Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Biofuels, the Next Generation

The promotion of biofuels is a central component of president Obama’s energy policy. But biofuel crops, which are mostly corn, sugar cane, oil palm and soy, are in big trouble because of the overwhelming and continuously growing evidence of the environmental harm that they cause. And besides, all large-scale industrial agriculture requires large amounts of fossil fuel, so biofuels are hardly a cure for petroleum addiction.

The Obama administration and an increasing number of biofuel supporters acknowledge these problems but they wager that these will be solved by a new generation of biofuels made from cellulose.

And what’s so great about cellulose? For one, it is everywhere. Cellulose is the most common organic compound on earth and a key structural component of the cell walls of green plants and many forms of algae. About one third of all plant matter in the world is cellulose.

In spite of the best efforts of scientists, the cellulose molecule stubbornly resists all cost-effective attempts at transforming it into fuel. So they are now looking to nature for answers: fungi and certain bacteria found in the guts of termites and ruminant mammals (such as cows) that produce enzymes that can digest cellulose.

The ability to turn cellulose into fuel would make it possible to use any vegetable matter, living or dead, to this end- corn stalks, suburban lawn clippings, dead wood, you name it. According to their enthusiastic supporters, the main advantage of cellulose-based fuels is that they will not compete with food crops. You can get a Nobel prize for less than this.

And that’s where biotechnology comes in. The biotech industry proudly claims to be a major player in both the energy business and global warming prevention strategies by virtue of its cutting edge research and development into, among other things, cellulose biofuels.

The president’s cabinet is equal to the task. When he was Iowa governor, current agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack was named Governor of the Year 2001 by the Biotechnology Industry Organization for his passionate defense of the biotech industry and its products. And energy secretary Steven Chu was the main architect of a controversial $500 million dollar deal between the BP corporation and the University of California’s Berkeley campus. This money, a sum that has no precedent in the history of academia, will be used to develop novel biofuels through biotechnology.

But some scientists and environmentalists warn that the cellulose boom will in no way solve the problems of the current generation of biofuels, and in fact will create new ones.

Last January a coalition of diverse groups, that included Food First and the Institute for Social Ecology, issued an open letter that denounced biofuels as a false solution to global warming and specifically contested the assertion that cellulose-based fuel production will not compete with food production.

The open letter’s basic arguments are not new at all. Back in 2007 a group of eleven non-governmental organizations, from countries such as Argentina, Indonesia and Denmark, produced a report titled “Agrofuels: Towards a Reality Check”. The document was particularly emphatic in warning that using so-called agriculture “waste” to meet global energy needs is not a smart idea at all.

What the numerous objections to the biofuels revolution- whether the current generation or yet-to-exist biotech fuels- come down to is that the feedstock for this energy source must come from somewhere. Looking at the promo literature for new generation biotech biofuels one gets the impression that these are made out of thin air. But the fact is that all those fuels come from organisms, hence the prefix “bio”. And all those organisms, whether they be farm crops or engineered microbes, ultimately need to be nourished with physical inputs like nutrients and water, which are not cheaply available. They are renewable but not infinite.

So how much raw material would the cellulose boom require? The U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture set out to find the answer and in 2005 issued a joint report which concluded that the use of wood, grasses, and “plant waste” for the production of cellulosic ethanol would require 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass a year. Obtaining this amount would be possible only by removing most of the country’s agricultural residues, planting an area three times the size of Missouri with perennial cellulose-rich crops like switchgrass, and putting all U.S. farmland under “no-till” agriculture, say the report’s authors.

In these times of economic and ecological collapse it is hard not to get carried away by the lure of technological quick fixes, like biofuels. I beg to differ from most renewable energy advocates: this is not a matter of “bad” non-renewable energy sources vs. “good” renewable ones. The ultimate root problem behind environmental catastrophe and the energy crisis is the voracious and ever-increasing energy demand, which unfortunately many environmentalists and eco-entrepreneurs have come to accept as a given.

Rather than jumping headlong into a dubious biofuels revolution, our best bet for survival will be the realization that increased energy consumption and higher standards of living are not synonymous.

CARMELO RUIZ-MARRERO, a self-described renaissance hack and impractical humanist, is a Puerto Rican journalist, environmental educator and author. He is as Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, a Fellow of the Oakland Institute, and directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/). Whenever he is not writing or working at a call center, he distributes farm produce for something that resembles a CSA. Ruiz-Marrero, a compulsive blogger, blogs away at: http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/

More articles by:

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist.

May 24, 2018
Gary Leupp
Art of the Dealbreaker: Trump’s Cancellation of the Summit with Kim
Jeff Warner – Victor Rothman
Why the Emerging Apartheid State in Israel-Palestine is Not Sustainable
Kenn Orphan
Life, the Sea and Big Oil
James Luchte
Europe Stares Into the Abyss, Confronting the American Occupant in the Room
Richard Hardigan
Palestinians’ Great March of Return: What You Need to Know
Howard Lisnoff
So Far: Fascism Lite
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Norman Finkelstein on Bernie Sanders, Gaza, and the Mainstream Treatment
Daniel Warner
J’accuse All Baby Boomers
Alfred W. McCoy
Beyond Golden Shower Diplomacy
Jonah Raskin
Rachel Kushner, Foe of Prisons, and Her New Novel, “The Mars Room”
George Wuerthner
Myths About Wildfires, Logging and Forests
Binoy Kampmark
Tom Wolfe the Parajournalist
Dean Baker
The Marx Ratio: Not Clear Karl Would be Happy
May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
Lawrence Davidson
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail