Biofuels Aren’t a Silver Bullet

Many of us have said that, of course, but given the recent embrace of ethanol, particularly by Washington (i.e., Johnn Kerry’s speech from last week touting ethanol as a major element of energy independence), we need more op-ed pieces like this one from Sunday’s Washington Post. In this essay, James Jordan and James Powell, research professors from New York’s Polytechnic University, argue that we’ve got to take a look at the multiple limitations inherent in biofuels:

Biofuels such as ethanol made from corn, sugar cane, switchgrass and other crops are being touted as a “green” solution for a large part of America’s transportation problem. Auto manufacturers, Midwest corn farmers and politicians are excited about ethanol. Initially, we, too, were excited about biofuels: no net carbon dioxide emissions, reduction of oil imports. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic?

But as we’ve looked at biofuels more closely, we’ve concluded that they’re not a practical long-term solution to our need for transport fuels. Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn’t supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025. And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

Jordan and Powell provide ample statistics to back up their claims that we won’t grow ourselves to energy independence, at least at our current rate of consumption. Their argument implies throughout that, until we make conservation a prime element of our energy strategy, we’re kidding ourselves if we think biofuels are the answer to our current fuel woes. I don’t think we can say that enough: biofuels can certainly play an important role in creating an energy infrastructure that transitions us away from “oil addiction,” but we can’t simply start making ethanol and biodiesel, and otherwise keep doing things as we’re doing them — we’ve got to lessen the amount of energy that we use, particularly for transportation. Kerry mentions Jimmy Carter in his speech, and I think Carter may have been the last major American political leader to call for serious conservation measures. That’s the kind of talk we need to hear from our leaders. Unless our leaders have the courage to tell us that we must start doing things in fundamentally different ways, we’re simply not going to get a handle on these problems, and we may well create new ones.

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