When Fill'er Up Means Starvation - The Impact of BioFuel

by David Simms

Grandfather used to sneak off to his camp in the woods where he’d brew a few gal­lons of “firewater” for special occasions. But, Grand­father would have doubled up in laughter if someone had suggested that, one day, cars, trucks and his own farm trac­tor might run on this stuff. Almost intuitively, Grandfather knew that it took more energy to brew ethanol than the fin­ished product embodied and that, in the long-term, growing crops for fuel would be an unsustainable

exercise in mining the soil and in diverting agricultural output from where it ought to go, to the family table.

Even a quick look at the energy content of ethanol which has only 66% of the heat content of an identical vol­ume of gasoline raises suspicions. Whatever fuel is under consideration, distributing it to the consumer exacts a cer­tain energy cost. In the case of ethanol, deliveries would need to be increased by 50%, all things being equal, just to compensate for its lower heat content.

Too bad Grandfather’s no longer around to share his wisdom with the likes of George Bush, Stephen Harper or, for that matter, Elizabeth May.

Other people are ringing the alarms, however. A study by the Library of Parliament says that despite $2 billion destined for biofuels in the Conservative budget, the 10% ethanol gasoline blend aimed for won’t make much differ­ence in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But, it will take 36% of Canada’s arable land. Another study by Environ­ment Canada admits that biofuels confer no advantage in­sofar as their effects on air quality.

A study of the corn-ethanol cycle by Tad Patzek of the Berkley campus of the University of California concludes that to satisfy 10% of the US fuel con­sumption for E10, a 10% ethanol blend with gasoline, there would be the production of an additional 127 million tonnes of CO2, per annum, compared with the production of gasoline. Similar conclu­sions follow from studies by David Pimentel of Cornell.

The fact is, though, that ethanol science in the US does not speak with a single voice. Other researchers criticize Patzek and Pimentel for counting too many energy inputs in their studies. However, to get a handle on this contro­versy and an appreciation for the sharply divided differenc­es of opinion, we need to follow the money trail to realize how big money can warp ethanol science. In the US, agri­business giants, companies like Carghill or Archer Daniels Midland, get to pass GO twice in their quest for govern­ment handouts; once for growing corn, a second time for producing ethanol.

The US is hardly alone with its fetish for combustible brews. Brazil, setting an unfortunate trend, now runs much of its fleet on ethanol and even produces ethanol for ex­port. But, to grow sugar cane for ethanol, Brazil is chopping away at the lungs of the planet, the Amazon Rainforest. Quite apart from questions of energy balance, these actions reduce the carbon uptake by trees living in an area of very high rates of respiration thereby adding to global warming indirectly. There are many sides to the ethanol question. Quibbling over fuel prices and simply saying “fill ‘er up” doesn’t do justice to the subject.

To satisfy the energy deficit in the production of etha­nol, distillation plants in the US are now burning coal to fuel the process. Illinois, an agribusiness state with huge coal deposits, sees itself as the ideal place for the produc­tion of ethanol. The spin doctors are now marrying “green fuels” to “clean coal” but this is an effort to manage percep­tion in order to gain public acceptance. There is nothing green about ethanol and there is nothing clean about coal. Burning coal produces large amounts of carbon dioxide for each unit of energy released. A sustainable process would use energy from ethanol to distill new ethanol as well as to supply the other energy demands in its production but, there is simply not enough energy in ethanol to do this. So, GHG emissions go way up, not down. This is not a green story.

The impact of corn-for-ethanol on market economics, given the huge subsidies distributed by the US government, is already beginning to show its face. A recent Washington Post article reveals that, in Mexico, there has been a four-fold increase in the cost of tortillas, a corn-based staple of the Mexican diet. Due in large part to the diversion of food to the production of fuel for Mexico’s largest trading part­ner, the increased cost of tortillas is now affecting the diet of Mexico’s poor.

“Ethanol blend” now means that a child, somewhere, is having his or her diet impacted, that a tree has been cut and burned in the rainforest, and that greenhouse gases have been added to the atmosphere, not taken away.

The Harper government enthusiastically mimics the policies of the Bush regime but this is no surprise. We now expect it. However, the Green Party of Canada has bought into biofuels, too. In a press release dated January 8, 2007, the Green Party of Canada stated “The Green Party strongly supports the development of biofuels as part of an environ­mentally friendly economy…” as it critiqued the Clean Air Act. That the Greens find themselves on the wrong side of an issue which threatens the environment and the food sup­ply is cause for grave concern. The preachy, self-styled sav­iours of the environment have got it dead wrong, this time on their own political turf. It’s high time for the Greens to step off the pulpit of eco-evangelism and to get a grip on the facts. Honesty and accuracy are now desperately needed in this age of confusion. The Greens need more time out…this time, in the library.

Regardless of what transpires in Canada, the intentions of the US, the EU, and others to get into the large-scale biofuel production raises unbelievably grave concerns. With honest research effort, the energy balance of biofu­els may be improved but the diversion of agricultural land from food to fuel, the assault on the world’s woodlands, the prospect of irreversible soil depletion and the social effects of market dynamics on the nourishment of human beings suggests that curbing our collective appetite for gasoline and diesel is a far better answer to building energy security and lessening greenhouse gas production. Malnourishment among the children of Mexico’s poor might be biofuel’s ca­nary-in-the-mineshaft.


David Simms is a retired teacher with a life-long interest in energy matters. He once ran an off-grid household on wind power, bought, sold, rebuilt and installed wind tur­bines, and has worked in the engineering of cycle-charge and wind-diesel systems.


– Thermodynamics of Corn-Ethanol Fuel Cycle by Tad Patzek, web version updated July 22, 2006 http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/pa­pers/patzek/CRPS416-Patzek-Web.pdf

– “A Culinary and Cultural Staple in Crisis,” Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post, January 27, 2007

– An EU Strategy for Biofuels, Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission, February 8, 2006

– Green Fuel’s Dirty Secret, Sasha Lilley, Corpwatch, June 1, 2006, http://www.corpwatch.org

– “Corn-Based Ethanol from Coal-fired Plant: A Carbon Cloud over a Green Fuel,” Mark Clayton, Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2006

– “Ethanol Auto Emissions No Greener Than Gasoline:Study,” CBC, March 1, 2007

– How Much Energy Does It Take to Make a Gallon of Ethanol?, USDA Report 1992. http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/pdfs/0039.pdf

– Corn Dog, The Ethanol Subsidy is Worse than you Think, Slate, July 19, 2005

– The New Tortilla War by Luis Hernandez Navarro, The Mex Files April 4, 2007, http://mexfiles.wordpress.com

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