May 20, 2008 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: U.S. Biofuels: A Silver Bullet Or Harbinger Of Death

BioCycle May 2008, Vol. 49, No. 5, p. 46
Mark Jenner

BIOFUELS have risen to their current levels of success because they provide jobs and economic growth, enhance the environment and provide locally-grown energy. At the same time, a growing chorus is convinced that U.S. ethanol policies are causing increased greenhouse gases, food shortages and high food prices. Using grains and vegetable oils to make biofuels has tightened demand for ag commodities, but loading all these global challenges on U.S. ethanol policies is a bit out of whack.
Balancing food, energy and environment is very complicated. The crux of the media controversy revolves around the relatively finite U.S. corn production and more variable changes in land-use policies and increased food and fuel use in developing nations. The debate is heightened when corn is only viewed traditionally as food and feed. The environmental benefits from using biofuels are often missing from the food vs. fuel debate.
A powerful economic driver in the U.S. ethanol expansion has been the replacement of MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) as a fuel oxygenate with ethanol. Switching from MTBE to ethanol cut emissions, and reduced risks to groundwater and human health. As MTBE was phased out of the U.S. fuel supply, almost instantly the national demand for ethanol sky-rocketed, as did the revenue. Once that demand was met during the last half of 2007, the market dynamics shifted and ethanol expansion came to a halt.
As long as some ethanol (or biodiesel) is blended with fossil liquid fuels, vehicle emissions are lower than they were without these blends. This means that regardless of future expansion of ethanol and biodiesel, significant air quality benefits have already occurred. In addition, Iowa State University released a study in April by Xiaodong Du and Dermot Hayes indicating that current ethanol production may already lower gasoline prices by 30 to 40 cents per gallon.
Several studies were released in February that claimed biofuels caused more environmental harm than good. Generally, these were looking at the conversion of virgin rain forests and prairies to crop production. By March, Time Magazine, adopted the same conclusion and furthered the notion. In the U.S., this kind of wholesale release of long term carbon is not a threat.
Internationally, there are many reasons that forest and prairies are being cleared. Largely, local people are hungry and need wood for cooking and heating. While acknowledging the value of preserving native species and ecosystems, it is appropriate for local people in countries like Brazil, India and China to want better quality food and more than a subsistence level of energy use.
A global shortage in all grains over the last few months gets blamed on U.S. ethanol policies. Food shortages are very serious. Ironically, U.S. agriculture has been more frequently criticized for over producing than for under producing. Modern agriculture has risen to the challenge of tight food supplies over and over again. Global rice, wheat and coarse grain inventories have been declining steadily for about ten years. This has been largely due to increased demand from population and economic growth in developing nations. The current, very serious limited rice supplies in Asia though, have little to do with U.S. ethanol policies and more to do with drought in rice-producing regions.
Livestock consume roughly half the corn crop each year in the U.S. Corn use in ethanol production has increased from 10 to 20 percent over the last five years. In the same time frame, U.S. corn production has risen at an even greater rate (nearly 50 percent). An expanding market for corn-based biofuels has created greater competition for corn used for feed. However, about a third of the corn used in ethanol production goes back into the feed market as dried distillers grains and solubles (DDGS).
Given the strong international demand for more and better quality starch and protein, the record-setting high prices for corn, wheat, soybeans and rice go well beyond the increased pressures on ethanol production. These current high prices for grains are bad news for the livestock industry. The poultry industry is scaling back, as is the hog industry. Cattle feedlots have begun to shift from the dry lots of the arid west back to the corn/ethanol producing regions to capitalize on available DDGS. As it makes sense to do so, modern grazing techniques will allow sectors of the cattle industry to return to more traditional forage crop systems. Dairy is also struggling, but there is a strong international demand for dairy products, which partially offsets the higher costs of production.
In the next few years, as cellulosic technologies come on line and new sources of cellulosic crops begin production, the pressure and competition for feed ingredients for livestock will also be reduced. We are only just beginning to ramp up to useful, efficient and environmentally-sound biomass production. Agriculture and other biomass providers will adjust to the new demands, and it will grow and recover more biomass.
It is always appropriate to question new technologies, but today U.S. biofuels continue to provide more benefit than costs. Long-term success with this biofuels adventure is dependent on the multiple criteria of food, environment, energy, feed and economic growth. Evaluation based on just a few of these criteria will bias the results and give an incomplete perspective.
Mark Jenner, PhD, operates Biomass Rules, LLC and has over 25 years of biomass utilization expertise. Burning Bio News is Jenner’s monthly scorecard of bioenergy project adoption, available at

Sign up