Biofuels: The Bad, The Ugly, and a Bit of The Good

Biofuels. Biofuels. Biofuels—the word is on bumper stickers, in the press, mentioned by politicians of both parties. It’s like that classic Simpsons episode about the monorail.

Many of us associate biofuel with a neighbor puttering his Mercedes on used French-fry grease or small farmers who grow switchgrass for fuel.  What many of us don’t realize is that these associations reflect far more of biofuel’s humble beginnings than they do of the massive global commodity that is modern biofuel.  Biofuel has gone mainstream in the worst of ways; it’s Archer Daniel Midland’s (ADM) hugely profitable ethanol production; Tyson Foods’ animal-fat-into-fuel production facilities; the unholy unions between corrupt Malaysian politicians, palm oil farmers, and the rapacious tropical-hardwood logging industry.

In short, it’s gotten ugly. Worse, it can be just as bad as liquid fossil fuels.

But let’s back up a moment.

At some point the world will run out of oil. At some point before global oil depletion the cost and energy that goes into extracting the remaining oil will surpass its worth.

This will pose a considerable problem. The world’s economy is fused to liquid fossil fuels, and none of the alternative power sources out there—solar, hydro, wind, coal—can replace in kind the petroleum-dependant system in which we live, especially in regards to fueling transportation. Rather than completely modifying this system, we’re consumed with, as James Howard Kunstler wrote in The Long Emergency, the question of “how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline.” Almost every major developed country in the world has settled on biofuels as a large part of the solution. The US, European Union, China, Brazil, and India have all mandated converting 10-20 percent of their petroleum use into biofuels by 2020-2022.

These mandates have created a huge and growing demand for biofuels—it’s estimated that the global market for biofuels will rise from $83 billion in 2011 to nearly $247 billion in 2020.

That’s great, right? Better to fuel our cars from the solar energy captured by plants during photosynthesis than by using finite fossil fuels, right? Well, not always. At these scales, biofuel doesn’t necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than regular fuel from crude oil. At its worst, biofuel can be even more ecologically devastating than liquid petroleum use.

It boils down to this: increased demand for biofuels leads to direct land-use change (like replacing tropical rainforest with oil-palm plantations). Even where this doesn’t occur, there’s often indirect land-use change, meaning that if fuel crops are grown instead of food crops (or food crops are used for fuel instead of food), food crops will have to be grown somewhere else. As there is a finite amount of arable land, this often leads to ecologically destructive land conversion. And finally there’s the food vs. fuel issue: pitting fuel crops against food crops leads to higher food prices and possible food shortages, which in turn could lead to political insecurity.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Land-use change.

The most notorious example of direct land-use change is palm oil.

Palm oil is extracted from the seed of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), which yields more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop. Because of this, and the ambitious biofuel targets set by world governments, Malaysia and Indonesia are converting enormous swaths of some of the world’s last remaining tropical forests into palm oil plantations. According to Friends of the Earth, palm oil production has led to the deforestation of 16.1 million acres in Malaysia and Indonesia.

As it turns out, this deforestation is more damaging for the climate than the benefits gained by switching to biofuel. Tropical forests contain vast amounts of carbon in their trees; once those trees are cut down and burned, that carbon is released into the atmosphere. Additionally, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “considerable areas of the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia are on tropical peat soils. Peat is mostly carbon, and when the forest over it is cleared, the peat begins to oxidize and decompose. As a result, many more tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere over the succeeding years.”

As a result of oil palm plantations, Indonesia now emits more greenhouse gases than any country besides China and the United States. CO2 emissions from palm biofuels are comparable to those released from Canada’s tar sands, what may be the world’s dirtiest fuel. So it was understandable when, in January 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that biodiesel made from palm oil wouldn’t count towards the nation’s renewable fuels mandate because it is too damaging to the climate.

The thing is, it’s not just palm oil. Palm oil is especially egregious because of the peat bogs and biodiversity loss, but according to leaked EU data published by, greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels produced from soybean and rapeseed are also higher than those for conventional fossil fuels.  This is due to both indirect effects—soy has turned enormous tracts of land in South America into genetically-modified monocultures—but also because industrial agriculture is not exactly carbon neutral or a gentle use of the land. Most of the biofuel crops require vast amounts of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and water. It’s not hard to envision how meeting energy and food needs through industrial agriculture will lead to depleted soils and depleted aquifers.

This leads us to the second controversial aspect of biofuel.

The food vs. fuel debate.

The food vs. fuel debate, like indirect-land use change, is one of the most contentious issues relating to biofuels, hotly debated between farmers and environmentalists, scientists and policy makers, press and industry. That said, it doesn’t require Aristotelian levels of reasoning to figure that the more of the world’s limited arable land that’s used for fuel means less will be used for food, and that the less food that’s available for consumption means that the available food will be more expensive.

In an analysis of the cost of U.S. biofuels in terms of foregone food, the Earth Policy Institute asserted that “The 107 million tons of grain that went to the U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels.”

That the US—the world’s largest exporter of corn and soybeans—has just faced the worst drought in 50 years and the hottest July in recorded history brings this problem into focus. As a result of drought-diminished harvests (the corn harvest anticipated to be the lowest in 17 years), corn prices have been pushed to an all-time high. At the same time, the US has mandated that 42 percent of the U.S. corn crop has to be processed into ethanol (almost all gasoline in the US is a ten-percent blend of ethanol). As Colin A. Carter and Henry I. Miller argued in a recent NY Times editorial, “The combination of the drought and American ethanol policy will lead in many parts of the world to widespread inflation, more hunger, less food security, slower economic growth and political instability, especially in poor countries.”

The stakes of the food vs. fuel debate are raised even further when we consider that, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, we will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people. A study published in the journal Science declared that almost half the world’s population is projected to face serious food shortages by 2100.  Additionally, projected global climate change—especially increased droughts and heat waves—is likely to detrimentally affect crop yields.

Underlying the entire food vs. fuel debate is the question of whether biofuels are even capable of supplanting our liquid-fuel use anyway.

The answer, it seems, is no.

As Jerald L. Schnoor, lead author of a 2007 National Academy of Sciences report on biofuels put it, “Our appetite for transportation fuels is too gargantuan. We can’t grow our way out of it.” Lester R. Brown, founder of Earth Policy Institute, agrees, asserting that converting the entire grain harvest of the US into biofuels would only produce 18% of its auto fuel needs. For less-developed countries with relatively low levels of oil consumption and strong agricultural resource bases, biofuels may be able to provide a significant percentage of their energy needs. Not so with countries with US consumption levels—according to a hyperbolic yet illuminating Wikipedia entry, if the entire arable land area of the US (470 million acres) were devoted to biodiesel production from soy, we might be able to provide the 160 million tons of transportation diesel fuel and home heating oil used in the United States. Might.

The crux of the matter

Biofuels are like any other product or technology—they can be produced irresponsibly and have harmful ecological and social consequences, or they can be produced responsibly and have beneficial, if limited, impacts.

As Christopher Flavin, President of WorldWatch Institute, said: “I do think biofuels can be developed sustainably. They can be developed in a way that you would actually build carbon in the soil. They can be developed in a way that will help to stabilize agricultural landscapes and to reduce soil erosion, but that will only happen if farmers make the kind of commitment that is needed and in fact if governments have the kind of policy incentives, land use controls and laws that will ensure that that is, in fact, the case.”

Just because that is not necessarily the current case does not mean it can’t be so in the future.  In addition to better policy and controls, there are a number of sources of biofuels which do not compete with food at all, or thrive on marginal or degraded agricultural land or land where many crops will not grow. For example, oil can be extracted from halophytes that can be grown in brackish coastal areas.  Jatropha, a spurge, produces seeds containing an average of 34 percent oil, is reputedly disease and pest resistant, and can be grown on degraded lands.

Still, these sources face the same limitations of all biofuel feedstocks—once they’re produced on massive, industrial, and monoculture scales, they can have large carbon footprints. It all circles back to Kunstler’s quote about our obsession with keeping “all the cars running by some other means than gasoline”—we’re looking at biofuels as a fix for a faltering system. At best biofuels will be an important but small factor in a multifaceted strategy: fuel efficiency, mass transit, bike transit, vehicles plugging into a green grid, reducing overall transport demand, etc. And that’s the crux of the matter—we should use biofuels; we should use them responsibly; but the only thing that will save us is changing how we live our lives.


By Nathaniel Brodie


Corvallis Biodiesel Cooperative

Biofuels are great at small, local levels. Recycled vegetable oil, which is recovered from businesses and industry that use the oil for cooking, is a popular way of obtaining biodiesel. And, as long as our industrial food system remains in place, it’s also a sustainable way of obtaining biodiesel. Who can argue with using old McDonald’s fry-grease to power your Volkswagen? It also works on slightly larger scales—who can argue with the McDonalds of UK decision to produce biodiesel from the waste oil byproduct of its restaurants to run its own fleet?

Not surprisingly, a large number of folks in Corvallis collect cooking grease, convert it into biodiesel, and fuel their diesel vehicles. Corvallis Biodiesel Cooperative arose as a more efficient way of procuring grease and producing diesel for its members. However, demand quickly swamped their production capacity, and the Cooperative now focuses on distributing commercially produced biodiesel to its 35 members. They purchase biodiesel in bulk from Sequential Fuels of Eugene, Oregon, which makes 17 million gallons of biodiesel per year from waste vegetable oil.

For more information about Corvallis Biodiesel Cooperative, visit their website at