Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Biofuels are a Dead End (or Are They?)

As reported in the English version of SPIEGEL ONLINE, backlash at the negative effects of biofuel production is reaching a crescendo in Europe. Despite the fact the many governments across Europe have mandated a steady push toward gas and diesel made from plants, environmental group are marshalling forces to oppose this direction.

"The biofuels route is a dead end," Dr. Andrew Boswell, a Green Party councillor in England and author of a recent study on the harmful effects of biofuels, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "They are going to create great damage to the environment and will also produce dramatic social problems in (tropical countries where many crops for biofuels are grown). There basically isn't any way to make them viable."

The evidence against biofuels marshalled by Boswell and other environmentalists appears quite damning. Advertised as a fuel that only emits the amount of carbon dioxide that the plants absorb while growing -- making it carbon neutral -- it actually has resulted in a profitable industrial sector attractive to countries around the world. Vast swaths of forest have been felled and burned in Argentina and elsewhere for soya plantations. Carbon-rich peat bogs are being drained and rain forests destroyed in Indonesia to make way for extensive palm oil farming.

Because the forests are often torched and the peat rapidly oxidizes, the result is huge amounts of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, healthy peat bogs and forests absorb CO2 -- scientists refer to them as "carbon sinks" -- making their disappearance doubly harmful.

Note that much of the opposition is directed at the impact of deforestation associated with biofuels. Fuel sources such as switchgrass, algae, and hemp can be grown and harvested without infringing on conventional agricultural lands, competing with food crops, or requiring deforestation.

Hemp is particularly promising, but the misguided prohibition of industrial hemp farming in America presents a significant hurdle to overcome. As detailed in this article posted by Yokayo Biofuels, automakers from back in the days of Henry Ford and Rudolph Diesel envisioned biomass fuels as central to automobile travel.

Despite the fact that men such as Henry Ford, Rudolph Diesel, and subsequent manufacturers of diesel engines saw the future of renewable resource fuels, a political and economic struggle doomed the industry. Manufacturing industrialists made modifications to the diesel engines so they could take advantage of the extremely low prices of the residual, low-grade fuel now offered by the petroleum industry. The petroleum companies wanted control of the fuel supplies in the United States and, despite the benefits of biomass fuel verses the fossil fuels, they moved ahead to eliminate all competition.

One player in the biofuel, paper, textile, as well as many other industries, was hemp. Hemp had been grown as a major product in America since colonial times by such men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and has had both governmental and popular support. Hemp's long history in civilization and the multitude of products that can be derived from this single plant has made it one of the most valuable and sustainable plants in the history of mankind. More importantly to the biofuel industry, hemp provided the biomass that Ford needed for his production of ethanol. He found that 30% hemp seed oil is usable as a high-grade diesel fuel and that it could also be used as a machine lubricant and an engine oil.

We have many solutions to the energy crisis at hand, but not enough wise leaders guiding our direction.