Politics & Policy

Biofuels Are Terrible for the Environment


Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and her allies are on a mission to blame Big Oil for what they believe is an inadequate global response to climate change.

To be clear, there’s nothing original about their claims. Demonizing oil and gas companies is a standard practice on the left. What beggars belief is Oreskes’s prescribed remedy for rising carbon dioxide emissions: In an October 9 op-ed in the New York Times, she claimed that rather than continuing to produce oil and natural gas, the industry should have been “investing in renewables and biofuels.

It’s hardly surprising that Oreskes, the co-author of the much-ballyhooed 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, is touting renewable energy. Environmental activists and groups from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace frequently claim that renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar are all that’s needed to fight global warming. But when she argues that biofuels are a solution to climate change, Oreskes may as well be saying that water is the cure for drowning.

Climate activists frequently talk about the potential for climate change to reduce the availability of water. If water is a concern, biofuels are the last thing we should be pursuing. In 2006, scientists at Sandia National Laboratory issued an 80-page report called “Energy Demands on Water Resources.” The report says that the amount of “water required for production of irrigated corn is 11,000 gal per MMBtu.” In layman’s terms, that means that producing one gallon of ethanol from irrigated corn requires about 880 gallons of water. The extraction and refining of conventional oil, by contrast, requires about three gallons of water for each gallon of oil produced.

In other words, the production of ethanol from irrigated corn requires nearly 300 times more water than does the production of conventional gasoline.

What about air quality? Last year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that ethanol-fueled vehicles do up to 80 percent more damage to air quality than those fueled with conventional gasoline.

Now let’s look at the climate impacts of biofuels compared with a project that has climate activists up in arms: the Keystone XL pipeline. In May, a report by the Environmental Working Group found that the use of corn ethanol “has been worse for the climate than projected emissions from the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.” The report, authored by research analyst Emily Cassidy, found that “last year’s production and use of 14 billion gallons of corn ethanol resulted in 27 million tons more carbon emissions than if Americans had used straight gasoline in their vehicles.”

A 2008 study published in Science magazine determined that when we account for land-use changes, corn-ethanol production “nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.” The same year, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the production of corn ethanol from land formerly held by the Conservation Reserve Program had resulted in greenhouse-gas emissions 2.4 times greater than those from the production of conventional gasoline.

In 2007, Jan F. Kreider, an engineering professor at the University of Colorado, and Peter S. Curtiss, a Boulder-based engineering consultant, determined that carbon dioxide emissions from corn-based ethanol are worse than those of conventional gasoline and diesel fuel. Their peer-reviewed paper, which was presented at a conference sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, concluded that during the entire life cycle of ethanol, carbon dioxide emissions are “about 50 percent larger for ethanols than for traditional fossil fuels; [ethanols] are not the answer to global warming, they make it worse.”

A study co-authored by Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzen found that, owing to releases of nitrous oxide during the production process, “commonly used biofuels such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from corn (maize), . . . can contribute as much or more to global warming” as fossil fuels. The Crutzen study confirmed the conclusions of a 1997 analysis done by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the ethanol-production process emits “relatively more nitrous oxide and other potent greenhouse gases. In contrast, the greenhouse gases released during the conventional gasoline fuel cycle contain relatively more of the less potent type, namely, carbon dioxide.”

Environmentalists have taken notice of this growing mountain of evidence. In September, a coalition of European environmental groups that included U.K.-based Biofuelwatch, as well as Friends of the Earth Denmark, Econexus, Global Forest Coalition, and the World Rainforest Movement, came out against the use of bioenergy in Europe. They said that the use of biofuels is “harming the climate. It is polluting water supplies and degrading soils. It promotes land-grabbing and the destruction of forests for monoculture agriculture and plantations.”

Carbon-dioxide emissions are ‘about 50 percent larger for ethanols than for traditional fossil fuels.’

If Oreskes didn’t want to read academic papers on the problems with biofuels, she could have instead looked at the business pages of the newspaper. Had she done so, she could have seen the many bankruptcies of companies who have tried, and failed, to come up with affordable technologies to produce biofuel from non-food crops.

She could have read about Range Fuels, a Georgia company that was backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. In 2006, Khosla claimed that making ethanol from cellulosic material was “brain-dead simple to do” and that commercial production of cellulosic ethanol was “just around the corner.” Range claimed it could profitably turn wood chips into ethanol. In 2011, it defaulted on an $80 million loan backed by the federal government and, despite having won a $76 million grant from the Department of Energy, declared bankruptcy.

Oreskes could have read about KiOR, another Khosla-backed company, which claimed that it, too, had a technology to turn wood chips into biofuels. In 2011, the company had a market capitalization of $1.7 billion; by 2014, having lost more than $600 million, it filed for bankruptcy.

Oreskes could have read a 2013 Bloomberg article that quoted Alan Shaw, the former CEO of Codexis, the first “advanced” biofuel company to be publicly traded on a U.S. stock exchange. Shaw told Bloomberg that it was impossible to economically convert crop waste, wood, and plants such as switchgrass into motor fuel. He said it was wrong to base the motor-fuel industry on plants. “The feedstock is wrong,” he said.

If Oreskes was interested in the problem of scale and biofuels, she could have picked up a military publication, such as Strategic Studies Quarterly, the U.S. Air Force’s peer-reviewed journal. In 2013, it published a lengthy article on biofuels written by T. A. “Ike” Kiefer, a recently retired Navy captain, aviator, and lecturer at the Air Force’s Air War College. Kiefer calculated that it would take 700 million acres of land planted with nothing but corn to replace all of the oil used for transportation in the U.S. with corn-based ethanol. That, he wrote, is “37 percent of the total area of the continental United States, more than all 565 million acres of forest, and more than triple the current amount of annually harvested cropland.”

When it comes to biofuels, perhaps Oreskes prefers biodiesel to ethanol. In his article, Kiefer calculated that relying on soy biodiesel to replace domestic oil needs would “require 3.2 billion acres — one billion more than all U.S. territory including Alaska.”

That Oreskes, a science historian at one of America’s most prestigious universities, is unaware — or perhaps doesn’t care to be informed — of the myriad problems with biofuels leaves me gobsmacked. In June, New York Times reporter Justin Gillis published a flattering profile of Oreskes for the newspaper in which he declared that she is “fast becoming one of the biggest names in climate science.”

The punchline here is obvious: That Oreskes can promote biofuels as a solution to climate change and yet still be considered one of “the biggest names in climate science” shows, once again, just how comically unserious the Left remains about what is actually required to reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions.

— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.


The Latest