Featured stories in this issue...
This long, detailed essay builds a strong case that biofuels, like
ethanol from cellulose, are unsustainable and a threat to America: "We
need to transition from petroleum power to muscle power gracefully if
we want to preserve democracy."
Municipality Bans Corporate Waste Dumping
Another town in Pennsylvania -- Tamaqua -- has passed a local law
that offers a direct challenge to corporate power.
Lizards Join Frogs in Rapid Decline
A new threat to frogs has been discovered, and this one is also a
threat to lizards and perhaps other reptiles: the declining layer of
leaf litter on forest floors, tentatively being blamed on global
From: Culture Change, Apr. 10, 2007
By Alice Friedemann**
"The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." -- President
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Part 1. The Dirt on Dirt.
Ethanol is an agribusiness get-rich-quick scheme that will bankrupt
Nineteenth century western farmers converted their corn into whiskey
to make a profit (Rorabaugh 1979). Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a
large grain processor, came up with the same scheme in the 20th
century. But ethanol was a product in search of a market, so ADM spent
three decades relentlessly lobbying for ethanol to be used in
gasoline. Today ADM makes record profits from ethanol sales and
government subsidies (Barrionuevo 2006).
The Department of Energy hopes to have biomass supply 5% of the
nation's power, 20% of transportation fuels, and 25% of chemicals by
2030. These combined goals are 30% of the current petroleum
consumption (DOE Biomass Plan, DOE Feedstock Roadmap).
Fuels made from biomass are a lot like the nuclear powered airplanes
the Air Force tried to build from 1946 to 1961, for billions of
dollars. They never got off the ground. The idea was interesting --
atomic jets could fly for months without refueling. But the lead
shielding to protect the crew and several months of food and water was
too heavy for the plane to take off. The weight problem, the ease of
shooting this behemoth down, and the consequences of a crash landing
were so obvious, it's amazing the project was ever funded, let alone
kept going for 15 years.
Biomass fuels have equally obvious and predictable reasons for
failure. Odum says that time explains why renewable energy provides
such low energy yields compared to non-renewable fossil fuels. The
more work left to nature, the higher the energy yield, but the longer
the time required. Although coal and oil took millions of years to
form into dense, concentrated solar power, all we had to do was
extract and transport them (Odum 1996)
With every step required to transform a fuel into energy, there is
less and less energy yield. For example, to make ethanol from corn
grain, which is how all U.S. ethanol is made now, corn is first grown
to develop hybrid seeds, which next season are planted, harvested,
delivered, stored, and preprocessed to remove dirt. Dry-mill ethanol
is milled, liquefied, heated, saccharified, fermented, evaporated,
centrifuged, distilled, scrubbed, dried, stored, and transported to
customers (McAloon 2000).
Fertile soil will be destroyed if crops and other "wastes" are removed
to make cellulosic ethanol.
"We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation,
for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire
life of the planet depends" (Sampson 1981).
Loss of topsoil has been a major factor in the fall of civilizations
(Sundquist 2005 Chapter 3, Lowdermilk 1953, Perlin 1991, Ponting
1993). You end up with a country like Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia,
where 75% of the farm land became a salty desert.
Fuels from biomass are not sustainable, are ecologically destructive,
have a net energy loss, and there isn't enough biomass in America to
make significant amounts of energy because essential inputs like
water, land, fossil fuels, and phosphate ores are limited.
Soil Science 101 -- There Is No "Waste" Biomass
Long before there was "Peak Oil", there was "Peak Soil". Iowa has some
of the best topsoil in the world. In the past century, half of it's
been lost, from an average of 18 to 10 inches deep (Pate 2004, Klee
Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil reaches 6 inches or less,
the average crop root zone depth (Sundquist 2005).
Crop productivity continually declines as topsoil is lost and residues
are removed. (Al-Kaisi May 2001, Ball 2005, Blanco-Canqui 2006, BOA
1986, Calvino 2003, Franzleubbers 2006, Grandy 2006, Johnson 2004,
Johnson 2005, Miranowski 1984, Power 1998, Sadras 2001, Troeh 2005,
On over half of America's best crop land, the erosion rate is 27 times
the natural rate, 11,000 pounds per acre (NCRS 2006). The natural,
geological erosion rate is about 400 pounds of soil per acre per year
(Troeh 2005). Some is due to farmers not being paid enough to conserve
their land, but most is due to investors who farm for profit. Erosion
control cuts into profits.
Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster than the rate topsoil
can be formed by natural processes (Pimentel 2006). That might make
the average person concerned. But not the USDA -- they've defined
erosion as the average soil loss that could occur without causing a
decline in long term productivity.
Troeh (2005) believes that the tolerable soil loss (T) value is set
too high, because it's based only on the upper layers -- how long it
takes subsoil to be converted into topsoil. T ought to be based on
deeper layers -- the time for subsoil to develop from parent material
or parent material from rock. If he's right, erosion is even worse
than NCRS figures.
Erosion removes the most fertile parts of the soil (USDA-ARS). When
you feed the soil [with organic matter], you're not feeding plants;
you're feeding the biota in the soil. Underground creatures and fungi
break down fallen leaves and twigs into microscopic bits that plants
can eat, and create tunnels air and water can infiltrate. In nature
there are no elves feeding (fertilizing) the wild lands. When plants
die, they're recycled into basic elements and become a part of new
plants. It's a closed cycle. There is no bio-waste.
Soil creatures and fungi act as an immune system for plants against
diseases, weeds, and insects -- when this living community is harmed
by agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, even more chemicals are
needed in an increasing vicious cycle (Wolfe 2001).
There's so much life in the soil, there can be 10 "biomass horses"
underground for every horse grazing on an acre of pasture (Wardle
2004). If you dove into the soil and swam around, you'd be surrounded
by miles of thin strands of mycorrhizal fungi that help plant roots
absorb more nutrients and water, plus millions of creatures, most of
them unknown. There'd be thousands of species in just a handful of
earth -- springtails, bacteria, and worms digging airy subways. As you
swam along, plant roots would tower above you like trees as you wove
through underground skyscrapers.
Plants and creatures underground need to drink, eat, and breathe just
as we do. An ideal soil is half rock, and a quarter each water and
air. When tractors plant and harvest, they crush the life out of the
soil, as underground apartments collapse 9/11 style. The tracks left
by tractors in the soil are the erosion route for half of the soil
that washes or blows away (Wilhelm 2004).
Corn Biofuel -- Especially Harmful
Corn Biofuel (i.e. butanol, ethanol, biodiesel) is especially harmful
because: Row crops such as corn and soy cause 50 times more soil
erosion than sod crops [e.g., hay] (Sullivan 2004) or more (Al-Kaisi
2000), because the soil between the rows can wash or blow away. If
corn is planted with last year's corn stalks left on the ground (no-
till), erosion is less of a problem, but only about 20% of corn is
grown no-till. Soy is usually grown no-till, but [leaves]
insignificant residues to harvest for fuel. Corn uses more water,
insecticide, and fertilizer than most crops (Pimentel 2003). Due to
high corn prices, continuous corn (corn crop after corn crop) is
increasing, rather than rotation of nitrogen fixing (fertilizer) and
erosion control sod crops with corn.
The government has studied the effect of growing continuous corn, and
found it increases eutrophication by 189%, global warming by 71%, and
acidification by 6% (Powers 2005).
Farmers want to plant corn on highly-erodible, water protecting, or
wildlife sustaining Conservation Reserve Program land. Farmers are
paid not to grow crops on this land. But with high corn prices,
farmers are now asking the Agricultural Department to release them
from these contracts so they can plant corn on these low-producing,
environmentally sensitive lands (Tomson 2007).
Crop residues are essential for soil nutrition, water retention, and
soil carbon. Making cellulosic ethanol from corn residues -- the parts
of the plant we don't eat (stalk, roots, and leaves) -- removes water,
carbon, and nutrients (Nelson, 2002, McAloon 2000, Sheehan, 2003).
These practices lead to lower crop production and ultimately deserts.
Growing plants for fuel will accelerate the already unacceptable
levels of topsoil erosion, soil carbon and nutrient depletion, soil
compaction, water retention, water depletion, water pollution, air
pollution, eutrophication, destruction of fisheries, siltation of dams
and waterways, salination, loss of biodiversity, and damage to human
health (Tegtmeier 2004).
Why are soil scientists absent from the biofuels debate?
I asked 35 soil scientists why topsoil wasn't part of the biofuels
debate. These are just a few of the responses from the ten who replied
to my off-the-record poll (no one wanted me to quote them, mostly due
to fear of losing their jobs): "I have no idea why soil scientists
aren't questioning corn and cellulosic ethanol plans. Quite frankly
I'm not sure that our society has had any sort of reasonable debate
about this with all the facts laid out. When you see that even if all
of the corn was converted to ethanol and that would not provide more
than 20% of our current liquid fuel use, it certainly makes me wonder,
even before considering the conversion efficiency, soil loss, water
contamination, food price problems, etc."
"Biomass production is not sustainable. Only business men and women in
the refinery business believe it is."
"Should we be using our best crop land to grow gasohol and contribute
further to global warming? What will our children grow their food on?"
"As agricultural scientists, we are programmed to make farmers
profitable, and therefore profits are at the top of the list, and not
soil, family, or environmental sustainability".
"Government policy since WWII has been to encourage overproduction to
keep food prices down (people with full bellies don't revolt or object
too much). It's hard to make a living farming commodities when the
selling price is always at or below the break even point. Farmers have
had to get bigger and bigger to make ends meet since the margins keep
getting thinner and thinner. We have sacrificed our family farms in
the name of cheap food. When farmers stand to make few bucks (as with
biofuels) agricultural scientists tend to look the other way".
"You are quite correct in your concern that soil science should be
factored into decisions about biofuel production. Unfortunately, we
soil scientists have missed the boat on the importance of soil
management to the sustainability of biomass production, and the long-
term impact for soil productivity.
This is not a new debate. Here's what scientists had to say decades
ago: Removing "crop residues...would rob organic matter that is vital
to the maintenance of soil fertility and tilth, leading to disastrous
soil erosion levels. Not considered is the importance of plant
residues as a primary source of energy for soil microbial activity.
The most prudent course, clearly, is to continue to recycle most crop
residues back into the soil, where they are vital in keeping organic
matter levels high enough to make the soil more open to air and water,
more resistant to soil erosion, and more productive" (Sampson 1981).
"...Massive alcohol production from our farms is an immoral use of our
soils since it rapidly promotes their wasting away. We must save these
soils for an oil-less future" (Jackson 1980).
Natural Gas in Agriculture
When you take out more nutrients and organic matter from the soil than
you put back in, you are "mining" the topsoil. The organic matter is
especially important, since that's what prevents erosion, improves
soil structure, health, water retention, and gives the next crop its
nutrition. Modern agriculture only addresses the nutritional component
by adding fossil-fuel based fertilizers, and because the soil is
unhealthy from a lack of organic matter, copes with insects and
disease with oil-based pesticides.
"Fertilizer energy" is 28% of the energy used in agriculture (Heller,
2000). Fertilizer uses natural gas both as a feedstock and the source
of energy to create the high temperatures and pressures necessary to
coax inert nitrogen out of the air (nitrogen is often the limiting
factor in crop production). This is known as the Haber-Bosch process,
and it's a big part of the green revolution that made it possible for
the world's population to grow from half a billion to 6.5 billion
today (Smil 2000, Fisher 2001).
Our national security is at risk as we become dependent on unstable
foreign states to provide us with increasingly expensive fertilizer.
Between 1995 and 2005 we increased our fertilizer imports by more than
148% for Anhydrous Ammonia, 93% for Urea (solid), and 349 % of other
nitrogen fertilizers (USDA ERS). Removing crop residues will require
large amounts of imported fertilizer from potential cartels,
potentially so expensive farmers won't sell crops and residues for
Improve national security and topsoil by returning residues to the
land as fertilizer. We are vulnerable to high-priced fertilizer
imports or "food for oil", which would greatly increase the cost of
food for Americans.
Agriculture competes with homes and industry for fast depleting North
American natural gas. Natural gas price increases have already caused
over 280,000 job losses (Gerard 2006). Natural gas is also used for
heating and cooking in over half our homes, generates 15% of
electricity, and is a feedstock for thousands of products.
Return crop residues to the soil to provide organic fertilizer, don't
increase the need for natural gas fertilizers by removing crop
residues to make cellulosic biofuels.
Part 2. The Poop on Ethanol
Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)
To understand the concept of EROEI, imagine a magician doing a
variation on the rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick. He strides onstage with a
rabbit, puts it into a top hat, and then spends the next five minutes
pulling 100 more rabbits out. That is a pretty good return on
Oil was like that in the beginning: one barrel of oil energy was
required to get 100 more out, an Energy Returned on Energy Invested of
When the biofuel magician tries to do the same trick decades later, he
puts the rabbit into the hat, and pulls out only one pooping rabbit.
The excrement is known as byproduct or coproduct in the ethanol
Studies that show a positive energy gain for ethanol would have a
negative return if the byproduct were left out (Farrell 2006). Here's
where byproduct comes from: if you made ethanol from corn in your back
yard, you'd dump a bushel of corn, two gallons of water, and yeast
into your contraption. Out would come 18 pounds of ethanol, 18 pounds
of CO2, and 18 pounds of byproduct -- the leftover corn solids.
Patzek and Pimentel believe you shouldn't include the energy contained
in the byproduct, because you need to return it to the soil to improve
nutrition and soil structure (Patzek June 2006). Giampetro believes
the byproduct should be treated as a "serious waste disposal problem
and... an energy cost", because if we supplied 10% of our energy from
biomass, we'd generate 37 times more livestock feed than is used
It's even worse than he realized -- Giampetro didn't know most of this
"livestock feed" can't be fed to livestock because it's too energy and
monetarily expensive to deliver -- especially heavy wet distillers
byproduct, which is short-lived, succumbing to mold and fungi after 4
to 10 days. Also, byproduct is a subset of what animals eat. Cattle
are fed byproduct in 20% of their diet at most. Iowa's a big hog
state, but commercial swine operations feed pigs a maximum of 5 to 10%
byproduct (Trenkle 2006; Shurson 2003).
Worst of all, the EROEI of ethanol is 1.2:1 or 1.2 units of energy out
for every unit of energy in, a gain of ".2". The "1" in "1.2"
represents the liquid ethanol. What is the ".2" then? It's the rabbit
feces -- the byproduct. So you have no ethanol for your car, because
the liquid "1" needs to be used to make more ethanol. That leaves you
with just the ".2" --- a bucket of byproduct to feed your horse -- you
do have a horse, don't you? If horses are like cattle, then you can
only use your byproduct for one-fifth of his diet, so you'll need four
supplemental buckets of hay from your back yard to feed him. No doubt
the byproduct could be used to make other things, but that would take
Byproduct could be burned, but it takes a significant amount of energy
to dry it out, and requires additional handling and equipment. More
money can be made selling it wet to the cattle industry, which is
hurting from the high price of corn. Byproduct should be put back into
the ground to improve soil nutrition and structure for future
generations, not sold for short-term profit and fed to cattle who
aren't biologically adapted to eating corn.
The boundaries of what is included in EROEI calculations are kept as
narrow as possible to reach positive results.
Researchers who find a positive EROEI for ethanol have not accounted
for all of the energy inputs. For example, Shapouri admits the "energy
used in the production of... farm machinery and equipment..., and
cement, steel, and stainless steel used in the construction of ethanol
plants, are not included". (Shapouri 2002). Or they assign overstated
values of ethanol yield from corn (Patzek Dec 2006). Many, many, other
inputs are left out.
Patzek and Pimentel have compelling evidence showing that about 30
percent more fossil energy is required to produce a gallon of ethanol
than you get from it. Their papers are published in peer-reviewed
journals where their data and methods are public, unlike many of the
positive net energy results.
Infrastructure. Current EROEI figures don't take into account the
delivery infrastructure that needs to be built. There are 850 million
combustion engines in the world today. Just to replace half the 245
million cars and light trucks in the United States with E85 vehicles
will take 12-15 years, It would take over $544 million dollars of
delivery ethanol infrastructure (Reynolds 2002 case B1) and $5 to $34
billion to revamp 170,000 gas stations nationwide (Heinson 2007).
The EROEI of oil when we built most of the infrastructure in this
country was about 100:1, and it's about 25:1 worldwide now. Even if
you believe ethanol has a positive EROEI, you'd probably need at least
an EROEI of at least 5 to maintain modern civilization (Hall 2003). A
civilization based on ethanol's ".2" rabbit poop would only work for
coprophagous (dung-eating) rabbits.
Of the four articles that showed a positive net energy for ethanol in
Farrells 2006 Science article, three were not peer-reviewed. The only
positive peer-reviewed article (Dias De Oliveira, 2005) states "The
use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline proved to be neither a
sustainable nor an environmentally friendly option" and the
"environmental impacts outweigh its benefits". Dias De Oliveria
concluded there'd be a tremendous loss of biodiversity, and if all
vehicles ran on E85 and their numbers grew by 4% per year, by 2048,
the entire country, except for cities, would be covered with corn.
Part 3. Biofuel is a Grim Reaper.
The energy to remediate environmental damage is left out of EROEI
Soils contain twice the amount of carbon found in the atmosphere, and
three times more carbon than is stored in all the Earth's vegetation
Climate change could increase soil loss by 33% to 274%, depending on
the region (O'Neal 2005).
Intensive agriculture has already removed 20 to 50% of the original
soil carbon, and some areas have lost 70%. To maintain soil C levels,
no crop residues at all could be harvested under many tillage systems
or on highly erodible lands, and none to a small percent on no-till,
depending on crop production levels (Johnson 2006).
Deforestation of temperate hardwood forests, and conversion of range
and wetlands to grow energy and food crops increases global warming.
An average of 2.6 million acres of crop land were paved over or
developed every year between 1982 and 2002 in the USA (NCRS 2004). The
only new crop land is forest, range, or wetland.
Rainforest destruction is increasing global warming. Energy farming is
playing a huge role in deforestation, reducing biodiversity, water and
water quality, and increasing soil erosion. Fires to clear land for
palm oil plantations are destroying one of the last great remaining
rainforests in Borneo, spewing so much carbon that Indonesia is third
behind the United States and China in releasing greenhouse gases.
Orangutans, rhinos, tigers and thousands of other species may be
driven extinct (Monbiot 2005). Borneo palm oil plantation lands have
grown 2,500% since 1984 (Barta 2006). Soybeans cause even more erosion
than corn and suffer from all the same sustainability issues. The
Amazon is being destroyed by farmers growing soybeans for food
(National Geographic Jan 2007).and fuel (Olmstead 2006).
Biofuel from coal-burning biomass factories increases global warming
(Farrell 2006). Driving a mile on ethanol from a coal-using
biorefinery releases more CO2 than a mile on gasoline (Ward 2007).
Coal in ethanol production is seen as a way to displace petroleum
(Farrell 2006, Yacobucci 2006) and it's already happening (Clayton
Current and future quantities of biofuels are too minisucle to affect
global warming (ScienceDaily 2007).
"How much the sun warms our climate depends on how much sunlight the
land reflects (cooling us), versus how much it absorbs (heating us). A
plausible 2% increase in the absorbed sunlight on a switch grass
plantation could negate the climatic cooling benefit of the ethanol
produced on it. We need to figure out now, not later, the full range
of climatic consequences of growing cellulose crops" (Harte 2007).
Farm runoff of nitrogen fertilizers has contributed to the hypoxia
(low oxygen) of rivers and lakes across the country and the dead zone
in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the cost of the lost shrimp and fisheries
and increased cost of water treatment are not subtracted from the
EROEI of ethanol.
Corn and soybeans have higher than average erosion rates. Eroded soil
pollutes air, fills up reservoirs, and shortens the time dams can
store water and generate electricity. Yet the energy of the hydropower
lost to siltation, energy to remediate flood damage, energy to dredge
dams, agricultural drainage ditches, harbors, and navigation channels,
aren't considered in EROEI calculations.
The majority of the best soil in the nation is rented and has the
highest erosion rates. More than half the best farmland in the United
States is rented: 65% in Iowa, 74% in Minnesota, 84% in Illinois, and
86% in Indiana. Owners seeking short-term profits have far less
incentive than farmers who work their land to preserve soil and water.
As you can see in the map below [click on image for original USDA
site], the dark areas, which represent the highest erosion rates, are
the same areas with the highest percentage of rented farmland. [Red -
High, Yellow -- Medium, Green -- Low]
Soil erosion is a serious source of water pollution, since it causes
runoff of sediments, nutrients, salts, eutrophication, and chemicals
that have had no chance to decompose into streams. This increases
water treatment costs, increases health costs, kills fish with
insecticides that work their way up the food chain (Troeh 2005).
Ethanol plants pollute water. They generate 13 liters of wastewater
for every liter of ethanol produced (Pimentel March 2005)
Biofuel factories use a huge amount of water -- four gallons for every
gallon of ethanol produced. Despite 30 inches of rain per year in
Iowa, there may not be enough water for corn ethanol factories as well
as people and industry. Drought years will make matters worse (Cruse
Fifty percent of Americans rely on groundwater (Glennon 2002), and in
many states, this groundwater is being depleted by agriculture faster
than it is being recharged. This is already threatening current food
supplies (Giampetro 1997). In some western irrigated corn acreage,
groundwater is being mined at a rate 25% faster than the natural
recharge of its aquifer (Pimentel 2003).
Every acre of forest and wetland converted to crop land decreases soil
biota, insect, bird, reptile, and mammal biodiversity.
Part 4. Biodiesel: Can we eat enough French Fries?
The idea we could run our economy on discarded fried food grease is
very amusing. For starters, you'd need to feed 7 million heavy diesel
trucks getting less than 8 mpg. Seems like we're all going to need to
eat a lot more French Fries, but if anyone can pull it off, it would
be Americans. Spin it as a patriotic duty and you'd see people out the
door before the TV ad finished, the most popular government edict
Scale. Where's the Soy? Biodiesel is not ready for prime time.
Although John Deere is working on fuel additives and technologies to
burn more than 5% accredited biodiesel (made to ASTM D6751
specifications -- vegetable oil does not qualify), that is a long way
off. 52 billion gallons of diesel fuel are consumed a year in the
United States, but only 75 million gallons of biodiesel were produced
- two-tenths of one percent of what's needed. To get the country to
the point where gasoline was mixed with 5 percent biodiesel would
require 64 percent of the soybean crop and 71,875 square miles of land
(Borgman 2007), an area the size of the state of Washington. Soybeans
cause even more erosion than corn.
Biodiesel shortens engine life. Currently, biodiesel concentrations
higher than 5 percent can cause "water in the fuel due to storage
problems, foreign material plugging filters..., fuel system seal and
gasket failure, fuel gelling in cold weather, crankcase dilution,
injection pump failure due to water ingestion, power loss, and, in
some instances, can be detrimental to long engine life" (Borgman
2007). Biodiesel also has a short shelf life and it's hard to store -
it easily absorbs moisture (water is a bane to combustion engines),
oxidizes, and gets contaminated with microbes. It increases engine NOx
emissions (ozone) and has thermal degradation at high temperatures
(John Deere 2006).
On the cusp of energy descent, we can't even run the most vital aspect
of our economy, agricultural machines, on "renewable" fuels. John
Deere tractors can run on no more than 5% accredited biodiesel
(Borgman 2007). Perhaps this is unintentionally wise -- biofuels have
yet to be proven viable, and mechanization may not be a great strategy
in a world of declining energy.
Part 5. If we can't drink and drive, then burn baby burn.
Energy Crop Combustion
Wood is a crop, subject to the same issues as corn, and takes a lot
longer to grow. Burning wood in your stove at home delivers far more
energy than the logs would if converted to biofuels (Pimentel 2005).
Wood was scarce in America when there were just 75 million people.
Electricity from biomass combustion is not economic or sustainable.
Combustion pollution is expensive to control. Some biomass has
absorbed heavy metals and other pollutants from sources like coal
power plants, industry, and treated wood. Combustion can release
chlorinated dioxins, benzofurans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,
cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel, and zinc.
Combustion contributes to global warming by adding nitrogen oxides and
the carbon stored in plants back into the atmosphere, as well as
removes agriculturally essential nitrogen and phosphate (Reijnders
EROEI in doubt. Combustion plants need to produce, transport, prepare,
dry, burn, and control toxic emissions. Collection is energy
intensive, requiring some combination of bunchers, skidders, whole-
tree choppers, or tub grinders, and then hauling it to the biomass
plant. There, the feedstock is chopped into similar sizes and placed
on a conveyor belt to be fed to the plant. If biomass is co-fired with
coal, it needs to be reduced in size, and the resulting fly ash may
not be marketable to the concrete industry (Bain 2003). Any alkali or
chlorine released in combustion gets deposited on the equipment,
reducing overall plant efficiencies, as well as accelerating corrosion
and erosion of plant components, requiring high replacement and
Processing materials with different physical properties is energy
intensive, requiring sorting, handling, drying, and chopping. It's
hard to optimize the pyrolysis, gasification, and combustion processes
if different combustible fuels are used. Urban waste requires a lot of
sorting, since it often has material that must be removed, such as
rocks, concrete and metal. The material that can be burned must also
be sorted, since it varies from yard trimmings with high moisture
content to chemically treated wood.
Biomass combustion competes with other industries that want this
material for construction, mulch, compost, paper, and other profitable
ventures, often driving the price of wood higher than a wood-burning
biomass plant can afford. Much of the forest wood that could be burned
is inaccessible due to a lack of roads.
Efficiency is lowered if material with a high water content is burned,
like fresh wood. Different physical and chemical characteristics in
fuel can lead to control problems (Badger 2002). When wet fuel is
burned, so much energy goes into vaporizing the water that very little
energy emerges as heat, and drying takes time and energy.
Material is limited and expensive. California couldn't use crop
residues due to low bulk density. In 2000, the viability of California
biomass enterprise was in serious doubt because the energy to produce
biomass was so high due to the small facilities and high cost of
collecting and transporting material to the plants (Bain 2003).
Part 6. The problems with Cellulosic Ethanol could drive you to drink.
Many plants want animals to eat their seed and fruit to disperse them.
Some seeds only germinate after going through an animal gut and coming
out in ready-made fertilizer. Seeds and fruits are easy to digest
compared to the rest of the plant, that's why all of the commercial
ethanol and biodiesel are made from the yummy parts of plants, the
grain, rather than the stalks, leaves, and roots.
But plants don't want to be entirely devoured. They've spent hundreds
of millions of years perfecting structures that can't easily be eaten.
Be thankful plants figured this out, or everything would be mown down
If we ever did figure out how to break down cellulose in our back yard
stills, it wouldn't be long before the 6.5 billion people on the
planet destroyed the grasslands and forests of the world to power
generators and motorbikes (Huber 2006)
Don Augenstein and John Benemann, who've been researching biofuels for
over 30 years, are skeptical as well. According to them, "...severe
barriers remain to ethanol from lignocellulose. The barriers look as
daunting as they did 30 years ago".
Benemann says the EROEI can be easily determined to be about five
times as much energy required to make cellulosic ethanol than the
energy contained in the ethanol.
The success of cellulosic ethanol depends on finding or engineering
organisms that can tolerate extremely high concentrations of ethanol.
Augenstein argues that this creature would already exist if it were
possible. Organisms have had a billion years of optimization through
evolution to develop a tolerance to high ethanol levels (Benemann
2006). Someone making beer, wine, or moonshine would have already
discovered this creature if it could exist.
The range of chemical and physical properties in biomass, even just
corn stover (Ruth 2003, Sluiter 2000), is a challenge. It's hard to
make cellulosic ethanol plants optimally efficient, because processes
can't be tuned to such wide feedstock variation.
Where will the Billion Tons of Biomass for Cellulosic Fuels Come From?
The government believes there is a billion tons of biomass "waste" to
make cellulosic biofuels, chemicals, and generate electricity with.
The United States lost 52 million acres of cropland between 1982 and
2002 (NCRS 2004). At that rate, all of the cropland will be gone in
There isn't enough biomass to replace 30% of our petroleum use. The
potential biomass energy is miniscule compared to the fossil fuel
energy we consume every year, about 105 exa joules (EJ) in the USA. If
you burned every living plant and its roots, you'd have 94 EJ of
energy and we could all pretend we lived on Mars. Most of this 94 EJ
of biomass is already being used for food and feed crops, and wood for
paper and homes. Sparse vegetation and the 30 EJ in root systems are
economically unavailable -- leaving only a small amount of biomass
unspoken for (Patzek June 2006).
Over 25% of the "waste" biomass is expected to come from 280 million
tons of corn stover. Stover is what's left after the corn grain is
harvested. Another 120 million tons will come from soy and cereal
straw (DOE Feedstock Roadmap, DOE Biomass Plan).
There isn't enough no-till corn stover to harvest. The success of
biofuels depends on corn residues. About 80% of farmers disk corn
stover into the land after harvest. That renders it useless -- the
crop residue is buried in mud and decomposing rapidly.
Only the 20 percent of farmers who farm no-till will have stover to
sell. The DOE Billion Ton vision assumes all farmers are no-till, 75%
of residues will be harvested, and fantasizes corn and wheat yields
50% higher than now are reached (DOE Billion Ton Vision 2005).
Many tons will never be available because farmers won't sell any, or
much of their residue (certainly not 75%).
Many more tons will be lost due to drought, rain, or loss in storage.
Sustainable harvesting of plants is only 1/200th at best. [?
Sustainable harvesting of plants only captures 1/200th of the solar
energy they receive, at best. -EB ed] Plants can only fix a tiny part
of solar energy into plant matter every year -- about one-tenth to
one-half of one percent new growth in temperate climates.
To prevent erosion, you could only harvest 51 million tons of corn and
wheat residues, not 400 million tons (Nelson, 2002). Other factors,
like soil structure, soil compression, water depletion, and
environmental damage weren't considered. Fifty one million tons of
residue could make about 3.8 billion gallons of ethanol, less than 1%
of our energy needs.
Using corn stover is a problem, because corn, soy, and other row crops
cause 50 times more soil erosion than sod crops (Sullivan 2004) or
more (Al-Kaisi 2000), and corn also uses more water, insecticides and
fertilizers than most crops (Pimentel 2003).
The amount of soy and cereal straw (wheat, oats, etc) is
insignificant. It would be best to use cereal grain straw, because
grains use far less water and cause far less erosion than row crops
like corn and soybeans. But that isn't going to happen, because the
green revolution fed billions more people by shortening grain height
so that plant energy went into the edible seed, leaving little straw
for biofuels. Often 90% of soybean and cereal straw is grown no-till,
but the amount of cereal straw is insignificant and the soybean
residues must remain on the field to prevent erosion
Limitations on Energy Crops
Poor, erodible land. There aren't enough acres of land to grow
significant amounts of energy crops. Potential energy crop land is
usually poor quality or highly erodible land that shouldn't be
harvested. Farmers are often paid not to farm this unproductive land.
Many acres in switchgrass are being used for wildlife and recreation.
Few suitable bio-factory sites. Biorefineries can't be built just
anywhere -- very few sites could be found to build switchgrass plants
in all of South Dakota (Wu 1998). Much of the state didn't have enough
water or adequate drainage to build an ethanol factory. The sites had
to be on main roads, near railroad and natural gas lines, out of
floodplains, on parcels of at least 40 acres to provide storage for
the residues, have electric power, and enough biomass nearby to supply
the plant year round.
No energy crop farmers or investors. Farmers won't grow switchgrass
until there's a switchgrass plant. Machines to harvest and transport
switchgrass efficiently don't exist yet (Barrionuevo 2006). The
capital to build switchgrass plants won't materialize until there are
switchgrass farmers. Since "ethanol production using switchgrass
required 50% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced"
(Pimentel 2005), investors for these plants will be hard to find.
Energy crops are subject to Liebig's law of the minimum too.
Switchgrass may grow on marginal land, but it hasn't escaped the need
for minerals and water. Studies have shown the more rainfall, the more
switchgrass you get, and if you remove switchgrass, you're going to
need to fertilize the land to replace the lost biomass, or you'll get
continually lower yields of switchgrass every time you harvest the
crop (Vogel 2002). Sugar cane has been touted as an "all you need is
sunshine" plant. But according to the FAO, the nitrogen, phosphate,
and potassium requirements of sugar cane are roughly similar to maize
Bioinvasive Potential. These fast-growing disease-resistant plants are
potentially bioinvasive, another kudzu. Bioinvasion costs our country
billions of dollars a year (Bright, 1998). Johnson grass was
introduced as a forage grass and it's now an invasive weed in many
states. Another fast-growing grass, Miscanthus, is now being proposed
as a biofuel. It's been described as "Johnson grass on steroids"
Sugar cane: too little to import. Brazil uses oil for 90% of their
energy, and 17 times less oil [than the U.S.] (Jordan 2006). Brazilian
ethanol production in 2003 was 3.3 billion gallons, about the same as
the USA in 2004, or 1% of our transportation energy. Brazil uses 85%
of their cane ethanol, leaving only 15% for export.
Sugar Cane: can't grow it here. Although we grow some sugar cane
despite tremendous environmental damage (WWF) in Florida thanks to the
sugar lobby, we're too far north to grow a significant amount of sugar
cane or other fast growing C4 plants.
Wood ethanol is an energy sink. Ethanol production using wood biomass
required 57% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced
Wood is a nonrenewable resource. Old-growth forests had very dense
wood, with a high energy content, but wood from fast-growing
plantations is so low-density and low calorie it's not even good to
burn in a fireplace. These plantations require energy to plant,
fertilize, weed, thin, cut, and deliver. The trees are finally
available for use after 20 to 90 years -- too long for them to be
considered a renewable fuel (Odum 1996). Nor do secondary forests
always come back with the vigor of the preceding forest due to soil
erosion, soil nutrition depletion, and mycorrhizae destruction (Luoma
There's not enough wood to fuel a civilization of 300 million people.
Over half of North America was deforested by 1900, at a time when
there were only 75 million people (Williams 2003). Most of this was
from home use. In the 18th century the average Northeastern family
used 10 to 20 cords per year. At least one acre of woods is required
to sustainably harvest one cord of wood (Whitney 1994).
Energy crop limits. Energy crops may not be sustainable due to water,
fertilizer, and harvesting impacts on the soil (DOE Biomass Roadmap
2005). Like all other monoculture crops, ultimately yields of energy
crops will be reduced due to "pest problems, diseases, and soil
degradation" (Giampetro, 1997).
Energy crop monoculture. The "physical and chemical characteristics of
feedstocks vary by source, by year, and by season, increasing
processing costs" (DOE Feedstock Roadmap). That will encourage the
development of genetically engineered biomass to minimize variation.
Harvesting economies of scale will mean these crops will be grown in
monoculture, just as food crops are. That's the wrong direction -- to
farm with less energy there'll need to be a return to rotation of
diverse crops, and composted residues for soil nutrition, pest, and
A way around this would be to spend more on researching how cellulose
digesting microbes tackle different herbaceous and woody biomass. The
ideal energy crop would be a perennial, tall-grass prairie / herbivore
ecosystem (Tilman 2006).
Farmers aren't stupid: They won't sell their residues. Farmers are
some of the smartest people on earth or they'd soon go out of
business. They have to know everything from soil science to commodity
Crop production is reduced when residues are removed from the soil.
Why would farmers want to sell their residues?
Erosion, water, compression, nutrition. Harvesting of stover on the
scale needed to fuel a cellulosic industry won't happen because
farmers aren't stupid, especially the ones who work their own land.
Although there is a wide range of opinion about the amount of residue
that can be harvested safely without causing erosion, loss of soil
nutrition, and soil structure, many farmers will want to be on the
safe side, and stick with the studies showing that 20% (Nelson, 2002)
to 30% (McAloon et al., 2000; Sheehan, 2003) at most can be harvested,
not the 75% agribusiness claims is possible. Farmers also care about
water quality (Lal 1998, Mann et al, 2002). And farmers will decide
that permanent soil compression is not worth any price (Wilhelm 2004).
As prices of fertilizer inexorably rise due to natural gas depletion,
it will be cheaper to return residues to the soil than to buy
Residues are a headache. The further the farmer is from the
biorefinery or railroad, the slimmer the profit, and the less likely a
farmer will want the extra headache and cost of hiring and scheduling
many different harvesting, collection, baling, and transportation
contractors for corn stover.
Residues are used by other industries. Farm managers working for
distant owners are more likely to sell crop residues since they're
paid to generate profits, not preserve land. But even they will sell
to the highest bidder, which might be the livestock or dairy
industries, furfural factories, hydromulching companies, biocomposite
manufacturers, pulp mills, or city dwellers faced with skyrocketing
utility bills, since the high heating value of residue has twice the
energy of the converted ethanol.
Investors aren't stupid either. If farmers can't supply enough crop
residues to fuel the large biorefinery in their region, who will put
up the capital to build one?
Can the biomass be harvested, baled, stored, and transported
Harvesting. Sixteen ton tractors harvest corn and spit out stover.
Many of these harvesters are contracted and will continue to collect
corn in the limited harvest time, not stover. If tractors are still
available, the land isn't wet, snow doesn't fall, and the stover is
dry, three additional tractor runs will mow, rake, and bale the stover
(Wilhelm 2004). This will triple the compaction damage to the soil
(Troeh 2005), create more erosion-prone tire tracks, increase CO2
emissions, add to labor costs, and put unwanted foreign matter into
the bale (soil, rocks, baling wire, etc).
So biomass roadmaps call for a new type of tractor or attachment to
harvest both corn and stover in one pass. But then the tractor would
need to be much larger and heavier, which could cause decades-long or
even permanent soil compaction. Farmers worry that mixing corn and
stover might harm the quality of the grain. And on the cusp of energy
descent, is it a good idea to build an even larger and more complex
If the stover is harvested, the soil is now vulnerable to erosion if
it rains, because there's no vegetation to protect the soil from the
impact of falling raindrops. Rain also compacts the surface of the
soil so that less water can enter, forcing more to run off, increasing
erosion. Water landing on dense vegetation soaks into the soil,
increasing plant growth and recharging underground aquifers. The more
stover left on the land, the better.
Baling. The current technology to harvest residues is to put them into
bales of hay. Hay is a dangerous commodity -- it can spontaneously
combust, and once on fire, can't be extinguished, leading to fire loss
and increased fire insurance costs. Somehow the bales have to be kept
from combusting during the several months it takes to dry them from 50
to 15 percent moisture. A large, well drained, covered area is needed
to vent fumes and dissipate heat. If the bales get wet they will
compost (Atchison 2004).
Baling was developed for hay and has been adapted to corn stover with
limited success. Biorefineries need at least half a million tons of
biomass on hand to smooth supply bumps, much greater than any bale
system has been designed for. Pelletization is not an option, it's too
expensive. Other options need to be found. (DOE Feedstock Roadmap)
To get around the problems of exploding hay bales, wet stover could be
collected. The moisture content needs to be around 60 percent, which
means a lot of water will be transported, adding significantly to the
Storage. Stover needs to be stored with a moisture content of 15% or
less, but it's typically 35-50%, and rain or snow during harvest will
raise these levels even higher (DOE Feedstock Roadmap). If it's
harvested wet anyhow, there'll be high or complete losses of biomass
in storage (Atchison 2004).
Residues could be stored wet, as they are in ensilage, but a great
deal of R&D are needed and to see if there are disease, pest,
emission, runoff, groundwater contamination, dust, mold, or odor
control problems. The amount of water required is unknown. The transit
time must be short, or aerobic microbial activity will damage it. At
the storage site, the wet biomass must be immediately washed,
shredded, and transported to a drainage pad under a roof for storage,
instead of baled when drier and left at the farm. The wet residues are
heavy, making transportation costlier than for dry residues, perhaps
uneconomical. It can freeze in the winter making it hard to handle. If
the moisture is too low, air gets in, making aerobic fermentation
possible, resulting in molds and spoilage.
Transportation. Although a 6,000 dry ton per day biorefinery would
have 33% lower [unit] costs than [one that processed 2,000 dry tons
per day], the price of gas and diesel limits the distance the biofuel
refinery can be from farms, since the bales are large in volume but
low in density, which limits how many bales can be loaded onto a truck
and transported economically.
So the "economy of scale" achieved by a very large refinery has to be
reduced to a 2,000 dry ton per day biorefinery. Even this smaller
refinery would require 200 trucks per hour delivering biomass during
harvest season (7 x 24), or 100 trucks per day if satellite sites for
storage are used. This plant would need 90% of the no-till crop
residues from the surrounding 7,000 square miles with half the farmers
participating. Yet less than 20% of farmers practice no-till corn and
not all of the farmland is planted in corn. When this biomass is
delivered to the biorefinery, it will take up at least 100 acres of
land stacked 25 feet high.
The average stover haul to the biorefinery would be 43 miles one way
if these rosy assumptions all came true (Perlack 2002). If less than
30% of the stover is available, the average one-way trip becomes 100
miles and the biorefinery is economically impossible.
There is also a shortage of truck drivers, the rail system can't
handle any new capacity, and trains are designed to operate between
hubs, not intermodally (truck to train to truck). The existing
transportation system has not changed much in 30 years, yet this
congested, inadequate infrastructure somehow has to be used to
transport huge amounts of ethanol, biomass, and byproducts (Haney
Cellulosic Biorefineries (see Appendix for more barriers)
There are over 60 barriers to be overcome in making cellulosic ethanol
in Section III of the DOE "Roadmap for Agriculture Biomass Feedstock
Supply in the United States" (DOE Feedstock Roadmap 2003). For
example: "Enzyme Biochemistry. Enzymes that exhibit high
thermostability and substantial resistance to sugar end-product
inhibition will be essential to fully realize enzyme-based sugar
platform technology. The ability to develop such enzymes and
consequently very low cost enzymatic hydrolysis technology requires
increasing our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying
the biochemistry of enzymatic cellulose hydrolysis, including the
impact of biomass structure on enzymatic cellulose decrystallization.
Additional efforts aimed at understanding the role of cellulases and
their interaction not only with cellulose but also the process
environment is needed to affect further reductions in cellulase cost
through improved production". No wonder many of the issues with
cellulosic ethanol aren't discussed -- there's no way to express the
problems in a sound bite.
It may not be possible to reduce the complex cellulose digesting
strategies of bacteria and fungi into microorganisms or enzymes that
can convert cellulose into ethanol in giant steel vats, especially
given the huge physical and chemical variations in feedstock. The
field of metagenomics is trying to create a chimera from snips of
genetic material of cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi. That would
be the ultimate Swiss Army-knife microbe, able to convert cellulose to
sugar and then sugar to ethanol.
There's also research to replicate termite gut cellulose breakdown.
Termites depend on fascinating creatures called protists in their guts
to digest wood. The protists in turn outsource the work to multiple
kinds of bacteria living inside of them. This is done with energy
(ATP) and architecture (membranes) in a system that evolved over
millions of years. If the termite could fire the protists and work
directly with the bacteria, that probably would have happened 50
million years ago. This process involves many kinds of bacteria, waste
products, and other complexities that may not be reducible to an
enzyme or a bacteria.
Finally, ethanol must be delivered. A motivation to develop cellulosic
ethanol is the high delivery cost of corn grain ethanol from the
Midwest to the coasts, since ethanol can't be delivered cheaply
through pipelines, but must be transported by truck, rail, or barge
The whole cellulosic ethanol enterprise falls apart if the energy
returned is less than the energy invested or even one of the major
stumbling blocks can't be overcome. If there isn't enough biomass, if
the residues can't be stored without exploding or composting, if the
oil to transport low-density residues to biorefineries or deliver the
final product is too great, if no cheap enzymes or microbes are found
to break down lignocellulose in wildly varying feedstocks, if the
energy to clean up toxic byproducts is too expensive, or if organisms
capable of tolerating high ethanol concentrations aren't found, if the
barriers in Appendix A can't be overcome, then cellulosic fuels are
not going to happen.
If the obstacles can be overcome, but we lose topsoil, deplete
aquifers, poison the land, air, and water -- what kind of Faustian
bargain is that?
Scientists have been trying to solve these issues for over thirty
Nevertheless, this is worthy of research money, but not public funds
for commercial refineries until the issues above have been solved.
This is the best hope we have for replacing the half million products
made from and with fossil fuels, and for liquid transportation fuels
when population falls to pre-coal levels.
Part 7. Where do we go from here?
Subsidies and Politics
How come there are over 116 ethanol plants with 79 under construction
and 200 more planned? The answer: subsidies and tax breaks.
Federal and state ethanol subsidies add up to 79 cents per liter
(McCain 2003), with most of that going to agribusiness, not farmers.
There is also a tax break of 5.3 cents per gallon for ethanol (Wall
Street Journal 2002). An additional 51 cents per gallon goes mainly to
the oil industry to get them to blend ethanol with gasoline.
In addition to the $8.4 billion per year subsidies for corn and
ethanol production, the consumer pays an additional amount for any
product with corn in it (Pollan 20005), beef, milk, and eggs, because
corn diverted to ethanol raises the price of corn for the livestock
Worst of all, the subsidies may never end, because Iowa plays a
leading role in who's selected to be the next president. John McCain
has softened his stand on ethanol (Birger 2006). All four senators in
California and New York have pointed out that "ethanol subsidies are
nothing but a way to funnel money to agribusiness and corn states at
the expense of the rest of the country" (Washington Post 2002).
"Once we have a corn-based technology up and running the political
system will protect it," said Lawrence J. Goldstein, a board member at
the Energy Policy Research Foundation. "We cannot afford to have 15
billion gallons of corn-based ethanol in 2015, and that's exactly
where we are headed" (Barrionuevo 2007).
Soil is the bedrock of civilization (Perlin 1991, Ponting 1993).
Biofuels are not sustainable or renewable. Why would we destroy our
topsoil, increase global warming, deplete and pollute groundwater,
destroy fisheries, and use more energy than what's gained to make
ethanol? Why would we do this to our children and grandchildren?
Perhaps it's a combination of pork barrel politics, an uninformed
public, short-sighted greedy agribusiness corporations, jobs for the
Midwest, politicians getting too large a percent of their campaign
money from agribusiness (Lavelle 2007), elected leaders without
science degrees, and desperation to provide liquid transportation
fuels (Bucknell 1981, Hirsch 2005).
But this madness puts our national security at risk. Destruction of
topsoil and collateral damage to water, fisheries, and food production
will result in less food to eat or sell for petroleum and natural gas
imports. Diversion of precious dwindling energy and money to
impossible solutions is a threat to our nations' future.
Fix the unsustainable and destructive aspects of industrial
agriculture. At least some good would come out of the ethanol fiasco
if more attention were paid to how we grow our food. The effects of
soil erosion on crop production have been hidden by mechanization and
intensive use of fossil fuel fertilizers and chemicals on crops bred
to tolerate them. As energy declines, crop yields will decline as
Jobs. Since part of what's driving the ethanol insanity is job
creation, divert the subsidies and pork barrel money to erosion
control and sustainable agriculture. Maybe Iowa will emerge from its
makeover looking like Provence, France, and volunteers won't be needed
to hand out free coffee at rest areas along I-80.
Continue to fund cellulosic ethanol research, focusing on how to make
500,000 fossil-fuel-based products (i.e. medicine, chemicals,
plastics, etc) and fuel for when population declines to pre-fossil
fuel carrying capacity. The feedstock should be from a perennial,
tall-grass prairie herbivore ecosystem, not food crops. But don't
waste taxpayer money to build demonstration or commercial plants until
most of the research and sustainability barriers have been solved.
California should not adopt the E10 ethanol blend for global warming
bill AB 32. Biofuels are at best neutral and at worst contribute to
global warming. A better early action item would be to favor low-
emission vehicle sales and require all new cars to have energy
Take away the E85 loophole that allows Detroit automakers to ignore
CAFE standards and get away with selling even more gas guzzling
vehicles (Consumer Reports 2006). Raise the CAFE standards higher
There are better, easier ways to stretch out petroleum than adding
ethanol to it. Just keeping tires inflated properly would save more
energy than all the ethanol produced today. Reducing the maximum speed
limit to 55, consumer driving tips, truck stop electrification, and
many other measures can save far more fuel in a shorter time than
biofuels ever will, far less destructively. Better yet, Americans can
bike or walk, which will save energy used in the health care system.
Let's stop the subsidies and see if ethanol can fly.
Reform our non-sustainable agricultural system
Give integrated pest management and organic agriculture research more
The National Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) and other
conservation agencies have done a superb job of lowering the erosion
rate since the dustbowl of the 1930's. Give these agencies a larger
budget to further the effort.
To promote land stewardship, change taxes and zoning laws to favor
small family farms. This will make possible the "social, economic, and
environmental diversity necessary for agricultural and ecosystem
stability" (Opie 2000).
Make the land grant universities follow the directive of the Hatch Act
of 1887 to improve the lives of family farmers. Stop funding
agricultural mechanization and petrochemical research and start
funding how to fight pests and disease with diverse crops, crop
rotations, and so on (Hightower 1978).
Don't allow construction of homes and businesses on prime farm land.
Integrate livestock into the crop rotation.
Teach family farmers and suburban homeowners how to maximize food
production in limited space with Rodale and Biointensive techniques.
Since less than 1 percent of our elected leaders and their staff have
scientific backgrounds, educate them in systems ecology, population
ecology, soil, and climate science. So many of the important issues
that face us need scientific understanding and judgment.
Divert funding from new airports, roads, and other future senseless
infrastructure towards research in solar, wind, and cellulosic
products. We're at the peak of scientific knowledge and our economic
system hasn't been knocked flat yet by energy shortages -- if we don't
do the research now, it may never happen.
It's not unreasonable to expect farmers to conserve the soil, since
the fate of civilization lies in their hands. But we need to pay
farmers for far more than the cost of growing food so they can afford
to conserve the land. In an oil-less future, healthy topsoil will be
our most important resource.
Responsible politicians need to tell Americans why their love affair
with the car can't continue. Leaders need to make the public
understand that there are limits to growth, and an increasing
population leads to the "Tragedy of the Commons". Even if it means
they won't be re-elected. Arguing this amidst the church of
development that prevails this is like walking into a Bible-belt
church and telling the congregation God doesn't exist, but it must be
We are betting the farm on making cellulosic fuels work at a time when
our energy and financial resources are diminishing. No matter how
desperately we want to believe that human ingenuity will invent liquid
or combustible fuels despite the laws of thermodynamics and how
ecological systems actually work, the possibility of failure needs to
Living in the moment might be enlightenment for individuals, but for a
nation, it's disastrous. Is there a Plan B if biofuels don't work?
Coal is not an option. CO2 levels over 1,000 ppm could lead to the
extinction of 95% of life on the planet (Lynas 2007, Ward 2006, Benton
Here we are, on the cusp of energy descent, with mechanized
petrochemical farms. We import more farm products now than we sell
abroad (Rohter 2004). Suburban sprawl destroys millions of acres of
prime farm land as population grows every year. We've gone from 7
million family farms to 2 million much larger farms and destroyed a
deeply satisfying rural way of life.
There need to be plans for de-mechanization of the farm economy if
liquid fuels aren't found. There are less than four million horses,
donkeys, and mules in America today. According to Bucknell, if the
farm economy were de-mechanized, you'd need at least 31 million farm
workers and 61 million horses. (Bucknell 1981)
The population of the United States has grown over 25 percent since
Bucknell published Energy and the National Defense. To de-mechanize
now, we'd need 39 million farm workers and 76 million horses. The
horsepower represented by just farm tractors alone is equal to 400
million horses. It's time to start increasing horse and oxen numbers,
which will leave even less biomass for biorefineries.
We need to transition from petroleum power to muscle power gracefully
if we want to preserve democracy. Paul Roberts wonders whether the
coming change will be "peaceful and orderly or chaotic and violent
because we waited too long to begin planning for it" (Roberts 2004).
What is the carrying capacity of the nation? Is it 100 million
(Pimentel 1991) or 250 million (Smil 2000)? Whatever carrying capacity
is decided upon, pass legislation to drastically lower immigration and
encourage one child families until America reaches this number. Or we
can let resource wars, hunger, disease, extreme weather, rising
oceans, and social chaos legislate the outcome.
Do you want to eat or drive? Even without growing food for biofuels,
crop production per capita is going to go down as population keeps
increasing, fossil fuel energy decreases, topsoil loss continues, and
aquifers deplete, especially the Ogallala (Opie 2000). Where will the
money come from to buy imported oil and natural gas if we don't have
food to export?
There is no such thing as "waste" biomass. As we go down the energy
ladder, plants will increasingly be needed to stabilize climate,
provide food, medicine, shelter, furniture, heat, light, cooking fuel,
Biofuels are a threat to the long-term national security of our
nation. Is Dr. Strangelove in charge, with a plan to solve defense
worries by creating a country that's such a salty polluted desert, no
one would want to invade us? Why is Dr. Strangelove spending the last
bits of energy in Uncle Sam's pocket on moonshine? Perhaps he's
thinking that we're all going to need it, and the way things are
going, he's probably right.
Appendix: Department of Energy Biofuel Roadmap Barriers
This is a partial summary of biofuel barriers from Department of
Energy. Unless otherwise footnoted, the problems with biomass fuel
production are from the Multi Year Program Plan DOE Biomass Plan or
Roadmap for Agriculture Biomass Feedstock Supply in the United States.
(DOE Biomass Plan, DOE Feedstock Roadmap). Resource and Sustainability
1) Biomass feedstock will ultimately be limited by finite amounts of
land and water
2) Biomass production may not be sustainable because of impacts on
soil compaction, erosion, carbon, and nutrition.
3) Nor is it clear that perennial energy crops are sustainable, since
not enough is known about their water and fertilizer needs, harvesting
impacts on the soil, etc.
4) Farmers are concerned about the long-term effects on soil, crop
productivity, and the return on investment when collecting residues.
5) The effects of biomass feedstock production on water flows and
water quality are unknown
6) The risks of impact on biodiversity and public lands haven't been
Economic Barriers (or Investors Aren't Stupid)
1) Biomass can't compete economically with fossil fuels in
transportation, chemicals, or electrical generation.
2) There aren't any credible data on price, location, quality and
quantity of biomass.
3) Genetically-modified energy crops worry investors because they may
create risks to native populations of related species and affect the
value of the grain.
4) Biomass is inherently more expensive than fossil fuel refineries
a) Biomass is of such low density that it can't be transported over
large distances economically. Yet analysis has shown that
biorefineries need to be large to be economically attractive -- it
will be difficult to find enough biomass close to the refinery to be
b) Biomass feedstock amounts are unpredictable since unknown
quantities will be lost to extreme weather, sold to non-biofuel
businesses, rot or combust in storage, or by used by farmers to
improve their soil.
c) Ethanol can't be delivered in pipelines due to likely water
contamination. Delivery by truck, barge, and rail is more expensive.
Ethanol is a hazardous commodity which adds to its transportation cost
d) Biomass varies so widely in physical and chemical composition,
size, shape, moisture levels, and density that it's difficult and
expensive to supply, store, and process.
e) The capital and operating costs are high to bale, stack, palletize,
and transport residues
f) Biomass is more geographically dispersed, and in much more
ecologically sensitive areas than fossil resources.
g) The synthesis gas produced has potentially higher levels of tars
and particulates than fossil fuels.
h) Biomass plants can't benefit from the same large-scale cost savings
of oil refineries because biomass is too dispersed and of low density.
5) Consumers won't buy ethanol because it costs more than gasoline and
contains 34% less energy per gallon. Consumer reports wrote they got
the lowest fuel mileage in recent years from ethanol due to its low
energy content compared to gasoline, effectively making ethanol $3.99
per gallon. Worse yet, automakers are getting fuel-economy credits for
every E85 burning vehicle they sell, which lowers the overall mileage
of auto fleets, which increases the amount of oil used and lessens
energy independence. (Consumer Reports)
Equipment and Storage Barriers
1) There are no harvesting machines to harvest the wide range of
residue from different crops, or to selectively harvest components of
2) Current biomass harvesting and collection methods can't handle the
many millions of tons of biomass that need to be collected.
3) How to store huge amounts of dry biomass hasn't been figured out.
4) No one knows how to store and handle vast quantities of different
kinds of wet biomass. You can lose it all since it's prone to
spoiling, rotting, and spontaneous combustion
1) We don't even know what the optimum properties of biomass to
produce biofuels are, let alone have instruments to measure these
2) Incoming biomass has impurities that have to be gotten out before
grinding, compacting, and blending, or you may damage equipment and
foul chemical and biological processes downstream.
3) Harvest season for crops can be so short that it will be difficult
to find the time to harvest cellulosic biomass and pre-process and
store a year of feedstock stably.
4) Cellulosic biomass needs to be pretreated so that it's easier for
enzymes to break down. Biomass has evolved for hundreds of millions of
years to avoid chemical and biological degradation. How to overcome
this reluctance isn't well enough understood yet to design efficient
and cost-effective pre-treatments.
5) Pretreatment reactors are made of expensive materials to resist
acid and alkalis at high temperatures for long periods. Cheaper
reactors or low acid/alkali biomass is needed.
6) To create value added products, ways to biologically, chemically,
and mechanically split components off (fractionate) need to be figured
7) Corn mash needs to be thoroughly sterilized before microorganisms
are added, or a bad batch may ensue. Bad batches pollute waterways if
improperly disposed of. (Patzek Dec 2006).
Cellulosic Ethanol Showstoppers
1) The enzymes used in cellulosic biomass production are too
2) An enzyme that breaks down cellulose must be found that isn't
disabled by high heat or ethanol and other end-products, and other low
cost enzymes for specific tasks in other processes are needed. 3) If
these enzymes are found, then cheap methods to remove the impurities
generated are needed. Impurities like acids, phenols, alkalis, and
salts inhibit fermentation and can poison chemical catalysts.
4) Catalysts for hydrogenation, hydrgenolysis, dehydration, upgrading
pyrolysis oils, and oxidation steps are essential to succeeding in
producing chemicals, materials, and transportation fuels. These
catalysts must be cheap, long-lasting, work well in fouled
environments, and be 90% selective.
5) Ethanol production needs major improvements in finding robust
organisms that utilize all sugars efficiently in impure environments.
6) Key to making the process economic are cheap, efficient
fermentation organisms that can produce chemicals and materials. Wald
writes that the bacteria scientists are trying to tame come from the
guts of termites, and they're much harder to domesticate than yeast
was. Nor have we yet convinced "them to multiply inside the unfamiliar
confines of a 2,000-gallon stainless-steel tank" or "control their
activity in the industrial-scale quantities needed" (Wald 2007).
7) Efficient aerobic fermentation organisms to lower capital
8) Fermentation organisms that can make 95% pure fermentation
9) Cheap ways of removing impurities generated in fermentation and
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**Alice Friedemann, a resident of the SF Bay Area, is a long time
scholar of peak oil and related issues. More of her writing can be
found at www.energyskeptic.com and Culture Change.
Some of her other articles published by Energy Bulletin:
The fragility of microprocessors
The fragility of global trade and infrastructure
Lessons for California and the U.S. from movie "How Cuba survived
Peak Oil and the Preservation of Knowledge
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Culture Change editor Jan Lundberg writes:
There are many serious problems with biofuels, especially on a massive
scale, and it appears from this report that they cannot be surmounted.
So let the truth of Alice Friedemann's meticulous and incisive
diligence wash over you and rid you of any confusion or false hopes.
The absurdity and destructiveness of large scale biofuels are a chance
for people to eventually even reject the internal combustion engine
and energy waste in general. One can also hazard from this report that
bioplastics, as well, cannot make it in a big way.
The author looks ahead to post-petroleum living with considered
conclusions: "Biofuels have yet to be proven viable, and mechanization
may not be a great strategy in a world of declining energy." And,
"...only a small amount of biomass (is) unspoken for" by today's
essential economic and ecological activities. To top it off, she
points out, "Crop production is reduced when residues are removed from
the soil. Why would farmers want to sell their residues?" Here's an
Oh-god-she-nailed-it zinger: "As prices of fertilizer inexorably rise
due to natural gas depletion, it will be cheaper to return residues to
the soil than to buy fertilizer." Looking further along than most of
us, Alice has among her conclusions: "It's time to start increasing
horse and oxen numbers, which will leave even less biomass for
Return to Table of Contents
From: The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, May 2, 2007
MUNICIPALITY BANS CORPORATE WASTE DUMPING
Borough Also Strips Waste Corporations of "Rights" Within the
On the evening of May 1st, Borough Council members in Tamaqua,
Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, passed a law declaring that
corporations engaged in the storage, "beneficial use," or disposal of
a host of dangerous waste materials possess no constitutional "rights"
within the Borough.
The "Tamaqua Borough Corporate Waste and Local Control Ordinance"
(1) prohibits persons from using corporations to engage in the
storage, "beneficial use" or disposal of hazardous waste, coal ash,
residual waste or materials derived from residual waste, dredged
material, PCB-containing waste, radioactive material, construction and
demolition (C&D) waste, chemotherapeutic waste, and infectious waste;
(2) reaffirms that ecosystems in their community possess enforceable
rights -- Tamaqua was the first community in the nation to legally
recognize these rights, in an Ordinance passed on September 19th,
(3) asserts that corporations doing business in Tamaqua will now be
treated as "state actors" under the law, and thus, be required to
respect the rights of people and natural communities within the
(4) expands the conditions under which Tamaqua residents can sue to
enforce not only their rights, but also the rights of Nature.
The Borough Council also declared that attempts by state agencies,
federal agencies, or corporate managers to invalidate the Ordinance
would result in a Boroughwide public meeting to determine additional
steps to expand local control and self-government in the Borough.
Work on the Ordinance began more than a year ago, sparked by community
concern over a proposal by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Corporation
(LC&N), and supported by state and federal agencies, to use a
smorgasbord of waste materials for "mine reclamation" of the 3,600-ft.
long and 1,800-ft. wide Springdale Pit straddling the mountains
between Tamaqua and Coaldale Boroughs. New Jersey and Pennsylvania
lawmakers were eyeing the huge strip mine, created over many decades
of anthracite coal mining by LC&N, as a dumping ground for material to
be dredged from the bottom of the Hudson and Delaware rivers to deepen
shipping channels for international corporations.
Community opposition ran deeper, with the one thousand member Army for
a Clean Environment (ACE), headed by Dr. Dante Picciano, pushing local
officials to move from the side of the corporation to the defense of
the community. In the lead-up to the disposal plan, LC&N
representatives had secured an agreement with the Tamaqua Borough
Council to accept 700,000 tons of river dredge in exchange for a
tipping fee of $1.00 per ton to be paid to the Borough. But in
September of 2006, at a crucial point in the permitting process,
corporate representatives asked the Borough Council to make its
support for the dredge dumping known to the Department of
Environmental Protection. In the face of overwhelming community
outrage, Council members not only refused, but instead rescinded, by
4-3 vote, the tipping fee agreement. Opponents of the agreement
referred to the tipping fee as "blood money."
With passage of the "Tamaqua Borough Corporate Waste and Local Control
Ordinance," community citizens have taken another step toward
harnessing their local government to community needs. The vote on the
seven member Council was 3-3, with one member absent, but Mayor Chris
Morrison broke the tie, voting in favor of the new law.
"I know we'll be challenged on this," said Morrison. "And we welcome
that. It's a hard vote when you know you're going to be challenged,
and you possibly could go to court and be sued over this, but when you
say you're going to do everything you can to protect your community,
that means everything you can."
Ben Price, Projects Director for the Community Environmental Legal
Defense Fund, the organization that assisted with the drafting of the
Ordinance, said, "Following only months on the heels of their
groundbreaking Ordinance that bans corporations from land-applying
sewage sludge, this new law puts Tamaqua on the map again. This was
the first community in the United States to recognize the rights of
nature, and now it's the first community in the United States to ban
corporate waste dumping. It's rare for a local government to stand on
the shoulders of a grassroots effort and elevate the law to its proper
status, where it legitimately represents and enforces the will of the
people to protect their families and environment from corporate
In the coming months, other municipalities are expected to adopt
similar laws that assert the governing decisions made by local
majorities. Municipalities across Pennsylvania, and in other states,
are considering similar ways to equip their citizens with self-
governing authority to stop corporate assaults engineered by a handful
of corporate officers, and enabled by State permitting agencies.
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, located in
Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, has worked with communities resisting
corporate assaults upon democratic self-governance since 1995. Among
other programs, it has brought Daniel Pennock Democracy Schools to
communities in Pennsylvania and twenty-five other states where people
seek to end destructive corporate investments and projects routinely
permitted by state and federal agencies. Over one hundred Pennsylvania
municipalities have adopted ordinances authored by the Legal Defense
Return to Table of Contents
From: Environmental Science & Technology Online News, May 2, 2007
LIZARDS JOIN FROGS IN RAPID DECLINE
The precipitous loss of amphibians in recent years has been blamed on
habitat loss, global warming, fungal infections, and pesticides.
Globally, all of these factors probably combine for a multiple whammy.
Now, research published online April 20 in Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences U.S.A. reveals a new combo: climate change is
causing some species to lose their leaf-layer habitat -- and the
damage is killing reptiles, too.
Steven Whitfield of Florida International University and colleagues
examined 35 years' worth of data from the La Selva Biological Station
in Costa Rica. The team found that populations of frogs and common
reptiles such as lizards plummeted 75% since 1970. Globally, human
activities are closely linked with disappearing frogs and salamanders.
One-third of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction,
according to a recent estimate, in large part because humans encroach
on their habitats and introduce nonnative species. But even in areas
without large human influences, such as the patch of protected old-
growth rainforest that the researchers studied, many species are
These "enigmatic" declines, in which an entire species can disappear
in months with no obvious human cause, "have aroused particular alarm"
and have often been linked to chytrid fungi infections, the authors
write. But the team could not point the finger at fungi in this case,
because frogs in La Selva were free of fungal diseases, and the fungi
don't infect reptiles. In addition, no agrochemical pesticides were
reported to be present in the forest.
The researchers attributed the declines to a thinning layer of leaf
litter on the forest floor. Warmer, wetter conditions could be
decomposing the leaf litter that these species rely on as habitat, or
may be causing trees to drop fewer leaves. They add that some
populations "may be considered stable because of lack of long-term
data, not lack of threats."
Copyright 2007 American Chemical Society
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