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The U.S. military’s expensive experiments with biofuels – along with the rationale for entire biofuels business — has been gunned down in a fusillade of friendly fire.
You may recall that over the past few years, the Pentagon has been funding a number of efforts to develop biofuels. On Earth Day 2010, the Navy flew an F-18 using a mixture of conventional jet fuel and biofuel derived from camellina, a plant in the mustard family. After the flight, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus declared that the Navy and Marine Corps were committed to “reducing dependence on foreign oil as well safeguarding our environment.” Since then, Mabus and the Navy have continued to hype the potential of biofuels and its effort to create a “Great Green Fleet” of ships. And in March, the Navy insisted its alt-fuel program won’t get hit by the sequester.
Now comes one of the Navy’s best and brightest, Captain T.A. Ike Keifer. In March, Keifer, an aviator who has been deployed seven times and spent 21 months in Iraq, published a scathing indictment of the biofuels sector in Strategic Studies Quarterly, the U.S. Air Force’s most-prestigious journal. Alongside articles about nuclear weapons and terrorism, was Kiefer’s broadside: “Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels.” The key paragraph:
Imagine if the US military developed a weapon that could threaten millions around the world with hunger, accelerate global warming, incite widespread instability and revolution, provide our competitors and enemies with cheaper energy, and reduce America’s economy to a permanent state of recession. What would be the sense and the morality of employing such a weapon? We are already building that weapon—it is our biofuels program. For the sake of our national energy strategy and global security, we must face the sober facts and reject biofuels while advocating an overall national energy strategy compatible with the laws of chemistry, physics, biology, and economics.
To be certain, there are many critics of the biofuels business. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of the Swiss food giant Nestle has declared that using food crops to make biofuels is “absolute madness.” Just a few days ago, Alan Shaw, the former CEO of Codexis, the first “advanced” (made from non-food crops) biofuel company to be publicly traded on a US stock exchange, said flatly that it was impossible to convert crop waste, wood, and plants like switchgrass into motor fuel and do so economically. Shaw said it was wrong to base the motor fuel industry on plants. “The feedstock is wrong,” he said.
Another high-profile critic of the biofuel madness: Jean Ziegler, a former member of the Swiss Parliament who served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2000 to 2008. In August, Ziegler will publish his new book Betting on Famine: Why the World Still Goes Hungry. (I’ve read an advance copy of the book and have provided a blurb for it.) Ziegler’s book is an angry one. In it, he describes his visits to biofuel plantations all over the world – Brazil, Colombia, Cameroon, and India — and in each location, he finds similar stories: exploited workers and expropriated land. Ziegler writes that the companies that produce biofuels have succeeded at convincing the public and politicians in Western countries that “energy from plant sources constitutes the miracle weapon against climate change. Yet their argument is a lie.”
Last month, the British think tank, Chatham House, released a blistering report on biofuels which said the use of biofuels “increases the level and volatility of food prices with detrimental impacts on the food security of low-income food-importing countries.” It went on, saying that due to land use changes, emissions from the production of biodiesel made from vegetable oils is “worse for the climate than fossil diesel.” Finally, it says that the current 5-percent mandate for biofuel use in the UK will cost the country’s motorists “in the region of $700 million this year.”
But back to Kiefer. His massively footnoted takedown of biofuels hinges not on moral cries about higher food prices, even though that’s one his arguments. Instead, he hammers the physics and math. He points out that biofuels have poor power density, a term that refers to the amount of energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area, volume, or mass. “Only about 0.1 percent of sunlight is translated into biomass by the typical terrestrial plant,” writes Kiefer. The result, “an anemic power density of only 0.3 watts per square meter.” Kiefer goes on to point out that power density on solar photovoltaic panels is about 6 watts per square meter, or 20 times more.
The low power density of biofuels means that vast amounts of land are needed to produce significant quantities of fuel. For example, to replace all US oil needs with corn-based ethanol, writes Kiefer, would require about 700 million acres of land. That would be “37 percent of the total area of the continental United States, more than all 565 million acres of forest, and more than triple the current amount of annually harvested cropland.” Like biodiesel better? Kiefer calculates that relying on soy biodiesel to replace domestic oil needs would “require 3.2 billion acres—one billion more than all US territory including Alaska.”
Kiefer’s 38-page paper includes more than 100 footnotes and a half dozen charts or tables. That effort makes the Obama administration’s response to Kiefer’s report look all the more, well, anemic. Strategic Studies Quarterly published two documents one, a rebuttal from the Defense Department, the other from the Energy Department. The first response, written by Adam L. Rosenberg, whose title is Deputy Director for Technology Strategy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs, has just five paragraphs and no footnotes or references to citations. Rosenberg dismissed Kiefer’s report as offering “interesting but ultimately misleading opinions.” Rosenberg continued, saying the defense department “has a policy of only purchasing operation quantities” of biofuels if they are “cost competitive with conventional fuels.” (The biofuel that was used by the Navy on Earth Day 2010 cost about $67.50 per gallon.)
The other response, from Zia Haq, whose title is Lead Analyst/DPA Coordinator, Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office, has 14 paragraphs, and not a single citation or footnote. Despite this lack of supporting evidence, Haq claims that Keifer had “tailored” his report by relying exclusively on studies that had “negative points of views and results for biofuels.”
To be certain, the amount of money the US military is spending on biofuels remains fairly small. The Navy’s current-year budget request for biofuels was about $70 million. But Kiefer’s report, along with the new report from Chatham House, is appearing at a time when the biofuel sector is struggling mightily both economically and politically. The European Union is in the midst of a fierce fight over biofuels. The EU has passed a mandate requiring 10 perce
nt of all transportation energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. Nearly all of that would have to come from biofuels. But biofuels’ land use requirements and their scant or non-existent climate benefits, have resulted in a growing political effort to roll back the mandates. Last week, the Irish Times reported that biofuel companies and their lobbyists have been sending three emails per hour to a key EU official in an effort to preserve their mandate.
Meanwhile, here in the US, the entire biofuel sector is in upheaval. Corn ethanol producers have too much capacity. And thanks to the slumping economy and weak gasoline demand, there are too many gallons of ethanol chasing too few gallons of gasoline, a situation known as the “blend wall.” The result: the US is exporting ethanol to Brazil. In February alone, domestic producers sent 140,000 barrels of ethanol to Brazil, even though that country is the second largest ethanol producer in the world, behind the US.
Furthermore, Congress must now overhaul the laws that it wrote several years ago requiring that some 2.75 billion gallons of advanced biofuels be used this year. But as Alan Shaw, the former head of Codexis made clear, there are simply no economically viable ways to make motor fuel out of cellulose. The result is that domestic suppliers have only been able to produce only a fraction of the required volume of advanced biofuel.
Let me conclude with a bit more about Kiefer. I said above that he is one of the best and the brightest for a simple reason: it’s demonstrably true. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from the US Naval Academy and a master’s in strategy from the US Army Command and General Staff College. He has gone to war for his country. He represents the finest intellectual tradition in the US military. His paper in Strategic Studies Quarterly concludes with an appeal. He writes that it is time for “leaders and policymakers to catch up with the science and adjust their energy and security strategies to match the objective facts.”
The objective facts about biofuels – their impact on food prices, their low power density, their inability to provide even a small fraction of our motor fuel needs – have been known for years. It’s well past time for Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to recognize those facts.
Robert Bryce is the author of Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.