Tom Philpott

Tom Philpott was previously Grist's food writer. He now writes for Mother Jones.

Three perspectives on the biofuels debate

Imagine how amazing petroleum must have seemed back when it was an emerging alternative fuel in the U.S. Drill a hole in the ground in some parts of Texas and Pennsylvania, and rich black stuff would come gushing up, loaded with energy. What could possibly be the problem with such bounty? In some quarters, biofuels inspire similar wide-eyed wonder today. They are, after all, renewable and carbon-neutral … right? By now, most environmentalists are aware that biofuel production as currently practiced generates serious ecological problems. Moreover, it’s dominated by a few corporations that, despite billions in public subsidies, clearly place …

An interview with David Pimentel

Any worthy idea can withstand and even be improved by naysayers; scolds and skeptics play the useful role of pointing out obvious flaws. The biofuels industry has no more persistent, articulate, and scathing critic than David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University. David Pimentel. Photo: Chris Hallman / Cornell University Photography. In 1979, with the price of oil surging and a politically connected company called Archer Daniels Midland investing heavily in ethanol production, the U.S. Department of Energy invited Pimentel to chair an advisory committee to look at ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The committee’s conclusion: ethanol requires …

Consumer Reports: E85 is jive

Flex-fuel vehicles greenwash Detroit’s SUV addiction.

David mentioned something about it when it came out a couple of months ago, but as Grist wraps up its first week of biofuel coverage, it's worth pointing to again: after much testing and comparing, Consumer Reports finds the whole live-green-go-yellow, E85 thing pretty much a sham. As Grist readers will know, the government gives automakers a credit against their mileage requirements for every flex-fuel vehicle (able to run on ethanol, gas, or a mix). CR's conclusion: Detroit is using it a lever to help it churn out more gas-guzzling SUVs, and the policy is working to increase fossil fuel consumption, not stem it. The most depressing finding, for me: the greenwash appears to be sticking with the general public:

A handy biofuels glossary, and videos to boot

With all the talk of biofuels swirling around, things can get a bit confusing. So we’ve put together this handy glossary for your reference. Now you can pontificate at cocktail parties with the best of ‘em. And just to keep you awake (yeah, we remember second grade too), we’ve included some explanatory videos thanks to the good folks at Current TV. Look! Real people using and talking about biofuels! See, it’s not all just a journalistic fantasy. Got more terms to suggest? Add them in Gristmill.     Biodiesel: A fuel derived from biological sources that can be used in …

How cash and corporate pressure pushed ethanol to the fore

… got all liquored on that road house corn … — Tom Waits, “Gun Street Girl” Before it became widely used as a car fuel, ethanol was just grain liquor — and the federal government was not particularly kind to it. We pledge allegiance to ADM. Shortly after the American Revolution, the new government imposed a draconian tax on the stuff, hoping to pay down wartime debt. Instead, it got the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, an insurrection eventually put down by forces led by President Washington himself. Similar hostility — including the indignity of Prohibition, the 1920s-era federal ban on …

ADM's air-tight business model

Rising sugar prices mean even more profit for the ethanol king.

In today's Main Dish, I attempt to lay out the long and twisted tale of Archer Daniels Midland's government-aided hijacking of the nation's biofuel market. (A while back, during the Poverty and the Environment series, I tried to tell the related story of how ADM high-jacked the food system.) A few days ago, an interesting bit caught my eye in the Wall Street Journal that I couldn't fit into my piece. It's a twist on the topic of ADM, high-fructose corn syrup, ethanol, and Brazil.

Biodiesel's tropical problem

A blistering report on biofuel from the tropical south.

In today's Main Dish, Julia Olmstead surveys the environmental liabilities involved in biofuel production -- stuff you don't typically hear about in, say, an Archer Daniels Midland press release or from celebrity biodiesel enthusiasts. One of Julia's focuses is industrial biodiesel production, which, she writes, is increasingly focusing on tropical palm as a feedstock: Throughout tropical countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Colombia, rainforests and grasslands are being cleared for soybean and oil-palm plantations to make biodiesel, a product that is then marketed halfway across the world as a "green" fuel. As if on cue, today's Wall Street Journal features (sub required) a blistering report on that very topic.

How the world got addicted to oil, and where biofuels will take us

If oil is over, what’s on the horizon? Photo: They may be hyped as the way of the future, but biofuels already count as a juggernaut. Supported by the government and embraced by the Big Three automakers, ethanol is surging in the United States. Biodiesel, meanwhile, is roaring ahead in Europe as the continent strives to meet its carbon-emission obligations under the Kyoto treaty. But as we plunge headfirst into a sea of biofuel — both in the energy-hungry world and in this Grist special series — it’s worth looking back at previous energy transitions to gain insight into …

Blunt reportage on Iraq

Two stark takes from ground zero of our Gulf misadventure

John McGrath recently argued persuasively here that the Iraq War deserves to be taken more seriously by environmentalists. No one bothers to deny it's an oil war anymore; the time has come to take it seriously as such. It's important to know what precisely is happening on the ground in Iraq, and to try to get a handle on the labyrinthine politics now at play. To that end, here are two blunt recent reports.