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

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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 44Å~10 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 the "biofuel miracle”.

Author Stan Cox of Salina, Kansas has shared very crucial information about aquifer depletion with me:

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.

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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 (more...)
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