A brief history of the science behind U.S. biofuel policy


A study done by the NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) for the DOE (Department of Energy) and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) calculated that biodiesel made from soy beans was 78% carbon neutral. This study, which was meant to promote the use of soybeans for biofuel helped to kick off a biofuel craze.

Source: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/fy98/24772.pdf


Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (also known as the Renewable Fuel Standard) making it mandatory to blend more and more biofuel into consumer's gas supplies. Oil companies would get 51 cents from fellow taxpayers for every gallon of ethanol they blended into gasoline and a dollar a gallon for biodiesel blended into diesel and every year they would have to blend more in. This requirement was passed for two official reasons:

  1. Biofuels will make America energy independent.
  2. Biofuels will reduce green house gases

Energy independence

In reality many biodiesel blenders (50 companies) have been shipping much of their biodiesel overseas where they can get more profit because of the dollar per gallon subsidy given to them by American taxpayers.

Source: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2009:067:0050:0084:EN:PDF

Instead of manufacturing high mileage cars that would use less oil, auto makers lobbied for and received a loophole that allowed them to continue producing low gas mileage SUVs as long as they could blend an 85% mixture of ethanol (Flex Fuel vehicles), which according to the Union of Concerned Scientists actually increased oil use by well over a billion gallons in 2005 alone.

Source: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_vehicles/solutions/cleaner_cars_pickups_and_suvs/benefits-and-limitations-of.html

In reality, without some kind of technological breakthrough, it is not physically possible to grow enough biofuels to make a significant difference without impacting the price of food. Last year it took an area equivalent to all of the cropland in Indiana to grow enough corn to make enough ethanol to add just 4% to our liquid fuel supplies. A report by the USDA predicting a food price increase resulting from biofuels was not released until 2007 (see link in section under 2007 heading).

Source: http://www.statemaster.com/graph/geo_lan_acr_tot_cro-geography-land-acreage-total-cropland

Green house gases

In reality, today's biofuels are increasing global warming, as the following links to studies will attest.


A study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Institute of Science) found that soy biodiesel was only 41% carbon neutral. According to the author, the almost 50% reduction from the 1998 NREL study cited above holds only for crops grown on land already in production.

"Converting intact ecosystems to production would result in reduced greenhouse gas savings or even net greenhouse gas release from biofuel production"

Source: http://www.pnas.org/content/103/30/11206.full.pdf


1) A study published in the journal Science found in all cases studied that letting a forest grow back in lower latitudes would store two to nine times more carbon over a 30 year period than you could save by growing biofuels on that land. Liquid biofuels are actually worse than liquid fossil fuels from a global warming perspective.

Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/317/5840/902.pdf

An article in NewScientist titled "Forget Biofuels - Burn Oil and Plant Forests Instead" discusses the paper:

He and Spracklen conclude that if the point of biofuels policies is to limit global warming, "policy makers may be better advised in the short term to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food."

Source: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12496

2) A study published in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics by an international research team that included scientists from Britain, the US and Germany, and Professor Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on ozone found that biodiesel made from canola and corn produced up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels because of higher than realized release of nitrous oxide from the fields (N2O--laughing gas--is about 300 times worse for global warming than CO2).

The author's warning:

"Clearly, all past studies have severely underestimated the release rates of N2O to the atmosphere, with great potential impact on climate warming"

"The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuels are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto. What we are saying is that [growing many biofuels] is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse."

Source: http://www.atmos-chem-phys.net/8/389/2008/acp-8-389-2008.pdf

3) A study published by the Swiss Federal Institute for Materials Science and Technology showed that biofuels from corn, canola, soy, and palm oil are all worse for the environment than their equivalent fossil fuels and this is without the nitrous oxide and deforestation impacts found in the above studies. The study looked at things like respiratory diseases from particulate matter (soot), smog, eutrophication, terrestrial ecotoxicity, and acidification caused by fossil fuels and fossil fuel derived pesticides and fertilizers used to produce the biofuels over their lifecycle.

Source: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2976 (see figure 3)

4) A study published in the journal Conservation Biology calculates that projected demand for biodiesel, assuming it is made from canola, would consume 135,000 square miles of natural habitat around the world (an area twice the size of Florida) by 2050.

Warning from the author:

"Future intensification of biodiesel feedstock production in [the tropics], without proper mitigation guidelines, will likely further threaten the high concentrations of globally endemic species in these biodiversity hotspots"

Source: http://news.mongabay.com/2007/1004-biodiesel.html

5) A letter published in the journal Science warns of biofuel policy impacts on the Amazon and points out that in order to plant more corn for ethanol American farmers are planting less soybeans, which motivated deforestation in the Amazon to grow more soybeans.

Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/318/5857/1721b.pdf

6) A study published by the USDA warns that biofuel policy will impact food prices.

Source: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/oce071/oce20071.pdf

Quotes from above study:


Two studies were simultaneously published in the journal Science. One estimated how much grassland and forest is turned into cropland as a result of corn ethanol production in the United States. The other demonstrated that clearing of grassland and forest habitats to make biofuels will release more CO2 than the biofuel grown in its place will save for decades or centuries depending on the biofuel and type of habitat destroyed to grow it.

Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/rapidpdf/1151861v1.pdf

Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/rapidpdf/1152747v1.pdf

Time magazine, followed by the New York Times and Newsweek wrote articles based on these two papers:

Source: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1725975,00.html "Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat"

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/science/earth/08wbiofuels.html :"The Clean Energy Scam"

Source: http://www.newsweek.com/id/110636 "Doing it wrong"


1) As study done by a Stanford researcher found that 80 percent of new fields had been converted from forests--most of the rest is shrubland.

Source: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-02/su-bbc021309.php

Source: http://blogs.sciencemag.org/newsblog/2009/02/fill-er-up-with-rainforest.html

It's not known how much of new farmland is being used for biofuels, but Gibbs estimates it could be anywhere from a third to two-thirds. Unless biofuels are planted in pastures or degraded lands, she said, "we're going to be burning rainforest in our gas tanks."

2) A study published in ESA (Ecological Society of America) shows that land set aside to grow fallow would have…

"..a greater net GHG savings than having the same plots under corn ethanol production for at least four decades"

Source: http://www.esajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1890/08-0645.1

3) A study published in Science by Mellilo et al concludes:

"..Our model predicts that indirect land use will be responsible for substantially more carbon loss (up to twice as much) than direct land use; however, because of predicted increases in fertilizer use, nitrous oxide emissions will be more important than carbon losses themselves in terms of warming potential.."

Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/rapidpdf/1180251v1.pdf

4) http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/326/5952/527

Another study published in Science says:

"..Several recent studies estimate that this error, applied globally, would create strong incentives to clear land as carbon caps tighten. One study (2) estimated that a global CO2 target of 450 ppm under this accounting would cause bioenergy crops to expand to displace virtually all the world's natural forests and savannahs by 2065, releasing up to 37 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year (comparable to total human CO2 emissions today).."

Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/326/5952/527

5) From the journal Nature:

"..At about 400 locations worldwide, agricultural fertilizer and other pollutants flowing into rivers and deltas have created underwater conditions so low in oxygen that aquatic life can't survive. These locations are called dead zones …If we did no biofuels, and we just allowed for food production to increase …you still can't meet the hypoxia goals in the Gulf of Mexico. You still need to take mitigation actions even if we didn't produce biofuels.."

Source: http://biodiversivist.blogspot.com/2009/10/transgressing-identified-and-quantified.html