Exploding the myths behind biofuels
Renewable energy isn’t all it’s pumped up to be
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Nov. 15 proposal to reduce its biofuel target for 2014 is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough. Ethanol and other biofuel programs may have originated for the best of intentions. However, they are justified only by anti-hydrocarbon ideologies and questionable claims of “looming disasters” such as resource depletion and catastrophic, man-made global warming. They also underscore how hard it is to alter policies and programs once they have been launched by Washington.
The seductive justifications used to perpetuate them demonstrate why these programs must be sharply reduced — or scrapped:
Renewable fuels will prevent oil depletion and reduce imports. Baloney. U.S. oil and natural-gas production was declining and imports were rising for decades because environmentalists and politicians blocked leasing and drilling. They sought to justify a non-hydrocarbon future that would give them greater control over our economy and living standards. They also wanted to secure votes from farmers and companies that benefited from this Washington-mandated industry, and to transfer wealth from taxpayers and consumers to the new political power brokers.
The United States has vast storehouses of petroleum. Hydraulic fracturing alone has unlocked billions of barrels of oil-equivalent energy, created 1.7 million jobs, and generated hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity and government revenues. Opening areas now closed to leasing would greatly expand these benefits.
Renewable fuels reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and climate change. Bunk. Ethanol production and use in gasoline actually increase carbon-dioxide output and airborneozone levels.
Moreover, there is no evidence that rising carbon-dioxide levels are causing climate chaos. Average global temperatures have not increased in 16 years. Human influences on our climate are small and localized, and their effects on temperature, climate and weather are almost impossible to separate from frequent, cyclical, completely natural variability. Even the latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report finally acknowledges this temperature standstill and the inability of computer models to forecast temperatures and climate changes.
Biofuels are better for the environment. Nonsense. We are plowing an area bigger than Iowa to grow corn for ethanol — millions of acres that could be reserved for food crops or wildlife habitat. The energy per acre is minuscule compared to what we get from oil and gas. To meet the new 1.3 billion-gallon biodiesel mandate, producers will have to extract oil from 430 million bushels of soybeans — converting countless more acres from food or habitat to energy production.
Growing these fuel stocks also requires massive quantities of pesticides, fertilizers, fossil fuels — and water. The Department of Energy says fracking requires just 0.6 to 6.0 gallons of water (fresh or brackish) per million British thermal units of energy produced. Corn-based ethanol requires 2,500 to 29,000 gallons of fresh water per million BTUs of energy, and biodiesel from soybeans consumes an astounding and unsustainable 14,000 to 75,000 gallons of fresh water per million BTUs.
Farmers benefit from ethanol. Certainly, some get rich. However, beef, pork, chicken, egg and fish producers must pay more for feed, so family food bills go up. Biofuel mandates also mean international aid agencies pay more for corn and wheat, so more hungry people remain malnourished.
Ethanol results in cheaper gas and better mileage. Rubbish. Ethanol gets 30 percent less mileage than gasoline, so motorists pay the same or more per tank but can drive fewer miles. It collects water, gunks up fuel lines, corrodes engine parts, and wreaks havoc on lawnmowers and other small engines. Ethanol creates jobs. Taxpayer subsidies do prop up jobs — by taking money from productive sectors and consumers, thereby killing other jobs.
However, ethanol is creating jobs for investigators and prosecutors. They are rounding up shady ethanol dealers who fraudulently claim renewable energy tax credits or peddle bogus Renewable Identification Numbers, which refineries buy to verify that they have blended mandated amounts of ethanol into their gasoline. Because gasoline consumption is down, many refineries have hit a “blend wall.” The gasoline they produce already contains as much ethanol as vehicle engines and related equipment can safely handle. However, when the government requires them to buy still more cornpone fuel, their only alternative is to purchase Renewable Identification Numbers or pay hefty fines.
If Congress would let real free markets work, instead of mandating pseudo-markets, much of this crime and corruption would end.
About the only thing “green” about biofuels is the billions of dollars taken from taxpayers and consumers and funneled to politicians, who dole out cash to friendly constituents. They, in turn, return some of it as campaign contributions to get the pols re-elected, perpetuating the gravy train.
While both Democrats and Republicans have trouble saying no to ethanol, some are beginning to question their parties’ steadfast support for policies that promote renewable energy over oil and gas. The EPA’s recent reduction in its biofuels target represents a welcome concession to common sense.