Peak Oil News: A Biofuel Reality Check; A Sane Voice from Iowa Farm Country

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Biofuel Reality Check; A Sane Voice from Iowa Farm Country

By Michael Richards

Most of what is being marketed as “Green Fuel” is not green and sustainable at all. We must study the context of agriculture and processing from a whole systems perspective. True green energy can only be produced within a well-designed sustainable ecology. This type of analysis, policy and action is not taking place through any official channels. Without such whole systems science, the mad rush to biofuels will be as damaging to the environment and global climate as the present global petro-chemical economy. All sides of this important discussion need to seek a factual and scientific basis for policy decisions and new energy enterprise.

We need an intelligent biofuel reality check. The first fact to face is that it is biologically, physically and mathematically impossible to replace fossil fuel with biofuel. U of Mass. Biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we presently burn in one year were produced from stores of organic matter "containing 4410 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet's current biota." In plain and simple English, this means that every year we use four centuries' worth of planetary plant and animal matter that were converted into fossil fuel over many millions of years. Every single barrel of oil replaces 25,000 man hours of human labor energy. The idea that we can simply replace fossil fuel and the extraordinary power density it provides with a fast market shift to “green” energy is the stuff of wild science fiction. There is simply no rational substitute for cutting back on energy consumption. The most important step toward a sustainable Post Petrol Paradigm is to initiate resource conservation on a heroic global scale. A truly sustainable society requires a very radical departure from the present energy consumption paradigm. To just change fuels, without changing the underlying social and economic paradigm is an absurd folly.

Fossil fuel substitutes such as ethanol and biodiesel are being sought frantically all over the planet. Most decision makers in government and industry are not ready to face the hard decisions that climate change and effective, scientific, long term environmental management demands. In many cases biofuel conversion amounts to a cure that is a bigger problem than the petroleum problem. Many biofuel evangelists are as strident in their denial of scientific reality and hard facts as many petroleum executives are in their denial of peak oil.

The biodiesel industry developed the world's most carbon-intensive fuel in the form of palm oil biodiesel. In the promotion of biodiesel in the European Union, the British and US governments and by thousands of environmental campaigners, we are given the false impression that we are just creating a benign market for waste cooking oil, soybean oil, canola oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. It’s very important to study the entire context and ecological impact of biofuel production and alternative energy. A global rush to “green fuel” is actually leading to a major environmental disaster. Get the facts. Get the whole story.

The fact is, the human race can design effective life support systems without high energy consumption. In my book, Sustainable Operating Systems/The Post Petrol Paradigm, I refer to this new socio-economic system as a “techno-agrarian” society. We must discern which human endeavors are constructive and which are destructive technology. We presently only measure economic value in the amount of cash produced, without a scientific analysis of the total system. A new ecological/economic metric is essential for human survival.

Fifty percent of all gasoline consumption takes place within three miles of our homes as we madly race about to work, school, shop and recreate within a very inefficient-car centered urban matrix. We need to design a dense; human centered, energy efficient pedestrian friendly urban matrix where we walk or bike to most daily activity, and then reserve fuel for inter-urban mass transit and efficient rail travel. Fifty percent of all energy use can be eliminated with such efficient design in the human built environment. Conservation is intelligent technology. We get much more “bang for the buck” with energy efficiency than any available techno-fix.

Some of the finest architecture, music, science, literature and art were produced before the mass consumption-petroleum age. Our most enlightened human future can exist beyond the mass consumption petroleum age. We can choose a human civilization beyond violence, injustice and ignorance. We need a new post petrol paradigm. We can actually thrive as a species without oil. We cannot even survive without adequate water. Water is one crucial resource that we are squandering in the mad rush for a biofuel fix for our oil addiction. Most recent controversy over biofuels has focused on poor energy return; in growing corn and turning it into ethanol, you have to burn four calories to get three. We only have a biofuel boom because of huge government subsidies. Without subsidies, this new industry does not work economically. We are rewarding the depletion of vital resources such as water to prop up the inefficient, car and fuel-centered infrastructure. A flood of cash is now flowing through the nation's corn-growing regions, but the biggest price will be paid in the depletion of our vital water supply. Agribusiness boosters and politicians tout corn-based ethanol and soy biodiesel as a miraculous solution to the nation's unquenchable thirst for liquid fuels. This “miracle” is a devil’s bargain as we trade peak oil for peak soil and water. We need to evaluate the entire ecological impact of this “miracle”.

In the arid areas of the Great High Plains, irrigation is crucial to corn production. Biofuel agriculture is dependent on the one-time consumption of groundwater reserves that have been stored up over the last 11,000 years of geological process. The vast Ogallala aquifer, stretching all the way from Texas up into South Dakota, is now being mined at a rapid rate that will drain some regions in the relatively near future, at least before the oil wells of the Middle East run dry. Short term economic thinking leads to disaster. We must think before we act.

The Ogallala aquifer was trapped under the American High Plains during the last ice age. Before the onset of industrial/irrigated agriculture, this massive geological formation held enough ancient water to fill Lake Huron, the second-greatest of the Great Lakes. We are now depleting this massive water resource in just one generation. In the High Plains, raising one single bushel of irrigated corn sucks up 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of valuable water. The largest corn crops in history are being raised in this arid region to fuel the biofuel boom. National corn acreage increased 15 percent from 2006 to 2007. As a result, the pressure on this vital continental water resource is increasing dramatically. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the land area sown to corn will remain at historically high levels of 90 million acres or more through at least 2017 to meet the huge demand. As a result, the price of a bushel of corn has jumped from $2.00 to more than $5.00 per bushel. USDA forecasters now see such high corn prices as near-permanent with our present national fuel and food policy.

Most of the region's industrial corn currently goes to cattle feedlots that feed the fast food feeding frenzy. Prices are also now kept high by the biofuel boom. In western Kansas, ethanol production plants have a total capacity of 143 million gallons per day, but new plants already planned or under construction will add more than 700 million gallons per day, most of that will come from irrigated corn or sorghum. In the eastern part of the state, where the Kansas River is already considered a toxic hazard because of massive fertilizer contamination, corn ethanol capacity will grow from 101 to 667 gallons per day in the near future.

The Energy Independence and Security Act, passed by Congress at the end of 2007, requires that the nation produce 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year by 2015. While meeting only 10 percent of Americans' gasoline consumption needs, such a level of production would require massive, permanent increases in the amount of land sown to corn, as well as devastating water consumption and damaging pollution. This new energy law will also drive a fatal nail in the coffin of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Since the mid-80s CRP has been paying farmers to reseed millions of acres of erosion vulnerable cropland to a diverse mixture of native perennial grasses and other plants. CRP has done more to conserve soil and protect water in agricultural regions than any other federal initiative. The USDA estimates that farmers will plow up 5 million acres of CRP land in the next four years alone to plant corn and other biofuel crops. Our national policy trades sane water and soil preservation to jump start the insane expansion of the fast food, fast car economy. Our “leaders” are asleep at the wheel and on the wrong road! This boom will eventually go bust. Boom/bust economics create short term gain in trade for long term disaster. Observe the bust of the housing boom.

According to the Washington-based group Environmental Defense, increasing irrigated corn acreage by 10 percent to 20 percent in the High Plains will have an effect on water resources similar to that of dropping a city the size of metropolitan Denver in this arid region. This is equivalent to doubling the human population of the entire region. This is not only unsustainable; it is suicidal as a society.

After World War II, new irrigation technology brought about faster exploitation of the Ogallala aquifer. The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that by 2005, the most heavily exploited areas, accounting for almost a tenth of the entire region, had seen the water table drop between 50 and 270 feet farther beneath the land surface. Farmers in some of the prime agricultural areas with the deepest water deposits in western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles are spending more and more money and fuel to bring water from greater and greater depths. Gross income goes up, while net income decreases.

Flowing through the natural short-grass prairie vegetation of Kansas, formerly-great rivers like the Arkansas are fed not only by surface streams but also by water tables that reach up and away from their natural streambed. Across much of the region, irrigation has drawn aquifers down so far that the flow of water has reversed; now moving down and out of rivers into the surrounding dry ground. Rivers are actually dropping under the surface, leaving only dry, dusty beds visible for much of the year. In Kansas, a significant portion of the Ogallala's area has already shrunk below a threshold (30 to 50 feet thick), that can support large-scale irrigation.
Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, are engaged in bitter water battles. Border regions where water disputes have been most fierce are precisely the regions where new ethanol plants and bigger plantings of water thirsty corn are being planned. Farther south, the situation is even more of a disaster. The USDA has recorded water-table drops of 100 feet in the Texas Panhandle. By 2025, several counties at the southern edge of the Ogallala aquifer in west Texas will have lost 50 percent to 60 percent of all water that's available for pumping. Agricultural economists at Texas Tech University predict that unless restrictions are put in place, farmers will most likely respond to water shortages (and high corn prices) by drilling deeper wells and depleting the water even faster.

The Corn Belt of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and surrounding states receive adequate annual rainfall to naturally replenish most groundwater used to irrigate crops. The bigger issue in the Heartland states is quality, not quantity of water. Maps of nitrate pollution in streams and groundwater correlate to maps of nitrogen fertilizer use across the country, especially in the Midwest Corn Belt. The National Academy of Sciences documented that recent increases in corn production have led to much greater pollution of surface and groundwater.

The risk is "considerable," says the academy, that expansion of corn ethanol production will add to the devastating nitrate load of the Mississippi River and expand the oxygen-depleted "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles downstream. We are trading in long term sustainable life support systems of soil and water for the fast cash grab of the fast car and mass consumption economy. A dog will not dump in its own den, but that is exactly what the mass consumer human society is doing. It is morally reprehensible to trade the health and welfare of our children and grandchildren to fuel the profit of a few voracious big dogs that dominate our current political and economic power structure.

A study carried out in 2007 at the request of Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., documented that the conversion to biofuels is even more aggressive than what's currently mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act: 20 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 1 billion gallons of soy biodiesel annually by 2016. Even that Herculean effort would not achieve "energy independence," displacing only 13 percent of our current gasoline consumption and less than 2 percent of diesel. This would be achieved with the long-term cultivation of almost 100 million acres of corn, with 47 percent of the nation's crop going straight to ethanol plants. Under that scenario, fertilizer and pesticide use would increase substantially across the Corn Belt and in the High Plains as well. Toxic nitrates in groundwater would rise accordingly, by 11 percent in the states around the Great Lakes and 8 percent in the southern plains; areas where a critical need to lower, not raise, nitrate levels already exists. As we seek “energy independence”, we are depleting our sustainable life support systems.

A recent study found nitrate pollution to be worst in those aquifer-dependent regions of Texas where irrigated sorghum and corn are now grown. This acreage use will expand as ethanol plants demand increasing supplies of grain. University of Kansas scientists found that pollutants have been concentrated in that state's portion of the Ogallala by "evapotranspiration, oil brine disposal, agricultural practices, brine intrusion and waste disposal," as well as nitrates, chlorides and sulfates. We’re creating ecological insecurity in a false quest for energy security.
Riding this roller-coaster of boom/bust agricultural economics, farmers learn to “get whenever the getting is good”. The common refrain is “Make hay while the sun shines”. Biofuel mania is the latest trend in a long history of short term schemes designed to squeeze quick cash out of a rural ecology that's only suited to slow, steady sustainable use. To make money in this boom/bust structure, you must use more water. We are wasting irreplaceable water in the name of "energy independence," The real result is increasing dependence of agribusiness on federal and state governments by subsidies granted on every gallon of biofuel produced. The consumers pay both at the pump and through an increase in everyone’s tax burden. There is no free lunch.

An exhaustive report on the complex web of past and current biofuel subsidies, prepared for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, concluded that "government subsidies for liquid biofuels started out as a way to increase the demand for surplus crops. Now such subsidies are promoted as a way to reduce oil imports, improve the quality of urban air-quality, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, raise farmers' incomes and promote rural development. The unstated goal is to ensure a huge return on investment for agribusiness. ADM, Cargill and other giants invest huge sums to lobby policy makers to keep this cash cow alive and growing.

The biofuel boom may make it possible for a farmer to produce more, but it does not necessarily increase net farm income. "With a cost of $800 per acre for anhydrous ammonia fertilizer and $4 diesel fuel for the tractor, farmers still will not get ahead. The rural treadmill just moves faster, as no real progress is made.

Donald Worster, professor of history at the University of Kansas and author of Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979, Oxford University Press), sees only a very limited time for agriculture in the High Plains to survive. He states; "It is basically a mining economy wherever groundwater is the resource to be extracted, and the ultimate result of such an economy is always a ghost town. We should reserve the remaining groundwater supply for human and animal consumption during the desiccated future that seems likely to develop with climate change."

As the Plains region dries out, it would require a large government program to deprivatize a lot of farm acreage and put it into the best vegetation cover to avoid massive soil erosion. It will be very difficult to farm much of the southern plains within another 50 years, unless global climate change is arrested very soon. Deprivatized, former agricultural land will have little economic value, except for national parks and light grazing.

If the process of burning food for fuel as biofuel is an unmitigated disaster, then what will happen as we start chopping up our last natural forest habitats for cellulosic ethanol biofuel? The biofuel missionaries tout the bright future of “second generation biofuels”. To achieve any significant volume, such fuels would be based largely upon woody biomass. This would be an even larger ecological disaster than cropland-based biofuel. It is a myth that enough unused forest and agricultural waste, and a surplus of land to grow various grasses and wood, exists to base a viable alternative energy industry. As noted above, our present petroleum consumption is equal to 400 years of all biological matter produced on the entire surface of the earth. Humanity must stop seeking easy answers to perceived energy shortages and build a post-petrol, energy efficient new paradigm.

Biofuels are heavily promoted for climate benefits and pursued at much expense, yet have been catastrophic to the world's food security, habitat, water and climate. We are already trading the quest for “energy security” for global food insecurity. This is insane, and can only lead to massive social unrest all over the world. We are already trading blood for fuel, now we trade food for fuel. The same will be true of ethanol production from trees. Cellulosic ethanol will be the ultimate deforestation biofuel. Such action is equivalent to dismantling and burning your home to keep warm. Cellulosic biofuel from trees is a pending disaster. The promise being made is that wood can produce fuels to run our cars. We are presently told that corn, rapeseed, sugar, oil palm, soy and various other crops can be grown for biofuels while providing energy security and reducing greenhouse emissions. The reality is far different; with surging global food prices, loss of rainforests and other important habitats, further depletion and poisoning of aquifers, and rampant human rights abuses, all this for little or no greenhouse gas emission reduction.

No real economic security has been derived from the biofuel boom. So called "second generation biofuels", including the use of woody biomass, is now being sold with the same illusory, ecologically bereft hype. This deception must end. Creating cellusosic ethanol is more difficult than our present biofuels. Cellulose is much more difficult to break down, so it will be even more costly than our present petroleum and biofuel sources. In addition to the direct cost of production, the huge social and ecological costs are ignored, deferred to future generations. Second generation biofuels produced from woody biomass will bring increasing ecological disaster. As with agricultural biofuels, a cellulosic ethanol industry will indirectly destroy forests and lead to more costly food by increasing land pressures upon natural forests and agricultural crop lands.

Again, we are sold the idea of an “energy miracle’. Fuel from waste! Forest waste is a euphemism for the materials left over when industrial forestry decimates a native forest. The branches, bark, saw dust, etc. represent nutrients that are best returned to virtually mined soils to make new forests. There is certainly not enough such "waste" to power even a tiny fraction of an industrial society. The use of wood biomass from natural forests is already occurring on a limited scale and will be ramped up as long as the global demand for transportation fuel keeps growing. The “miracle” of ellulosic ethanol is an empty promise. It’s only purpose is to prop of the inefficient car-centered culture a few more years. Natural forests and other habitats provide a very thin layer of biological life that shields life and acts in concert with other aspects of the Earth Life Support System to make advanced life possible.

Given the global scale of human energy demands, impending climate chaos and the present dismal state of global ecosystems, this final step in the mad quest for more fuel may prove fatal to the human experiment. It’s time to use our large brains for actual intelligent action. The planetary biosphere is perilously close to systemic collapse. The biosphere cannot stand more intensive human resource consumption. The global economy is seeking an energy panacea that allows endless economic growth. None are available. There is a finite amount of energy that can be taken out of the system and a limit to the pollution that we put into the global biosphere before it becomes uninhabitable. We are fast approaching a tipping point in this planetary disaster.

It is imperative that the global human community embrace a sustainable, ecological economic paradigm based upon what is actually needed for a low consumption, high value life. Growth for the sake of growth is not intelligent in our current global historical cycle. We need a massive global movement to maintain and restore the ecological systems upon which all life depends. It is already far too late to put our efforts into anything less than a total paradigm shift. We need a new way of thinking and acting that will bring about societal and personal change necessary to maintain human life on earth. This will take place with a global, grassroots groundswell. Our present leaders are totally enmeshed in the status quo. This change is up to you.

The above essay was written as a guest article by Michael Richards author of; Sustainable Operating Systems/The Post Petrol Paradigm (available at author founded a not for profit educational and research organization; Sustainable Ecological Economic Development (S.E.E.D.) Contact can be made at or by calling 319-213-2051.

Michael Richards is a life long innovator, entrepreneur and author. His most recent book is; Sustainable Operating Systems/The Post Petrol Paradigm (available on line at; Mr. Richards has presented as an author, speaker and conference leader at universities and conferences in USA,Asia and Europe this year. Contact at 319-213-2051 USA. Michael Richards is the inventor of soybean oil wax replacements for petroleum wax. He serves as President of Soyawax International, a US firm that ships product to 25 nations. Michael Richards is the founder of a not for profit research and educational organization; SUSTAINABLE ECOLOGICAL ECONONIC DEVELOPMENT (S.E.E.D.) SEED orgainizes conferences for city, state and governmental organizations to work on conversion to sustainable economic alternatives.


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