Who’s Right on Biofuels?

WHO’S RIGHT ON BIOFUELS?…. How can America achieve energy independence? The Obama Administration believes increased production of biofuels is key, as most recently signaled by its decision to increase the amount of ethanol that can be blended with gasoline. Yet critics warn that biofuels produced from corn and other crops damage the environment and drive up the cost of food. Who’s right?

In the current issue of The Washington Monthly, two authors square off on the question. The first is retired four-star general and former Supreme Allied Commander, Wesley K. Clark., who argues that the U.S. should commit to biofuels as fully as Brazil has done for decades. Today’s major automakers produce cars for the Brazilian market that run just fine even on pure ethanol, thus saving billions on the nation’s oil bill.

Clark also points out that the efficiency of ethanol production has improved dramatically in recent years. According to a study released in June by the USDA, modern U.S. ethanol plants produce about 2.3 times more energy than they consume, including the energy required for planting, cultivating, fertilizing, and harvesting the corn from which most of ethanol is currently made in the U.S.

Yet what would be the consequences for the environment, and for the price of food, of increased biofuel production? Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, argues that the heavy use of synthetic chemicals to grow vast mono-cultures of corn and other grains are already straining the environment and wearing out the fertility of the soil. She also warns against putting much faith in the promise that we will soon be able to produce large amounts of biofuels from algae, switch grass, or other biological materials that are not part of the human food chain.

The case for ethanol, she argues is instead purely political: subsidizing ethanol favors farm state interests whose votes are crucial, whether for winning the Iowa caucuses or passing legislation in the U.S. Senate. Yet by adjusting agricultural subsidies to favor more sustainable forms of production, farmers could again become the stewards of the land most want to be, while also bringing deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Compensating farmers for sustainable agricultural practices would blunt the growing political power of the biofuel lobby, she argues, and put America on track to develop energy policies based on conservation and the development of truly green technologies.

To read Clark’s piece “Bringing it All Back Home” click here.

To read Rogers’ piece “Against the Grain” click here.