Obama’s Biofuels Insanity

Barack Obama’s biofuels insanity continues. And it continues without any regard for history, basic arithmetic, or the recent spike in food prices. Last month, the Farm Foundation a centrist non-profit group based in Illinois, released a study which named biofuels as one of the key factors that is driving up grain prices. That study, done by three agricultural economists from Purdue University, is the seventeenth report that has exposed the link between increasing biofuel production and higher food prices.

And yet – and yet — on Tuesday, the White House put out a press release announcing that the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Navy will“invest up to $510 million during the next three years” to develop “advanced drop-in aviation and marine biofuels to power military and commercial transportation.”

The Obama administration’s mindless devotion to biofuels beggars basic arithmetic, a point that Energy Secretary Steve Chu refused to acknowledge when I spoke with him briefly during a cocktail party in Colorado in late June. Chu claimed that biofuels could still provide a significant hedge against oil prices. When I argued that he had done the math, Chu responded by telling me that I just wasn’t putting enough faith in technology.

I’m not doubtful about the ability of technology to improve our lives, but I am certain that neither Obama nor Chu are able to change the laws of physics. The problem with biofuels — of whatever type — is their pitifully low power density, that is the amount of energy flow that can be harnessed from given unit of area, volume, or mass. Even the best-managed tree plantations can achieve power densities of only about one watt per square meter. For comparison, a marginal natural-gas well has a power density of about 28 watts per square meter.

Indeed, the production methods for natural gas, coal, and oil all have very high power densities which helps explain why those sources have dominated the global energy mix for the past century. During that same time period, numerous people have claimed that that ethanol produced from grass, straw, wood waste, and other plants, is on the cusp of commercial viability.

But biofuels have never broken through because they are continually hampered by their low power density which means that producing meaningful quantities of liquid fuel requires huge quantities of plant material. For example, replacing just 10 percent of U.S. oil needs with ethanol derived from switchgrass would require the annual production of about 425 million tons of biomass. Growing that much switchgrass would require some 36.9 million acres of land, or about 57,700 square miles. For comparison, that 36.9 million acres is equal to about 8 percent of all the cropland now under cultivation in the U.S.

That much cropland would nearly cover the entire state of Oklahoma. Now, some people probably believe that paving Oklahoma with switchgrass would be a major improvement. But even if that task were achievable, there’s still no infrastructure available to plant, harvest, and transport the switchgrass or other biomass source to the biorefinery.

The low power density of biofuels can also be seen by looking at the amount of land that is now being diverted into biofuel. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the US now has about 309 million acres of harvested cropland. Of that, about 92.3 million acres are planted in corn, and some 40 percent of that area – nearly 37 million acres – has been diverted to meet the voracious requirements of the corn ethanol scam.

Put another way, the US is now devoting about 12 percent of its harvested cropland toward the production of corn ethanol which provides the energy equivalent of about 570,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, or about 3 percent of America’s total oil needs of 19.1 million barrels per day.

The production of corn ethanol, says the Farm Foundation report, has created a “large, persistent and non-price responsive demand for corn.” The report says “there is little doubt that biofuels play a role in the corn price level and variability, and this has spilled over into other commodity markets.”

Corn prices, now close to $7 per bushel, have more than doubled over the past two years. And recent harsh weather, including floods in the Midwest, and drought in the South, is cutting the size of the US corn harvest, which is resulting in higher prices for corn, which means higher prices meat, milk, eggs, cheese, and other commodities.

The corn ethanol scam has created an inflation multiplier that has permanently tied the price of oil to the price of food. And yet – and yet — Obama and his cohorts are now claiming that yet more federal subsidies for the biofuels racket will somehow change the immutable laws of physics and that if the US only diverts just a bit more of its farmland to biofuel production that it can, in their words “Improve our national security by reducing reliance on foreign oil.”

That statement, again, shows just how out of touch the Obama administration is with the realities of America’s energy situation. Domestic oil production is booming thanks to new technologies that are able to wring huge quantities of petroleum and natural gas from shale deposits. Things are so positive that in May the Energy Information Administration reported that America’s oil import dependence is “declining no matter how you measure it”and that “by the broadest measure, US dependence of imported oil fell below the 50 percent mark last year for the first time since 1997.”

Obama’s fantasy about the viability of biofuels is merely throwing good money after bad. As I write this, the US national debt is $14.6 trillion.Obama’s latest biofuel scheme will merely add another $510 million to that sum.

I reckon we’ll barely notice.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fourth book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, was recently issued in paperback.

Robert Bryce will publish his fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.