Biofuels: More Drain Than Gain

Beyond the extra cost to consumers, biofuels sideline food production and distract from real climate solutions

by Kenneth Sigurdson

The federal government and various provincial governments tout biofuels from crops as a climate change solution that will allow for the transition from fossil fuels to green energy. Biofuel production tends to require either subsidies or government orders requiring a certain level of biofuel consumption. Biofuels are politically convenient because mandates pass these increased costs to fuel users. This could add up to 30 cents a litre for farm diesel, yet achieves nothing for the climate.

Beyond the extra cost to consumers, biofuels have two major problems: they drain more energy than they gain, and they divert food into fuel.

Biofuels are not an energy gain

It takes more energy to create biofuel than it provides. Several years ago, at the National Farmers Union convention, Dr. Tad Patzek from the University of California (Berkeley) explained that projected energy gain from biofuels underestimates the energy required to grow and process a crop into biofuel. In Ethanol from Corn: Clean Renewable Fuel for the Future, or Drain on Our Resources and Pockets?, Paztek calculates “One burns 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent in fossil fuels to produce 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent as ethanol from corn. Then corn ethanol is burned as a gasoline additive or fuel. Burning the same amount of fuel twice to drive a car once is equivalent to halving the fuel efficiency of those cars.”

In the US, a mere 10% of all the wheat, rice, corn, rye, oats, barley, sorghum grown is eaten by people. The rest is for animal feed and biofuels.
— From Stephen Leahy, “Food Crisis and the Ethanol Connection, Need to Know.

Biofuels turn food into fuel

Meeting the potential demand for biofuel would require diverting huge volumes of food crops into biofuel production. Canada uses about 110 billion litres of refined fuel annually. There is no way to produce enough biofuel to fulfill that demand. Simple math makes this obvious. Canadian farmers grow about 45 million acres of canola and wheat. An acre of canola yields 37 bushels (10-year average yield) and a bushel of canola (22.7 kg) produces 9 litres of oil, so that gives 333 litres of oil per acre. Even if we turn all 45 million acres into canola it would only produce about 15 billion litres of fuel. This would fuel Canada for about 45 days.

Turning all the wheat and canola acres into biofuel would mean no wheat or canola exports, no canola oil, no wheat for a hungry world. Even worse, it would not create any net energy as it takes more fossil fuel energy to grow the crop and process it than biofuels provide.

Of the world’s cereal crop production (rice, wheat, corn, etc)
48% is eaten by humans
41% is used for animal feed
11% for biofuels (ethanol, biodiesel)

Biodiesel is a costly process

Not only does biofuel require vast amounts of land to grow crops but producing it is extremely expensive. A bushel of canola costs $24.00 and provides 9 litres of biodiesel. So it costs $2.70 a litre just for the seed to make biodiesel.

Making canola oil into biodiesel is not something you do in the backyard or in your garage. Refining raw canola into biodiesel requires expensive equipment, hazardous chemicals, protective equipment, and specialized waste disposal. It uses toxic chemicals such as hexane, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric and hydrochloric acids, and methanol. It is energy-intensive and expensive. These costs are why biodiesel is 2.8 times more costly than petroleum-based diesel. Farmers using petrol diesel produce fewer greenhouse gases than they will using biodiesel.

Inefficient grain transport

The recently-announced partnership between Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) and AGT Foods to process canola and build a biodiesel plant at Regina by 2027 is an example of how biofuel mandates create problems. Most of the canola will have to be hauled by semitruck rather than rail into Regina. Taking grain off the rails and creating more greenhouse gas is not good for the environment. Of course, FCL will pass these costs onto the users of diesel, including FCL members.

When I was growing up on a farm in Manitoba, all grain was transported by train and nearly all farm supplies, machinery, fuel, fertilizer, and parts arrived by rail (as did passengers). Rail transport is ten times more energy efficient than truck transport – a considerable positive when looking at ways to reduce energy consumption to deal with the climate crisis. It is time for Canada to revitalize its rural railway networks.

Loss of Wheat Board efficiency

Since the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) was eliminated by the Harper government in 2012, farmers and rural communities have lost billions in revenue. The Harper government transferred the CWB assets to US-based agribusiness company Bunge and the government of Saudi Arabia. The farmer-owned CWB coordinated the movement of grain from the prairies to the ships waiting at ports, and nothing has replaced this centralized coordination. Now grain handling and transportation is an inefficient and costly system, which also adds greatly to greenhouse gas emissions and marine pollution.

Biofuels sideline real solutions

When governments push non-solutions like biofuels, they shove aside more important initiatives. Using more rail to move bulk commodities, the electrification of transportation, wind energy, solar, ground-sourced geothermal, home insulation, public transportation, and even planting trees are all more effective ways to cut greenhouse gasses.

Biofuels like ethanol not only require diverting agricultural production away from food, thus driving up prices and placing unfair burdens on the world’s poorest people, but also present a fake climate change solution that hinders the growth of real solutions to the climate crisis.

Kenneth Sigurdson is a longtime member of the National Farmers Union who has made presentations to governments and the public on the fallacies of biofuels for the NFU.

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