Biofuels may not be the answer.

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 10:03 PM

When it comes to alternative fuel sources for transportation nowadays, everyone seems to be shouting “biofuel!” A large group of people seem to think that it’s the end-all-be-all answer to global warming and the shortage of fossil fuels. It seems like a fantastic idea – a fuel source that’s renewable and easy to create, but in the long run, depending on the type in question, there can be some nasty repercussions.

Before there was biodiesel, the response to the outcry against petroleum based fuel was ethanol. Ethanol is an alcohol that can be created from several different sources, the most common of which is corn. All in all, it sounds like a sound solution. However, due to it being a much cheaper alternative to petroleum and the easiest option being to produce conventional ethanol (ethyl alcohol created from feedstocks such as corn, soybeans, or wheat), corn ethanol-based biofuels now rival food for land and water. National Geographic Magazine’s June 2009 issue addresses the problem as part of a special report on the global food crisis. However, there are alternative sources for ethanol, which don’t involve converting feedstock into fuel. Cellulosic ethanol is created from plant waste, including agricultural plant waste, plant waste from industrial processes, and growing energy crops such as switchgrass as an alternative. Both processes involve extracting sugars and fermenting them.

Another hidden problem in biofuel production is highly unethical practices on the part of corporations involved in the industry. Mother Jones (magazine) in their March/April issue featured a segment on “Smart Growth,” involving different ecological and environmental issues. In the article “Slash and Burn,” the author, Heather Rogers, argues that biofuels may be as dangerous to the planet as petroleum. According to the article, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) destroyed 15,000 acres in Borneo that belonged to the indigenous tribes (known as the Dayak) – land that the Dayak argued were vital to their tribes’ survival and which they have legal rights to under Indonesian law – in order to make way for a massive plantation of oil palms. The oil is rendered and refined into biodiesel. After the seizure of the lands, the tribespeople registered legitimate complaints to the government, but went completely unheeded. Due to the razing of the forest and the planting of a single crop, their subsistence gardens fell to pests. The tribe later obtained a map showing the long-term plan of the company – to clearcut 50,000 acres.

British Petroleum (BP) also plans a massive biofuel project, known as ProCana. They plan to use nearly 75,000 acres to plant sugar cane to produce ethanol. Also from the same spread in Mother Jones, author of “Trouble On the Limpopo” Adam Welz states that as of 2007, biofuel investors applied for rights to use about 12 million acres in Mozambique. (An interesting note – one of the officials of the company behind ProCana freely admits that they are attempting to plant in one of the most arid areas, but are investing a fortune in drip irrigation because “You can’t produce a green fuel and waste water.” Another interesting note? Despite the drip irrigation, the project will use 108 billion gallons of water a year.) In addition, the project will force 9,000 people to relocate from their homes, and a map of the project shows that the same land promised to these people for grazing areas has also been promised to ProCana as part of their plantation land.

Biofuels are a great idea in theory, but in practice, some of them are just as bad as the petroleum fuel companies. Because more impoverished areas are easier to buy land in, the people on those lands can be forced off their property with very little effort, and they receive little support from their governments. In reality, the best, most globally-friendly transportation you can get is a bicycle, but if people are unwilling to give up their cars, it may perhaps be a better ethical choice to look further into making hydrogen fuel cell technology more readily available. In reality, it is the cleanest option available (even biofuel produces as much carbon from its initial production to being burned as petroleum) and it may be easier to avoid ethical problems, such as the ones encountered in Borneo and Africa.

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