a great idea on a SMALL scale, disaster on a big scale
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February 12, 2008
by The Guardian/UK
Apart From Used Chip Fat, There Is No Such Thing as a Sustainable Biofuel
Even capitalists now admit the oil crisis is real. But their solutions border on lunacy as they avoid the obvious answer
by George Monbiot
Now they might start sitting up. They wouldn’t listen to the environmentalists or even the geologists. Can governments ignore the capitalists? A report published last week by Citibank, and so far unremarked on by the media, proposes “genuine difficulties” in increasing the production of crude oil, “particularly after 2012″. Though 175 big drilling projects will start in the next four years, “the fear remains that most of this supply will be offset by high levels of decline”. The oil industry has scoffed at the notion that oil supplies might peak, but “recent evidence of failed production growth would tend to shift the burden of proof on to the producers”, as they have been unable to respond to the massive rise in prices. “Total global liquid hydrocarbon production has essentially flatlined since mid 2005 at just north of 85m barrels per day.”
The issue is complicated, as ever, by the refusal of the Opec cartel to raise production. What has changed, Citibank says, is that the non-Opec countries can no longer answer the price signal. Does this mean that oil production in these nations has already peaked? If so, what do our governments intend to do?
Nine months ago, I asked the British government to send me its assessments of global oil supply. The results astonished me: there weren’t any. Instead it relied exclusively on one external source: a book published by the International Energy Agency. The omission became stranger still when I read this book and discovered that it was a crude polemic, dismissing those who questioned future oil supplies as “doomsayers” without providing robust evidence to support its conclusions. Though the members of Opec have a powerful interest in exaggerating their reserves in order to boost their quotas, the IEA relied on their own assessments of future supply.
Last week I tried again, and I received the same response: “The government agrees with IEA analysis that global oil (and gas) reserves are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the foreseeable future.” Perhaps it hasn’t noticed that the IEA is now backtracking. The Financial Times says the agency “has admitted that it has been paying insufficient attention to supply bottlenecks as evidence mounts that oil is being discovered more slowly than once expected … natural decline rates for discovered fields are a closely guarded secret in the oil industry, and the IEA is concerned that the data it currently holds is not accurate.” What if the data turns out to be wrong? What if Opec’s stated reserves are a pack of lies? What contingency plans has the government made? Answer comes there none.
The European commission, by contrast, does have a plan, and it’s a disaster. It recognises that “the oil dependence of the transport sector … is one of the most serious problems of insecurity in energy supply that the EU faces”. Partly in order to diversify fuel supplies, partly to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it has ordered the member states to ensure that by 2020 10% of the petroleum our cars burn must be replaced with biofuels. This won’t solve peak oil, but it might at least put it into perspective by causing an even bigger problem.
To be fair to the commission, it has now acknowledged that biofuels are not a green panacea. Its draft directive rules that they shouldn’t be produced by destroying primary forest, ancient grasslands or wetlands, as this could cause a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Nor should any biodiverse ecosystem be damaged to grow biofuels.
It sounds good, but there are three problems. If biofuels can’t be produced in virgin habitats, they must be confined to existing agricultural land, which means that every time we fill up the car we snatch food from people’s mouths. This, in turn, raises the price of food, which encourages farmers to destroy pristine habitats - primary forests, ancient grasslands, wetlands and the rest - in order to grow it. We can congratulate ourselves on remaining morally pure, but the impacts are the same. There is no way out of this: on a finite planet with tight food supplies, you either compete with the hungry or clear new land.
The third problem is that the commission’s methodology has just been blown apart by two new papers. Published in Science magazine, they calculate the total carbon costs of biofuel production. When land clearance (caused either directly or by the displacement of food crops) is taken into account, all the major biofuels cause a massive increase in emissions.
Even the most productive source - sugar cane grown in the scrubby savannahs of central Brazil - creates a carbon debt which takes 17 years to repay. As the major carbon reductions must be made now, the net effect of this crop is to exacerbate climate change. The worst source - palm oil displacing tropical rainforest growing in peat - invokes a carbon debt of some 840 years. Even when you produce ethanol from maize grown on “rested” arable land (which in the EU is called set-aside and in the United States is called conservation reserve), it takes 48 years to repay the carbon debt. The facts have changed. Will the policy follow?
Many people believe there’s a way of avoiding these problems: by making biofuels not from the crops themselves but from crop wastes - if transport fuel can be manufactured from straw or grass or wood chips, there are no implications for land use, and no danger of spreading hunger. Until recently I believed this myself.
Unfortunately most agricultural “waste” is nothing of the kind. It is the organic material that maintains the soil’s structure, nutrients and store of carbon. A paper commissioned by the US government proposes that, to help meet its biofuel targets, 75% of annual crop residues should be harvested. According to a letter published in Science last year, removing crop residues can increase the rate of soil erosion a hundredfold. Our addiction to the car, in other words, could lead to peak soil as well as peak oil.
Removing crop wastes means replacing the nutrients they contain with fertiliser, which causes further greenhouse gas emissions. A recent paper by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen suggests that emissions of nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas 296 times more powerful than CO2) from nitrogen fertilisers wipe out all the carbon savings biofuels produce, even before you take the changes in land use into account.
Growing special second-generation crops, such as trees or switchgrass, doesn’t solve the problem either: like other energy crops, they displace both food production and carbon emissions. Growing switchgrass, one of the new papers in Science shows, creates a carbon debt of 52 years. Some people propose making second-generation fuels from grass harvested in natural meadows or from municipal waste, but it’s hard enough to produce them from single feedstocks; far harder to manufacture them from a mixture. Apart from used chip fat, there is no such thing as a sustainable biofuel.
All these convoluted solutions are designed to avoid a simpler one: reducing the consumption of transport fuel. But that requires the use of a different commodity. Global supplies of political courage appear, unfortunately, to have peaked some time ago.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
The current goldrush toward agrofuels is prompting some interesting insights of late. Tomorrow's Guardian newspaper out of the UK: ("The era of "agrofuels" has arrived, and the scale of the changes it is already forcing on farming and markets around the world is immense.")
and the very highly regarded GRAIN team out of Spain ("...the push for agrofuels amounts to nothing less than the re-introduction and re-enforcement of the old colonial plantation economy...") has an excellent biofuels resource page:
|powering the electric grid with wood chips|
With more than 7,000 MW of installed capacity, biomass is the second-most utilized renewable power generation resource in the U.S. The 37 billion KWH of electricity produced each year from biomass is more than the entire state of Colorado uses annually. Generating this amount of electricity requires around 60 million tons of biomass per year.
With an estimated 14,000 MW of annual worldwide installed generation capacity, biomass power is the largest source of non-hydro renewable electricity in the world. The U.S. is the largest single Bio-Power generator, representing a $15 billion investment and 66,000 jobs. In the future, the continued need for on-site industrial power, waste reduction, stricter environmental regulations, and rising consumer demand for renewable energy, will provide the main impetus for the industry's growth.
Worldwide Bio-Power generation is expected to grow to more than 30,000 MW by 2020. Developing countries are the top markets because of rapid economic growth, burgeoning demand for electricity, mounting environmental problems, and the need for rural electrification and reliable electricity. Most of them also have significant quantities of agricultural or forestry residues.
Recent studies indicate that additional (presently unused) quantities of economically available biomass may exceed 39 million tons per year in the U.S.-enough to supply about 7,500 MW of new Bio-Power, or a doubling of the existing U.S. Bio-Power capacity.
note: that increase would result in biomass running about one percent of the US electric grid
|best intentions turn counterproductive|
January 31, 2007
Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an Eco-Nightmare
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
AMSTERDAM, Jan. 25 — Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental
groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption of
“sustainable energy,” achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to
use biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia.
Spurred by government subsidies, energy companies became so enthusiastic
that they designed generators that ran exclusively on the oil, which in
theory would be cleaner than fossil fuels like coal because it is derived
But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in
Indonesia and Malaysia, this green fairy tale began to look more like an
Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge
tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer
Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations
was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts
of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
The Canada Earthsaver September/October 2007
Can Biofuels Save the World?
By Dave Steele
People are just beginning to catch on. We're recycling. We're
reusing. We're driving less. We're eating as low on the food chain as
we can. And for good reason.
James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies warns
that, if current levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue, sea
levels will rise 5 meters (16 feet!) before this century is up. Two
million square miles of land - equivalent to two Indias - will be
submerged; close to 1 billion people will be displaced from their
homes. Still, greenhouse gas emissions are forecast to increase. Oil
industry experts agree that oil supply cannot meet demand over the
next 25 years, but coal companies plan to fill the gap with 'liquid
coal' - a fuel that pumps more than twice as much CO2 per liter into
the air than gasoline does. Add in population growth and the
increasing prosperity of large parts of the developing world and
things in the long term look bleak indeed.
Obviously we need to do something. And reducing and reusing and
especially eating a plant-based diet are powerful remedies. But there
must be more. What about biofuels? Things like ethanol from corn and
diesel from soybeans?
On the surface they look great. A panacea, in fact. We're told they
can rescue us from both global warming and the looming fuel crunch.
They'll let us keep our cars, in good conscience, even as the oil
supply runs out.
Touted as carbon neutral because they are made largely of atmospheric
carbon captured by plants, biofuels are better for the atmosphere
than 'liquid coal.' But, that's not saying much. And, viewed
realistically, they are probably a worse threat than even the coal.
More than oil depletion and more than expanding animal agriculture,
biofuels threaten our very ability to feed ourselves. According to a
recent BBC report, they're already consuming one-third of United
States' corn production.
Biofuels are not carbon neutral. Tons of fertilizer and petroleum and
machinery are required to plow the land and grow the crops that
become ethanol and biodiesel. More energy still is required to refine
the fuels and get them to market. Ethanol, for example, is more
corrosive than gasoline and thus can't be moved in pipelines. It must
be moved by train or tanker truck. According to Cornell University's
David Pimentel and Berkeley's Ted Patzek, all told it takes more
energy to make these fuels than we get back when we burn them.
According to these world-renowned scientists, biofuels actually
contribute, ounce for ounce, more to global warming than petroleum
Others dispute this contention, but a quick perusal of even the most
conservative of biofuels studies shows just how scary these fuels
are. If all of the soy and corn currently grown in the United States
was used to fuel cars and trucks, it could replace just 12% of our
gasoline and 6% of our diesel needs. 'Cellulistic' ethanol, produced
from trees or grasses, may one day constitute a more efficient
biofuel but even if so, it can never be produced on the necessary
scale without seriously compromising our food supply, our native
lands and our forests. By current technology, it's little better than
Tropical biofuels are no better. Rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia
are already being bulldozed to grow biofuel sugar cane and palm oil,
accelerating global warming, destroying the habitats of orangutans
and spider monkeys, polluting waterways with fertilizer and pesticide
and topsoil runoff, and costing native peoples their homes and
livelihoods. Of course, similar things are happening in North
America, too, as we expand the land under intensive agriculture to
take advantage of the ethanol boom. Conventional farming and
especially animal agriculture are already degrading agricultural
lands at alarming rates; biofuels promise to accelerate the process
There are 800 million cars in the world today. As the oil runs low,
we can't keep them. We must abandon them. The sooner the better. Very
light solar/electric cars should be developed in their stead. In the
meantime, try transit or bicycling or ride an electric scooter. And
definitely eat low on the food chain. Factory-farmed animals are
almost as inefficient as cars at converting plant matter to something
useful to us.
August 25, 2007
To eat . . . . or to drive?
Farmers all over the world are finding a sudden boom in demand for their crops – but as fuel for cars rather than as food
Leo Lewis, Asia Business Correspondent
Finishing her bag of Karu cheese-flavoured snacks, Shoko Taketani blushes and admits that she still feels oddly peckish. It is not her imagination: Japanese crisp packets contain 10 per cent fewer crisps than they did a month ago.
In Munich, beer at this year’s Oktoberfest will be the most expensive in the festival’s history and Matthaias Hickl is breaking the habit of a lifetime: he is staying away in protest.
In Kuala Lumpur, Rhosdi is mulling a decision he thought would always be beyond him: whether to trade in his motor scooter for his first car. He is one of the 1.2 million Malaysian civil servants who have just received a windfall pay increase — their first in 15 years.
Though geographically diverse and apparently unrelated, these developments are in fact connected, symptoms of a new global trend. Stomachs and petrol tanks are for the first time in competition and farmers everywhere are asking themselves a novel question: am I planting food or energy?
There is no single source for the revolution sweeping across every continent. But one starting point is Jim Curl’s 350-acre farm in Brahman, Oklahoma. This year he planted a third of it with genetically modified corn instead of the area’s traditional crop of wheat.
This amounts to 100 acres or so, a mere flap of a butterfly’s wings in the great scheme of things. But by the time the impact of Mr Curl’s decision has made its way to the other side of the world, the results are seismic.
The economics of food — what is affordable, what it costs, and what that money buys — are creating unprecedented waves through all continents. From nut plantations in Indonesia to barley fields along the Rhine, farmers are all adjusting to this new world.
Part of the result is tortilla riots in Mexico, the astonishing leap in Brazilian chicken leg prices and mayonnaise price spikes in Western Europe.
These, say industry insiders, are the first skirmishes of a conflict that could soon dominate geopolitics: the war for resources between the world’s 800 million cars and its six billion stomachs. In the developed world, the war will come down to price and choice; in the developing world it could come down to survival.
The war centres largely on global demand for biofuels — “green” replacements for petrol, such as ethanol, that can be produced from sugar, corn and other agricultural products rather than fossil fuels.
Farmers are making a perfectly rational economic choice. With the price of crude oil high, they are planting crops to meet demand for cheaper biofuels. But converting more crops into energy means there is less to go into foodstuffs. And so the price of those foodstuffs rise.
The price increases for German beer, for instance, arise from replacing barley fields with ethanol feedstocks. And the consequences are widespread.
“I’m not going to the Oktoberfest this year,” Mr Hickl said. A Bavarian based in Milan, the 40-year-old artist is accustomed to joining countrymen on the annual pilgrammage to perhaps the world’s biggest drunken party. But no more. “The price of a measure is heading up towards ¤eight euros<NO>and at that rate only tourists and the super-rich can afford to get drunk,” Mr Hickl said. “I’m furious — and I’m not going.”
The US is a driving force in such change. In January President Bush called for a massive increase in the use of ethanol over the next decade — a move regarded by traders as setting the battle lines of the future conflict. America now devotes more acreage to growing corn than at any time since 1944. Farmers planted 90.5 million acres this year, 15 per cent more than 12 months ago. But little of it will go anywhere near a dinner plate.
If White House targets to double ethanol production by next year are achieved, and in due course 40 per cent of that corn ends up in petrol tanks, the world may have a difficult, expensive time feeding itself.
This emphasis on ethanol as the biofuel of choice, said Michael Lewis, Deutsche Bank’s head of commodities research, has created unprecedented competition between food and energy. “Agricultural commodities are the subject of a growing battle between the demands of automobiles in the US and the demands of feeding people in the developing world,” he said.
In Oklahoma, the choice for farmers like Mr Curl is a micro one. Some 80 ethanol refineries are being built in the US, to add to the 114 already up and running. One is planned near Mr Curl’s farm. “It should raise the price quite a bit,” he said — possibly to as much as $4 a bushel from the current $3.50-$3.60. And so instead of producing food, a third of Mr Curl’s land is growing future energy.
Once copied across a continent, such decisions mean farming states could become as big a player in global energy markets as a member of Opec (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries).
Mr Curl’s decision has momentous consequences. Planting more corn for ethanol has meant a 15 per cent cut in the amount of land devoted to soya. So soya oil prices are rising. That in turn has opened the door to cheaper palm oil — 90 per cent of which comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.
That surge in sales of palm oil is, in Malaysia in particular, creating dramatic social change overnight. Government coffers are so full that last month all civil servants — everyone from deputy public prosecutors to ministry cooks — were given pay rises of between 7.5 per cent and 42 per cent. The one-off windfall was their first salary increase since 1992 and cost the Government £1.1 billion. To make life even sweeter, the cost-of-living allowance for the same workers — who represent about a tenth of the country’s workforce — was doubled.
Suddenly, people in one of Malaysia’s most underpaid and conservative sectors are talking about dipping their toes in the stock market, buying homes and upgrading their lifestyles.Rhosdi, for instance, a state-school teacher in his 30s, is able to think about the social advance involved in swapping two wheels for four.
Envious of the civil servants’ good fortune, private sector employees have begun lobbying for similar pay rises. Tellers at branches of Maybank in Kuala Lumpur have begun wearing prominent signs around their necks demanding that management “match the civil servants’ increase”.
In this complex train of economic cause and effect, there is another butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing in the shape of Liu Ping. She used to buy her monthly quota of half a pound of oil for the three members of her family with a ration coupon.
“The oil just about filled a beer bottle and we had to make do for a month.” That was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the family used to steam most of their food. “We just didn’t cook dishes that needed lots of oil, like eggplant or beans.” Some people used lard even in the 1980s when oil was at last available in the shops, but at a cost of 1 yuan per kilo – a lot for the average family living on 40 yuan a month.
Now Mrs Liu, 60, uses about 6 catties (pounds) of oil a month to cook for her husband and daughter, underlining how economic growth in China — and India — has created vast new markets for edible oils, particularly soya and palm oil.
Diets in China and India have changed out of recognition as prosperity has grown, creating greater demands for meat and, as a consequence, the crops that feed livestock.
Dairy is also affected. Chinese, for instance, will by 2020 be consuming about 40kg of milk per capita compared with today’s average 24kg. Milk, yoghurt, and cheese form an increasingly large proportion of urbanites’ diet. Ice cream has emerged as a favourite snack.
But it is corn — global inventories are at a record low and the price of the crop is 50 per cent higher than it was last year — and edible oils where the greatest impact is being be felt.
As the billion-strong populations of both countries gradually rise from poverty, vegetable oils – an extremely expensive proportion of the average developing world diet – have formed a greater part of everyday meals.
In Beijing, a ten-litre bottle of oil costs about 80 yuan — inexpensive for today’s new-rich city dwellers and affordable even to China’s farmers.
Within a year, say economists, China could reach the hugely significant point of becoming a net importer of corn. Oils give food a sophistication that more and more Chinese and Indians are getting a taste for.
Shoko Taketani, with her empty crisp packet in Tokyo, knows this to her cost.
— Additional reporting by James Bone in New York, Roger Boyes in Berlin and Jane Macartney in Beijing
Corn on the hop
27%: of this year’s record 12.46 billion bushel corn harvest in America will be used by the biofuel industry
15%: is the most petrol use that could be offset even if all the corn used in America were used to produce biofuel
15%: of all arable land in Europe will be needed if the EU is to meet its target of ensuring that 10% of transport is driven by biofuels 2020