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 The Backlash Against Biofuels

14/09/2007 (The Investor's Business Daily) - Alternative Energy: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says biofuels may do more harm than good and that supporters may have a hidden agenda. Should corn be in our gas tank as well as our cereal bowl?

In its most recent report on biofuels, the Paris-based OECD says the use of fuels such as ethanol made from corn, palm oil and other sources using crops as raw material amounts to "a cure that is worse than the disease they seek to heal."

"When acidification, fertilizer use, biodiversity loss and toxicity of agricultural pesticides are taken into account, the overall impact of ethanol and biodiesel can very easily exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel," reports the group, which is hardly a shill for the oil industry.

The organization says governments "should cease to create new mandates for biofuels and investigate ways to phase them out," avoiding technologies that compete for land use with fuel production. But it noted this would not be easy since politicians have a vested interest in backing increased biofuel use.

As the OECD notes, "Biofuel policy may appear to be an easy way to support domestic agriculture against the backdrop of international negotiations to liberalize agricultural trade." In other words, saving the Earth often comes second to saving the family farm. Green also is the color of money and campaign contributions.

In the U.S., you can connect the dots between increasing mandates for ethanol use and the fact that the first stop on the presidential campaign calendar is the corn state of Iowa. Politicians who whine about the price of gasoline fall over themselves to support ethanol, which drives up prices at the grocery store to which we drive.

We now subsidize ethanol production to the tune of $7 billion a year. This encourages crop production for fuel, not food, and the competition for a finite crop of corn drives up the price of everything at the supermarket.

It also comes at an environmental cost. We recently noted that agricultural runoff due to the rush to increase corn production has contributed to the creation of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere along our coasts.

An oxygen-poor dead zone, created by oxygen-sucking algae fed by nutrients used to grow corn and other bio-fuels in the Midwest watershed of the Mississippi River, already exists in the Gulf of Mexico. The 7,900-square-mile area with almost no oxygen — a condition called hypoxia — is about the size of Connecticut and Delaware together.

Ethanol from corn sounds like an energy panacea, but the devil is in the details. It takes 4,000 gallons of fresh water per acre per day to replace evaporation in a cornfield. Each acre requires about 130 pounds of nitrogen and 55 pounds of phosphorous. Never mind the fossil fuel used by farm equipment needed to plow, cultivate and harvest the crop.

Then the corn must be refined into a product that produces 20% to 30% less energy than gasoline and transported around the country by truck.

In the rush to develop these alternative fuels, forests in Asia have been burned to clear land for palm oil, and large swaths of the Amazon rain forest are being stripped of diverse vegetation for soy and sugar plantations used to produce the raw material for making ethanol.

Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, recently led a team that compared the benefits of palm oil to the ecological harm from clearing virgin Asian rain forests for new plantations. As a fuel, he concluded, palm oil was more like snake oil, noting: "As a biofuel, it's a failure."

To borrow a phrase from another era, we may be destroying the Earth in order to save it.

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