A foolish focus on biofuels

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the promise of biofuels — liquid fuels, such as ethanol and bio-diesel, made from plants — to reduce our dependence on oil. Even President Bush beat the biofuel drum in his last State of the Union speech.

Fuel from plants? Sounds pretty good. But before you rush out to buy an E-85 pickup, consider:

The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy than all the energy produced in a year by the country’s plant life, including forests and plants used for food and fiber, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy and Cornell University researcher David Pimentel.

To produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet current U.S. demand for automotive gasoline, we would need to nearly double the land used for harvested crops, plant all of it in corn, and not eat any of it. Even a greener fuel source _ such as the switchgrass Bush mentioned, which requires fewer petroleum-based fertilizers and ingredients than corn and reduces topsoil losses by growing back each year _ could provide only a small fraction of the energy we demand.

The corn and soybeans that make ethanol and bio-diesel require huge quantities of fossil fuel in the necessary farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizer. Much of the fossil fuel comes from foreign sources, including some that may not be dependable, such as Russia and the Mideast.

Corn and soybean production as practiced in the Midwest is ecologically unsustainable. Its effects include massive topsoil erosion; pollution of surface and ground water with pesticides; and fertilizer runoff that travels down the Mississippi River to deplete oxygen and life from a New Jersey-sized portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

Improving fuel efficiency in cars by just 1 mile per gallon _ a gain possible with proper tire inflation _ would cut fuel consumption equal to the total amount of ethanol federally mandated for production in 2012.

Therefore, rather than chase phantom substitutes for fossil fuels, we should focus on what can immediately both slow climate change and reduce dependence on oil and other fossil fuels: cutting energy use.

Let’s be bold. Let’s raise the tax on gasoline to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks. We can use the proceeds to fund research and subsidies for truly sustainable energy.

Let’s raise energy-efficiency standards for vehicles, appliances, industries and new buildings.

Let’s employ new land-use rules and tax incentives to discourage suburban sprawl and encourage dense mixed-use development, which puts workplaces, stores and homes within walking distance of one another.

Let’s better fund mass transit.

Let’s switch the billions we spend on ethanol subsidies to development of truly sustainable energy technologies.

And why not spend money to make such on-the-shelf technology as hybrid cars more affordable? Fuel-efficient hybrids aren’t the ultimate solution, but they can be a bridge to more sustainable solutions.

The focus on biofuels as a silver bullet to solve our energy and climate-change crises is at best misguided. At worst, it is a scheme that could have disastrous environmental consequences. And it will have little effect on our fossil-fuel dependence.

We must reduce energy use now if we hope to kick our oil addiction and slow climate change. Pushing biofuels at the expense of energy conservation today will only make our problems more severe, and their solutions more painful, tomorrow.

(Julia Olmstead, an Iowa State University graduate student in plant breeding and sustainable agriculture and a graduate fellow at the Land Institute, in Salina, Kans., wrote this for the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle.)