Readers talk back about biofuels
Re: Fill ‘er Up
With all the talk about biofuels, the single most efficient and productive plant is always left out of the equation: hemp! Henry Ford built and fueled a car with it, one acre of it equals four of timber, and you harvest it every year.
Before its demonization during the 1930s, it was the single most useful plant known to humans — there are over 25,000 known uses. Fuel, food, shelter, medicine, pleasure, spirituality — there is nothing like it. The reason it remains illegal has never had anything to do with how it affects our minds and bodies; it is illegal because of the damage it could do to the oil, timber, cotton, dairy, alcohol, textile, tobacco, and other industries.
While I admire Tom Philpott’s work in general, a 2,800-word opinion piece on the evil giant that is Archer Daniels Midland was not what I expected when I set out to read this article.
I’d love to think ADM was a corporate evildoer — I basically already think that — but this story didn’t expand my horizons on that front, because I’m not sure I can trust it. As a journalist, Philpott’s job is to conduct interviews, get multiple angles on the story, and craft a narrative out of that. This story read as though he spent a long time reading leftist books on corporate scandals and then wrote a piece on ADM and ethanol. I don’t doubt most of it is true, but I’d like to see the opinions of historians, policy analysts, and, of course, the company itself — then I could actually trust the story.
I’d love to see good quality muckraking journalism on ADM, but this isn’t it.
I have to disagree with Stephanie: “As a journalist, Philpott’s job is to conduct interviews, get multiple angles on the story, and craft a narrative out of that.”
That format you describe is what you will find in newspapers and on television — short, watered down, inaccurate, “balanced” entertainment for the masses tailored not to offend subscribers or advertisers. If it is entertainment you are after, stick to your newspapers. If you are looking for tons of data presented in an extensive, well-written format (including six internet links), complete with intelligent, well-defended critique from a writer who knows the subject intimately, well, you’re here.
Interviews are certainly not necessary in today’s data-rich (internet-accessible) world. An interview is a really inefficient place to mine for data and certainty; such data carries no guarantee of validity. What value does the opinion of an interviewee have, especially one of a corporate representative?
You lost me when you said you are not sure you can trust the article. What exactly do you mean? A list of citations at the end of the article isn’t usually done here, but I’m sure one could be provided. When was the last time you read a newspaper article with citations and footnotes? Tom’s opinions are easy to parse out from facts, and agreeing with all of them is not a prerequisite for reading the article.
By the way, ADM isn’t evil. It is just a very successful business that has maximized profit at the expense of the environment and has plans in place to continue to utilize government subsidies to further a game plan that has proved immensely profitable in the past. Tom’s “clearly” biased articles do a fantastic job of educating us on this topic and he does so without trying to convince the reader that he has no strong opinion on the subject. You know exactly where he stands and why.
Editor’s note: What do you think? Share your two cents on Gristmill, Grist’s blog.
Thank you to Julia Olmstead for the introduction to the concept of energy balance in biofuels. I suggest not focusing too strongly on this, though.
Whether or not a biofuel uses slightly more or slightly less fossil energy to grow, process, and distribute than just burning the fossil fuel in the first place is certainly interesting. However, as an energy engineer, the larger question for me is: if we’re not even sure if its impact is positive or negative, then how much of our time and money is it worth? If going to all the trouble of making corn-based ethanol yields only a 10 percent reduction in fossil-fuel use (and concomitant environmental, political, and economic risks), then why not throw our weight behind something else? We could be spending our scarce dollars on supply options that pay back the fossil energy used to make them many times over, rather than only coming out ahead by a few percentage points.
With the same amount of investment (especially counting the vast subsidies to corn farming) we could be getting much more efficient vehicles and reducing carbon emissions and oil imports without using up sizeable portions of our land, water, soil, and other valuable resources.
Fine, Julia, but you only wrote half the article. You didn’t mention jatropha, castor bean, algae, and so forth — in other words, the oil-producing crops that don’t use up valuable cropland and fossil-fuel-based chemicals. Even if you don’t feel they are the answer, you show that you didn’t research this subject very well when you leave them out entirely and instead go after crops like corn and soybeans that are obviously entirely unsuited for biofuel production.
Escazu, Costa Rica
I was about to respond to your fundraiser when I read your starry-eyed, worshipful pieces about biofuels capitalists and realized you’re in denial about climate change and peak oil. My small contributions will better serve elsewhere. I’m sure folks like Vinod Khosla will keep you online.
Re: The Big Three
Maywa Montenegro’s article is useful, but misses a major point — there is no free lunch.
If you use switchgrass or any other plant matter to create fuel, especially if you use the residual lignin for combustion, you are depleting the soil at an incredible rate. Yields will shortly fall dramatically unless tremendous energy inputs are used to maintain soil fertility, so you’re back to square one — or zero.
Second, when she talks of 93 percent more energy out than in, that’s an energy return of less than 2:1. Petroleum yields 20:1, even now on the cusp of peak oil. If we restructured society to use perhaps 5 percent of the fuel we do now for vehicles, and none for heating or industrial processes, biofuel sources might make sense.
Re: The Big Three
The biodiesel part of the article was internally inconsistent:
“Over its lifetime, pure biodiesel emits about 78 percent less CO2 than conventional diesel. Burning biodiesel also reduces emissions of smog-forming hydrocarbons and particulate matter by about 50 percent, and emissions of sulfur oxides and sulfates by 100 percent.”
“That said, researchers at the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College recently found that biodiesel production is highly efficient, generating 93 percent more energy than is required to make it. They also found that biodiesel reduces greenhouse-gas emissions by 41 percent compared with fossil fuels. When Tier 2 emissions standards bring biodiesel up to par with gasoline and ethanol for air pollutants, biodiesel seems like it should be a no-brainer for green energy.”
You are using two different CO2 numbers, and the 78 percent one wasn’t a realistic lifetime estimate. Secondly, what are you comparing biodiesel to? The particulate-matter numbers are for 100 percent biodiesel (which voids engine warranties), and they are compared to the old sulfur diesel, not today’s ultra-low-sulfur diesel. Studies show no significant difference between diesel and biodiesel when an emissions control device like a diesel particulate filter is used. Such filters will be required for all new on-road diesels in 2007.
We need to think a bit more about the diesel lifecycle. Biodiesel production is not climate neutral if there are significant land-use changes. Here’s a study that helped me ask more realistic questions about the full costs and benefits of switching to biofuels and what dramatically changing the corn and soy markets could mean for emissions: “Incorporating the Effect of Price Changes on CO2-Equivalent Emissions From Alternative-Fuel Lifecycles” [PDF].
Clean Water Action
Editor’s note: Maywa Montenegro responds to this and other reader feedback in Gristmill.
Pimentel is wrong in his analysis because he does not apply it equally when he evaluates the petroleum industry — the energy it takes to make tankers, pipelines, drilling rigs, trucks to explore new regions for oil, cleanup costs, etc. The reason you leave out the energy to make the combines, vehicles, and other equipment in ethanol production is because they are preexisting structures that would be used to produce other crops and are not single-use items. For example, if a farmer were not producing corn for ethanol, he would still own all the same equipment so that he could produce food crops. I doubt the petroleum industry would stand up to the same magnifying glass of energy usage that Pimentel applies to the ethanol industry if he were to tally up what it takes to get a gallon of gas to the pumps.