into the air -- far more than the carbon spared from the atmosphere by burning biofuels instead of gasoline.

Maybe we should stop our headlong plunge into ethanol. Why combine ethanol with gasoline if instead of reducing CO2 emission it actually increases them?

The article states further that even if we use existing farmland, the effect is bad:

Even converting existing farmland from food to biofuel crops increases greenhouse gas emissions as food production is shifted to other parts of the world, resulting in the destruction of more forests and grasslands to make way for farmland, the second study found.

This latter point indicates how what is done in one part of the world affects what happens in another part of the world. The climate change problem is a worldwide problem. In order to solve it we must discard our notion of competition and replace it with cooperation. We must get all nations working together to solve the problem.

Getting over 190 nations to work for a common goal requires leadership. U.S. is the only nation that can supply this leadership. Ask presidential candidates if they will do so.

Posted by Paul Siegel at February 8, 2008 3:09 PM
Comment #244905


You have hit on something that I have thought for a long tome: There’s no free lunch. Especially when we start talking about fighting climate change(the true name for what some folks call global warming). What we do in one area can have devastating effects in others. The technical name for this is “the law of unintended consequences”. This is one reason I am quite skeptical about all the proposals regardin climate change. What we do to alter our outputs of greenhouse gasses may do more harm in the long run than the good we do in the short term.

Ethanol from corn is a good example. First of all, erhanol is not a real good replacement for gasoline. It has a lower energy content and reduces fuel economy by a sizeable amount. Perhaps more important, we do not have enough farmland available in the U.S. to produce enough ethanol to replace all of our gasoline.

Electric vehicles are not the anser. We have to produce the electricity to recharge them, and that will mean more generating plants using coal, highly polluting, or hydropower where available, or wind power, dangerous to birds,.

I have no quarrel with those who want us to be more responsible regarding the environment. But, I do have a big argument with those who would force us into near draconian measures without knowing the long term effects.

Posted by: Old Grouch at February 8, 2008 3:49 PM
Comment #244929

Biofuels have helped Brazil to some extent, but the environmental cost to the whole planet has been huge. Grasses grown on marginal land is the only biofuel that makes sense. Fuel from corn is a completely wasted effort. Wind farms seem to be getting more popular, but, as with solar, the amount of land needed to produce energy is too large. Nuclear makes the most sense. We can send the waste to the moon.

Posted by: ohrealy at February 8, 2008 8:56 PM
Comment #244938

The carbon tax is the best idea, since it will allow people to use their intelligence and innovation to create alternatives.

I agree re ethanol. Government subsidies and political planning has created a situation where we use as much energy as we produce. This is why we do not want more of the same government planning. The world is too complicated for bureaucracies to understand all the details.

Government role is to point the direction and let the people and the markets decide how to get there.

You may recall that the U.S. CO2 emissions of CO2 DROPPED in 2006. This is the first time it ever happened during a time of robust economic growth. Since 2000, U.S. emissions have grown slower than those of the EU. What did George Bush do to achieve what Bill Clinton and the EU could not? Nothing. The market prices did the deed that NONE of the politicians and bureaucrats could.

Posted by: Jack at February 8, 2008 11:12 PM
Comment #244944
You may recall that the U.S. CO2 emissions of CO2 DROPPED in 2006. This is the first time it ever happened during a time of robust economic growth. Since 2000, U.S. emissions have grown slower than those of the EU. What did George Bush do to achieve what Bill Clinton and the EU could not? Nothing. The market prices did the deed that NONE of the politicians and bureaucrats could.

This is the point that the left simply cannot accept, Jack. As people become more eco-aware and use that additional factor as a motivating factor in the supply/demand aspect of our economy, it drives the market. By letting the market exist the changes will be made, if the government starts to get involved the wrong way now, as it did in the energy crunch of the last century when people were demanding more fuel efficient cars, we will end up with a worse condition instead of a better one. Especially since any action the government will take will be a POLITICAL one, by definition. Ethanol is a perfect example. It takes MORE energy, not less, to use ethanol. It will actually create more pollution, not less.

But again, don’t tell the left that, their goal is not actually emission reduction, as I have been told. It is about spreading around costs and wealth…

Posted by: Rhinehold at February 9, 2008 12:28 AM
Comment #244956

The answer is Yes.

It depends on what kind of biofuel. Corn-based ethanol is stupid. Other kinds of ethanol are better. The best kind of biofuel may come from algae or garbage.

There is no such thing as a free market for fuel; the question is how the government should intervene. Invading Middle Eastern countries is an intervention, too.

Posted by: Woody Mena at February 9, 2008 7:59 AM
Comment #244959


Yes. Our addiction to oil forces expensive foreign policy options.

You are right about there not being a strictly free market for fuel. But market forces clearly are at work too. Government should point the general direction and let the market sort out the details. That is the beauty of a carbon tax.

Too many false environmentalists are more interested in regulating and social engineering than in the environment. That is why they do not embrace this simple and effective idea. Many people on my side just don’t like taxes in general. I think they are mistaken in this particular instance, but unlike the false environmentalist, at least they are honest.

The call for government management of the problem is the triumph of hope over very much experience. Government “help” gave us oil dependency. Government policy created urban sprawl. More recently, government regulations gave us the corn ethanol debackle. All these maxi-screwups were done with mostly good intentions.

Bureaucrats never make good economic planners. The market is the way to go with the details.

Posted by: Jack at February 9, 2008 10:17 AM
Comment #244966

Aren’t all the governments of oil producing countries basically socialist? The price of the crude includes everything they want, but it is all free markets at this end. Supposedly, the Saudi reserves are down to a level where they are practically having to blast it out of the ground.

Garbage has the same problem as coal, toxic ash that has to go somewhere.

Wasn’t corn ethanol considered to be a more “free market” form of crop subsidy?

Posted by: ohrealy at February 9, 2008 11:38 AM
Comment #244971
Garbage has the same problem as coal, toxic ash that has to go somewhere.

The idea is not to burn the garbage, but to have bacteria break it down and produce methane.

Posted by: Woody Mena at February 9, 2008 2:22 PM
Comment #245000

On the algae farms, this is a link to GreenFuel’s website:
In the article in last October National Geographic, this looks like a labor intensive science experiment. Isn’t this just secondary to solar? You are using the sun to grow things to use for fuel. Direct solar takes up too much land unless there is some kind of breakthrough.

We need to have engines that will run on whatever fuel is produced locally, which may vary from place to place. They wanted to use orange peels in Florida in the late 70s, when I moved there.

The garbage to methane cycle sounds slower than algae, and isn’t that just high tech composting?

Posted by: ohrealy at February 10, 2008 11:52 AM
Comment #245012


Yes - most oil production is owned or controlled by governments. They work hard to keep the prices high until alternatives develop. Then they work just as hard to lower the prices to drive the alternatives out of business and then start the process over again. We saw that happen during the 1990s.

So you are right in implying that the lack of alternatives AND the current high price of fuel are both problems of socialism.

Subsidies for ethanol are definitely not free market. The government is paying for a particular type of technology AND is further subsidzing corn ethanol by something like a 50 cent tarrif on Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane. This is how government programs work and why we should be very careful what we ask for.

We need governement to point the way, but not manage the process.

Posted by: Jack at February 10, 2008 1:58 PM
Comment #245022

Jack, I take it that you believe that the Saudis are smarter than us, or that we are too stupid to do what is in our own self interest.

I think everyone has given up on ethanol except the politicians in the corn belt, of both parties.

I disagree on the role of government. I think the federal government needs to do something big, and do it well. Not a lot of things, just something. We’re stagnating. from TWW S5

Josh: So I had this meeting with NASA this morning
Leo: What a waste since the moon. My generation never got the future it was promised.
Josh: What do you mean?
Leo: Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel’s exactly the same. We don’t even have the Concorde any more. Technology stopped.
Josh: The personal computer?
Leo: A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography. Where’s my jetpack? My colonies on the moon? Just a waste.

We are arguing about technologies that might as well be stone age. We need to be able to use the strong stuff, and be able to control it:

I love Adobe 9, sitting in front of my lap top, or listening to CDs, or watching the TV with the built in DVD player, but it is all small stuff from large corporations with very small ideas. When will the next big idea come that will actually change anything?

Posted by: ohrealy at February 10, 2008 4:30 PM
Comment #245026


The next great idea will come from someone who has an idea and has the guts, drive, and determination to develop it. It will come from the same place the light bulb, radio, airplane, and many of the other things we take granted come from. I can almost guarantee you it will not come from government. Thom Hartman has a promo for his show on Air America saying that no great political concept ever came from government, they all came from ordinary citizens pushing and shoving an idea. The next great breakthrough in energy will come from the same place, if government gets out of the way.

Posted by: Old Grouch at February 10, 2008 5:36 PM
Comment #245028

The next ordinary citizen pushing and shoving an idea, like Philo Farnsworth before him, will still have to deal with the rights of corporations, unless we impeach every judge in favor of corporations having rights.

A while back, the media was promoting the Segway as the new best thing. They kept showing it on sidewalks in that alternate universe we see on TV. The security guards actually use them at Millenium Park in Chicago, to chase away other people using anything with wheels, or homeless people looking for a place to sit.

Where I live, first there were no skateboarding signs, then no skateboards or roller blades. Then when razor scooters came out somebody at city hall went nuts. They put up signs trying to cover every possible thing with wheels of any kind that any kid might ever want to use on any pavement, street, alleyway, or parking lot. You could probably be fined for using a wheelchair or a little red wagon, if they wanted to get some money out of you.

The local governments are always a bigger problem than the federal government. In England, they don’t want any local government, because they know that is where the crackpot element gets into the system. Some judge wants 10 of the 613 commandments posted somewhere, a cop in Chicago wants to beat confessions out of people, and one in New York wants to stick a toilet plunger up someone’s ass.

Well, that is a long diversion from biofuels, but only the federal government will be able to set any kind of standard for what can be used, how to use it safely, and who is the beneficiary of technological development.

Posted by: ohrealy at February 10, 2008 7:03 PM
Comment #245031

your last sentence defines some of the answers and many of the problems with government control. Set standards, sure, but make sure they are legitimate. I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember the dispute over color television, but it was brutal. The winner, in the US, was NTSC. It was developed and championed by RCA, David Sarnoff. It won, but not because it was better, but because of the influence of Sarnoff and company. By the way, NTSC, stands for never the same color. The other example is the rivalry of VHS versus Beta for video tape. Beta was by far the better system, simpler, easier to use, and more stable. Yet, VHS won because the developers were better politicians and influenced government agencies to recognize VHS as the standard.

As for having the government comply with your last suggestion, I don’t particularly want a government agency determining who can, or cannot, utilize modern technology. Do you want Uncle Sam telling you that you can only have a computer system based on last year’s technology? I don’t. If I can afford it, I want to be able to buy it.

Posted by: Old Grouch at February 10, 2008 8:51 PM
Comment #245039

Jack how exactly did Government create urban sprawl? My understanding is GM was pushing to get rid of the local rail systems which was the precursor to urban sprawl.

Posted by: j2t2 at February 11, 2008 1:01 AM
Comment #245040


Government’s massive spending on highways created urban sprawl. Think about what you said re GM. You are certainly right that car companies pushed - to some extent - to get rid of local rail. But who did the deed? Government. This is exactly the point. You hit it dead on. Business leaders like to limit competition. They want to seek rents instead of compete. They cannot do this w/o the power of government. That is why government is such a dangerous tool.

Only government can do things with the power of law andd the force of legitimate coercion.

Government and business are not opposing forces. They are part of the same system. There is a complex balance of business, government, politics, NGOs etc. If you create an inbalance, you get trouble. Powerful people want to use government as a tool. They will always be able to do that. We can limit them only by making sure we do not concentrate too much power.


Government should help point the way. It should work to make grants available. It could help a great deal by just adjusting its own purchases to use more alternatives. These things government can do.

The energy problem is more complicated than sending a man to the moon. The moon shot is a physics problem, very difficult, but still a problem that can be solved.

The energy problem is NOT solvable. It is manageable. We have chosen the current energy mix because it was cheap and easy. It makes perfect logical sense to use oil, since most alternatives were more expensive and/or harder to use. To mange that problem, oil needs to become relatively more expensive or harder to get than alternatives. Exactly what alternatives will take its place is too hard a problem for anybody to solve, but the aggregated wisdom of the people and markets can do it.

You have already seen government attempts to solve the energy problem. We are living today with the corn ethanol debacle mentioned in the first post. That is a government solution. I still remember the synfuels fiasco of the 1970s. We can be grateful that program failed, because it was working on very carbon intensive technologies (those were the days before we worried about global warming).

The energy problem can be addressed by changing our mix of energy, how we use it and what we conserve. There will be no single breakthrough. There will not be the energy equivalent of the moon landing. As we develop new sources of energy, our demands increase to meet them and most of today’s problems result from yesterday’s solutions. The market gives us options. Government concentrates on a few favored paths (such as corn ethanol). In the long run options are better.

Posted by: Jack at February 11, 2008 4:00 AM
Comment #245047

Jack a hammer is also a tool. One man can use that hammer to build a house yet the next man can use that hammer to hit someone on the head. That does not make it the hammers fault.
The real issue is the undue corporate influence on our system of government. We are forced into this rather fascist relationship by these same corporations yet we blame the government. To put it into conservative speak “its not the gun that kills people its the man that pulls the trigger”.

BTW Jack wasnt the national highway system built to allow for faster troop movement in case of attack by the communist hordes of the day?

Posted by: j2t2 at February 11, 2008 11:15 AM
Comment #245049


Tool. Yes.

Give a man a hammer and every problem starts to look like a nail.

I am not blaming government. I am telling you that it is a dangerous tool, a blunt tool very much like the hammer you mention, and not suitable to handling all or even most problems.

The energy problem is a perfect example. Government is unable to solve this problem, because it is not a problem to be solved. It is a situation to be managed with innovation, immagination and choices. In other words, it is something for the markets to address.

Think of something even more crucial - food distribution. The government plays a big role, but it doesn’t seek to “solve” the problem or closely manage it. Places where governments take this role starve. Think Ukraine. Think Zimbabwe.

Government can help set the direction That is why a carbon tax is such an elegant solution. Government sets a direction and then lets those who know best how to reach the goal.

YOu are an experienced guy. I have managed everything from small teams to fairly large organizations. I am good at it BECAUSE I know my limitations. I set directions that rely on the innovation and intelligence of my teams. They do not do exactly what I want; they usually do BETTER. This is a type of market based management. We need to recognize the power and limits of government in the same way.

re Interstate system, on balance it was a good thing. It solved a problem of the time and created the problem for us. This is how it always is.

Posted by: Jack at February 11, 2008 11:45 AM
Comment #245053

JAck Im not disagreeing with you Im just suggesting that since you never seem to recognize the negative impact of corporate influence on the workings of our government that at some time it might be a good idea to fix the problem instead of blaming the tool as the cause of the problem.

Instead of putting the gun in jail we put the person that used the gun in jail and then try to outlaw the gun. Yet when it comes to corporate influence we blame the gun, put it in jail, and try to outlaw it while the triggerman is rewarded. That just doesnt make sense to me.

Posted by: j2t2 at February 11, 2008 12:02 PM
Comment #245056

Welcome to the real world of unjustifiable government actions that discriminate against certain of its citizens. Smokers have experienced this unfair action for years. The latest example came last week as the Tyler, Texas city council voted to outlaw smoking in any public places including in the city parks. The excuse used is the supposed medical reports of the dangers of second-hand smoke. Even though restaurants and bars for years have had segregated seating to accommodate those who don’t smoke, that wasn’t enough. In June, when the city regulation goes into effect there will be no smoking allowed within twenty feet of the building. Of course, no medical evidence was cited for not allowing smoking in the open air in parks. This ban was merely included because they could discriminate and be supported by the majority. Well, it’s good to hear some of you squealing as you find your liberties begin trampled upon. Will any of you support my position, I think not. Rather, if you bother to respond at all…it will probably be to say that my issue is different and warranted.

Posted by: Jim M at February 11, 2008 1:18 PM
Comment #245075


I also agree with you on this point. We should enforce the rule of law in cases of corporations too. They often,however, make the laws, not break them.

The ethanol thing is an excellent example. The law itself is creating the trouble. In fact, if someone managed to break the law by smuggling Brazilian ethanol, it would probably be a good thing.

Or consider ENRON. ENRON was a big proponent of Kyoto. They made their money mostly from working between and among government regulations, arbitraging.

Government is a dangerous tool. We tend to like to use it because it seems the simple solution, but it is not always or usually the best choice.

Posted by: Jack at February 11, 2008 5:11 PM
Comment #245085

Grouch, yes I remember how bad the original color TVs were and I know how RCA acted. After WW2, I think all things from NewYork were at the highest level of influence in national politics and policies, but it did not last that long. The national standard that I am talking about would be for an engine that would be adaptable to different locally produced fuels.

On the computer issue, we are actually victimized by the way big corporations market their products, rather than any government interference. We are always the last to get the newest and best because they do not want to risk going against what “most” people want. I have an old IBM thinkpad laptop that I would like to replace, but I want one with a full sized keyboard that weighs next to nothing. I think they are available in Korea and Japan, but not here. Do those countries have less government regulation?

The GM and Firestone or Goodyear conspiracy alluded to earlier cost those companies One Dollar, after court costs, not kidding.

The problem with the interstates was that it changed from a system of moving vehicles between cities, to moving traffic inside cities. Chicago seems to be in a permanent process of rebuilding these now overage interstates.

On the cold war, we declared victory, and the Russians have now invaded without fear of retaliation. I spent all afternoon trying to deal with some Russians that I work with, who think that they speak and understand English, but really don’t.

On smoking, I do think the outdoor regulations are ridiculous. In Chicago, they had to do something because there were so many people hanging right outside the doorways to every building, they became a nuissance. So they had to pass an ordinance getting people out of the doorways.

There is some confusion about different agendas being lumped together when people talk about less government interference. Most people who say that mean less Federal government interference. I want less interference from the State, County and Municipal governments. Federal interference keeps the local governments from making the Constitution into an empty document, and makes us into one nation instead of a confederation.

On the various alternative energies that have failed, including ethanol, I think that the problem is that we are wedded to the weakest of natural processes, instead of scientific developments of the strongest and most volatile procesees in a safe way.

Posted by: ohrealy at February 11, 2008 7:26 PM
Comment #245126

Biofuels are the answer to our fuel crisis. Bio Diesel has proven very useful and less cost efficient than ethanol or gasoline. The USA is trying to become self dependent on forgien fuels but using a food supply to do that but that might not be the best answer. If you look at how most ethanol manufacturing plants previously used clean burning gas to convert the corn into ethanol but now, there are 120 coal-burning refineries which uses 300 tons of coal used daily eliminates chances of a cleaner air and an even the life of our ozone. That turn the corn into ethanol fuel, are being built up all along the Corn Belt. This means that even if ethanol is cleaner burning fuel it cancels out the good with how it is produced by coal-burning plants. In 2005, the plants produced around 3.9 million gallons of ethanol in the Midwest. This only accounts for a small percentage (2%) of actual fuel consumption in a year. Currently we are consuming about 2.8 million barrels of oil a day.(Bettelheim)

One renewable fuel that is being researched is bio diesel. Bio diesel is very promising because it is made out of vegetable oil or used frying oils from restaurants. It is easier to convert it into fuel and more cost efficient. Also it is a cleaner burning fuel as compared to gas and ethanol. The only thing you would have to pay extra would be the conversion of you gas powered car to a bio diesel powered car. The conversion for a car to be powered by bio diesel is only around $800. Plus the acceleration and mpg is almost unnoticeable as compared to gas. (Consumer Reports) We need to get away from coal/oil and we need a president that can answer that question with a real soultion or be happy with paying 4 dollars a gallon for gas this upcoming summer.

Bettelheim, A. “Biofuels Boom .” 29 Sep 2006 793-816. Sept 20 2007 .

Consumer Reports, “Biodiesel: A Promising Blend.” Cosumer Reports . June 2006. 4 Oct 2007 .

Posted by: wes at February 12, 2008 1:04 PM
Comment #245217

Thanks, wes, you seem to understand more about this than I do, but I think the original diesels were built for canola oil. I had a diesel VW Rabbit years ago, but the exhaust emissions looked bothersome. BTW, it got 44 mpg, about 1983 I think. The question I have is can this be engineered for different regional locally produced fuels.

Posted by: ohrealy at February 13, 2008 4:06 PM
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