TheWatt and Treehugger both flag a story in the Christian Science Monitor that makes my sense of uneasiness about biofuels even … uneasier.

Here’s the deal: An ethanol plant that opened last year in Iowa is burning 300 tons of coal a day. You heard me: coal. And it’s not an isolated case:

The trend, which is expected to continue, has left even some ethanol boosters scratching their heads. Should coal become a standard for 30 to 40 ethanol plants under construction — and 150 others on the drawing boards — it would undermine the environmental reasoning for switching to ethanol in the first place, environmentalists say.

It’s a farce to call ethanol a clean, renewable fuel if it involves burning coal, right? What do you have to say for yourself, ethanol industry? What could you say, what … term could you use, to answer these terrible charges?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Wait for it … wait for it … feel the love coming …

Switchgrass, baby!

Coal may end up being merely a transitional fuel in the run-up to cellulosic ethanol, including switch grass and wood, says another [industry-group Renewable Fuels Association] spokesman. …

Cellulosic ethanol … could turn the tide on coal, too, by burning plant dregs in the boiler with no need for coal at all.

Whew! Well, I feel better. You?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Here’s the essence of my problem with biofuels: As a society — most importantly, as a set of fund-allocating local, state, and federal governments — we should be making it very clear that reducing the use of fossil fuels is the goal. Ethanol is not the goal. Hybrids are not the goal. Wind and solar aren’t the goals. Green architecture is not the goal.

The goal is reducing fossil-fuel use. To the extent any of those things help, great. If they don’t, so much the worse for them.

Ethanol is close to becoming a goal unto itself. Once that happens, once ethanol subsidies start flowing and ethanol use starts being mandated, ethanol will be produced in the cheapest way possible, to maximize profit. Such is the nature of the market. If domestic subsidies are not sufficient to defray the difference in cost, somebody will start importing sugar-cane or palm-oil ethanol from overseas. If coal is a cheaper fuel for ethanol plants than natural gas or methane, coal will be used.

If ethanol is the goal, the market will ruthlessly and effectively find the cheapest route to ethanol, environmental considerations be damned.

Here’s a little piece of Econ 101: if you want less of something, tax it. We want less carbon? Tax carbon. Everything else is sound and fury.