Scott Sklar

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Burning the Future

In Burning the Future: Coal in America, writer/director David Novack examines the explosive forces that have set in motion a groundswell of conflict between the coal industry and residents of West Virginia.

Burning The Future: Coal in America
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Biofuels Q & A
Written by Scott Sklar   
May 01, 2008

Q:The last two weeks ethanol has got more bad press then ever. Well oil is at record high prices what's going on. Ethanol gettings more flack then OPEC. I hope you guys know that OPEC's mideast fund made up of OPEC's countries have put 40 billion dollars into commoditie index funds which pushes grain prices up. Boy, you should have listen to CNBC where they all dog ethanol big this week. Whats going on? JD

A:JD - Good questions - biofuels seems to be taking the wrap for everything wrong in the world. In the April 24th New York Times Op Ed "Bring on the Right Biofuels" by Roger Cohen, he states, "The supposed crimes of biofuels are manifold. They’re behind soaring global commodity prices, the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, increased rather than diminished greenhouse gases, food riots in Haiti, Indonesian deforestation and, no doubt, your mother-in-law’s toothache. Most of this, to borrow a farm image, is hogwash and bilge."

Cohen continues that "Much larger trends are at work". The Washington Post had a great review on world food prices in it's April 27th edition, and attributes the global food prices to the following reasons:

  1. Major countries have introduced or increased export taxes or actual bans on certain agricultural products (rice and grains) to keep down their own domestic prices
  2. Global economic and growth in emerging countries (especially China and India) are changing diets (for instance Chinese per capita meat consumption has grown from 44 pounds in 1980 to 100 lbs in 2008) and it takes 7-8.5 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef and 5-7 pounds of grain to produce a pound of pork
  3. Global weather patterns - heat waves, drought and excessive rain in grain-producing countries have taken a toll on output in the past few years - in millions of tons: Australia 13.6 in 2006 to 5.7 in 2008* (predicted*), European Union 45.1 in 2006 to 30 in 2008*, United States 71.7 in 2006 to 48.1 in 2008*
  4. Fuel price increases have made it costlier to grow (irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers) and transport rice and grains - 2007 $60 per ton from US gulf coast to Japan or $38 per ton from gulf coast to Europe, and in April $110/ton and $75 per ton respectively
  5. Biofuels has contributed (along with weather and increases in energy prices) to drive US corn prices up by 50%, so Europe has imported cheaper sorghum for livestock feed, raising sorghum ( a grain consumed widely by the world's poorest people) from $98 in 2005 per metric ton to $191 per metric ton in 2008. Over 85% of the US corn crop is used for animal feed.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, “Field corn is the predominant corn type grown in the U.S., and it is primarily used for animal feed. Currently, less than 10 percent of the U.S. field corn crop is used for direct domestic human consumption in corn-based foods such as corn meal, corn starch, and corn flakes, while the remainder is used for animal feed, exports, ethanol production, seed, and industrial uses. Sweet corn, both white and yellow, is usually consumed as immature whole-kernel corn by humans and also as an ingredient in other corn-based foods, but makes up only about 1 percent of total U.S. corn production.”

Again, I want to make perfectly clear that cellulosic conversion is the “end game” for biofuels. Waste products including sewage, wood waste, contaminated agricultural and food processing wastes, and forest thinnings and lawn wastes are the first tier biofuels resources, followed by low-water, low-energy input crops including switchgrass, jahoba, wild maize, and honey locust and eucalyptus trees, among many others. And while biofuels have positive energy balances now, these balances will further increase using these new resources and these new cellulosic processes.

Both private investment and government policy are clearly driving technology, project development and intermediate investment into cellulosic conversion with actual grants from USDOE and USDA along with federal loan guarantees towards cellulosic conversion. This allows the gains in biofuels from the days of large corn surpluses that rotted in farm silos, to the next era of waste-based and non-food-based sustainable biofuels.

In the mean time, if your kids get acne, don’t blame it on biofuels. - SS

Last Updated ( May 28, 2008 )
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