On Saturday I received an email with a link to an article by Lisa Stiffler in Friday’s Seattle Times. I’m going to use it to demonstrate how newspapers can muddy the water when it comes to complex issues.

First, her article is a perfectly good one — and a very typical one. You can’t put a hyperlink on paper. You can’t afford to waste space for footnotes. You are constrained by a word count. You also have to craft a story, keep it local, and do your best not to show whatever bias you may have (and we all have our biases). A quick check by an editor hardly qualifies as peer review. After all, it’s a newspaper, not a research article. Finally, there is no commenter feedback to point out errors. Letters to the editor are, statistically speaking, a waste of time.

Here is a quote from The New Yorker that I scrounged off one of Dave’s link dumps:

Journalism works well, Lippmann wrote, when “it can report the score of a game or a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch.” But where the situation is more complicated … journalism “causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.”

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Lisa’s article follows this one in The New York Times (February 8) and this one in Time magazine (March 27), both of which were kicked off by new research findings that made a splash because they showed (for independent reasons) that the crop-based biofuels being produced today are little better and in many cases far worse for global warming than the fossil fuels they are replacing. Biofuel proponents of course immediately attacked all of these studies. The authors in turn responded with point-by-point rebuttals. Interestingly enough, I tried to get the Seattle PI interested in the latest science findings with an op-ed piece long before The New York Times caught on, but I never heard back. A few months later, someone mentioned to me that they had read my letter to the editor. I had no idea they had published it. In any case, they didn’t do a story on it. Biodiesel is big in this town. You don’t mess with biodiesel. Here is a quote from Jay Inslee‘s book Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy:

Despite the good news [biofuels], the transformation cost at least one man his job. Any transition causes dislocation, but in this case the victim was a state representative who spoke poorly of the biodiesel plan and was promptly thrown out of office by his angry constituents. Voters do not like a naysayer, particularly one trying short shrift to economic recovery and the potential of clean energy.

Note: Since then, the biodiesel refiner he is referring to (the same one in which the city of Seattle now has part of its retirement portfolio invested) has laid off employees, fired a CEO, failed to launch an IPO, and purportedly made, under political pressure, about 1 percent of its biodiesel from Washington state crops.

OK. Let’s pretend that this article had appeared in a blog instead of a newspaper, and some self-righteous bleeding heart liberal like myself is the first to comment.

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Amid a global food crisis, some wonder: Is the production of biofuels robbing from dinner plates?

The issue has moved well beyond the point of wondering. There is no doubt that biofuels have greatly exacerbated the issue. Thirty-five thousand square miles of the most productive farmland on the planet was diverted to our gas tanks last year.

Critics say the use of foreign-grown palm oil and soybeans as a biofuel source leads to the destruction of precious rain forests.

To label world-class scientists as “critics” casts them and their findings in a critical light. There is no doubt that palm oil and soybeans are destroying precious rainforest. That fact and the fact that biodiesel is made from those crops is irrefutable. The use of the phrase “foreign-grown” suggests to readers that crops grown within the U.S. border won’t cause this destruction when in reality, the latest science has shown that usurpation of these local crops to fuel our cars is causing farmers in the Amazon to grow crops for food.

And the very act of producing certain biofuels generates greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change — although generally in lesser amounts than fossil fuels.

The author says biofuels generally create lesser amounts than fossil fuels; however, a recent study by an international team of scientists including Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel prize for his work on ozone, found that rapeseed crops emit up to 70 percent more greenhouse gas on a lifecycle basis than regular diesel, because of higher than realized nitrous oxide release. Corn emits up to 50 percent more. Even cane-based ethanol was only 10-50 percent better.

In studies recently published in Science, it was found that all of these crops are displacing carbon sinks around the world. Depending on the crop and the type of ecosystem carbon sink sent into the atmosphere, it could take anywhere from decades to centuries to recoup the greenhouse gases released by the plowed under carbon sink. Soy, rapeseed, palm, corn, and cane all create more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, either via crop displacement effects or nitrous oxide release, or both. Even cane can take up to 45 years to recoup greenhouse-gas emissions if the crop displaces livestock into the Amazon (the biggest cause of deforestation, which is the second leading cause of greenhouse gases). Biofuels are land constrained.

At Dr. Dan’s Alternative Fuelwerks in Ballard, owner Dan Freeman is feeling wrongly maligned.

He said that critics are confusing the biodiesel that he sells with the gasoline-additive ethanol, which in the United States is made almost exclusively from corn, mostly grown in the Midwest.

People come to him and say “you’re driving up the price of corn and killing Mexicans,” Freeman said on a recent afternoon, taking a break from greasy repairs to a jacked-up older diesel Mercedes.

Freeman, who was among the earliest biodiesel retailers when he opened in 2001, is choosy about his fuel sources. He regrets buying his biodiesel from out of state, but it’s the only way to get 100 percent U.S.-grown, soy-based fuel.

I’ve talked to Dan a few times, although I’ve never actually introduced myself. He’s a very likable guy. As an entrepreneur, I wish him luck. He’s just trying to spin his product. He has to try to deflect criticism of the fuel stock used to make the fuel he buys. It is also unlikely that Dan has much choice in the matter. The soy-based biodiesel he buys is probably his most profitable option. For those of you who are going to buy biodiesel regardless of what anyone says, and assuming you can’t get something made from waste grease, buy it from someone like Dan, who has a small business and at least sells locally.

He likes the crop because the fuel oil is extracted from the bean, then the remainder of the legume is used to feed livestock, reducing the impact on food production.

I have also heard him say that soy oil is just a byproduct left over from crushing the beans. This satisfies most people, because they assume a byproduct must be the same thing as a waste product, which isn’t the case at all. Roughly half the value of a soy crop is in the oil. There have been recent serious vegetable oil shortages in parts of the world where it is used daily to fry meals in open skillets or woks. The average American would burn about 15 acres of that oil annually in a biodiesel-burning car.

biofuel growth What he has done above is essentially flip the argument to where the crushed beans have become the byproduct instead of the oil. The crush goes on to become mostly livestock feed (livestock process raw grain into more palatable foods, like eggs, dairy, and meat) but about half of the value of the crop (the oil) is still taken from the human food chain. Rapeseed plants are also fed to cattle, as are the distiller’s grains resulting from corn ethanol production. So, really, this argument isn’t any more valid for soybeans than it is for corn ethanol. Look at the chart above and imagine the ecological destruction that crop-based biodiesel would cause if its production ramped up to that of ethanol. Keep in mind, it takes five times as much land to produce the same energy with a soy crop as it does a corn crop.

“Our big goal is to have locally grown and consumed (biodiesel),” Freeman said. “That really hasn’t happened yet.”

I think that is more of a wish than a goal. It is unlikely to ever happen.

Other current biodiesel sources include canola, rapeseed, and cooking oil. Ethanol comes from sugar cane as well as corn. The only way to know what your biofuel is made from is to ask the producer.

Rapeseed is canola. They renamed it because nobody in their right mind wants to market a product with a name like that. Waste oil is the only one on the list that is not worse than the fossil fuel equivalent from a greenhouse gas perspective. There is also a Swiss study that has given these fuels a worse overall environmental rating than fossil fuels.

While biofuels do compete for food and cropland, experts said they’re not the primary problem when it comes to soaring food prices and global food shortages. A spate of weather-related disasters — droughts in Australia and Russia, frost in the Midwest, torrential summer rains in Europe — made a mess of crops over the past year. Rising incomes in China and India mean many more people are eating higher on the food chain, sending more crops to feedlots to grow beef and pork. High prices for fuel and fertilizer also contribute to the food woes.

The important fact is that millions are starting to go hungry, not which of the big five players is the most responsible. Who are these experts, where are their studies, and lacking any studies, how do their opinions stack up to the experts who say biofuels are a primary cause?

Droughts and agriculture are ancient adversaries. Crop prices are always affected by weather, and rising incomes don’t spike in just a few years. They gradually rise with an economy. Forget the science; let’s use some common sense. How can ripping 35,000 square miles of the world’s most productive farmland out of the human food chain to fuel our cars not have a major impact? Keep in mind that this isn’t investigative journalism. It isn’t Lisa’s job to be critical.

Researchers from the University of Washington and the Seattle office of The Nature Conservancy examined the most popular plants used to make biodiesel and ethanol. They looked at the amount of greenhouse gases generated in the growing, harvesting, producing and burning of fuel made from different crops. Their study, published in February in the peer-reviewed journal Conservation Biology, tallied the amount of water, fertilizer, pesticide, and land needed to grow the plants. It looked at biofuels’ impacts on biological diversity as land was shifted from various crops and fields and forests to fuel production.

Sticking with the need to stay local, the author even quotes local researchers.

All of the biofuel plants consume carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, helping reduce the effects of climate change. Different crops, however, burn fuel in the form of fertilizer, machines used for harvesting, in the refining process and so on, meaning some produce more greenhouse gases than they remove. Tracking corn from seed to ethanol, it creates greenhouse gas emissions on par with diesel and only slightly less than gasoline.

Again, this does not reflect the latest science, as I pointed out earlier. All crop-based biofuels in mass production today are producing more greenhouse gases than they remove, overall and on a lifecycle basis.

But harvesting native prairie grasses for ethanol leads to a net reduction in the planet-warming pollutants.

This statement is curious, considering that nobody has yet managed to create commercially viable ethanol from cellulose. If they ever get that far, the next step will be to measure its impact on the ecosystem. We don’t know what its impacts will be, just as we didn’t know for the fuels we use today.

On the biodiesel side, palm oil, soybeans, and canola decrease carbon dioxide emissions to about half that of diesel.

I was asked in the aforementioned email if I was aware that researchers at the University of Washington had found these crops to be 50 percent carbon neutral. I contacted the lead author, Martha Groom, for clarification, and she graciously provided me with a copy. It turns out that the study had simply referenced CO2 values from older studies. It never claimed to have calculated new values for CO2 release. Martha also told me that the paper was submitted before the studies in Science were published.

In 2006, lawmakers approved legislation requiring that ethanol make up 2 percent of gasoline and that biodiesel replace 2 percent of diesel in fuel sold in Washington by December of this year. The idea was to provide a guaranteed market to local farmers looking to transition into the potentially lucrative biofuels industry. It hasn’t worked out like that.

True that. Nor are any politicians likely to lose their jobs as a result. They all voted for it, except apparently the one guy Inslee mentions who was booted for not doing so.

No one is making ethanol here. There are four major biodiesel producers, but the largest is located on the coast, nowhere near Washington’s farm country, and it uses Canadian-grown canola for generating biodiesel. Some producers use Northwest canola, Midwest soybeans, animal byproducts after slaughter, and used cooking oil from restaurants and processed food manufacturers. That doesn’t mean Washington won’t ever be a player in the biofuels economy.

Given our state’s relatively low agriculture potential, I think it is unlikely that we can ever compete in this game, not that we even should. I’m going to guess that nobody is really using Washington state canola to a significant degree. I personally overheard a canola farmer say last summer that only 1 percent of the stock from the refiner that he sells his crop to originates in Washington state. I predicted years ago that refiners would start blending in small amounts of recycled or local stock so they could say with a straight face that the use recycled or local stock. I suspect there may be a little of that going on now.

When it comes to using these new feedstocks, it’s a question of “if and when,” said Duff Badgley, the state’s Green Party candidate for governor and an outspoken biofuels critic. He argues that the future promise of environmentally sound fuels is being used as an excuse to continue investing in current, ecologically harmful biofuel production. “Biofuels are an environmental scourge,” he said.

Enter the dirty hippie, Duff Badgley. Duff has become the go-to man when the Times or PI needs some outspoken biofuels critique.

“There are bad biofuels and there is potential for the good ones,” he said. “The potential for the good ones we haven’t fully figured out yet. It could turn out to be a good story.”

Jimmie Powell, national energy expert for The Nature Conservancy, sums up it all up with a smiley face on the end of it. We don’t get to hear which ones he thinks are good or bad. From my reading of the latest science, if it isn’t made from waste, it’s bad.