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Biofuels talk plows over its real cost

Dennis T. Avery

A new study from the University of Illinois estimates that the world has more than 702 million hectares of marginal land suitable for growing biofuels. The researchers assessed land around the world based on its soil quality, slope and regional climate. They added degraded or low-quality cropland but ruled out any good cropland, pasture or forests; they also assumed no irrigation. They came up with the surprising total 2.7 million square miles of marginal land that could be available for switchgrass or other biofuel crops.

But the Illinois team didn’t, apparently, factor in a 2010 Stanford University study that found plowing new cropland anywhere in the world would sharply increase the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Plowing would release massive amounts of soil carbon — mostly as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. The Stanford conclusion was that the 6.6 million square miles of lands not plowed because of the higher yields from the Green Revolution prevented the release of greenhouse gases equal to one-third of all the industrial gases emitted worldwide since 1850!

This makes modern farming — with its nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, no-till herbicides and high-yield seeds — the most fabulous anti-greenhouse-warming project ever implemented by mankind. It is, in fact, the only human project that has ever forestalled a major increase in human-emitted greenhouse gases. Europe, for example, has not reduced its greenhouse emissions at all since 1997 despite the Kyoto Treaty.

If we consider both studies valid, we have a big problem. All this untouched biofuel land would have to be plowed.

The Stanford soil carbon figures tell us this would be the worst aggravation of greenhouse gases ever. Stanford says, in effect, we should plow only as much cropland as we urgently need for human food and leave the rest to wildlife.

The Illinois paper did note a class of low-impact, high-diversity perennial grasses that could be overseeded on the existing grasses without plowing — not included in the 702 million-hectare estimate. Unfortunately, the perennial grasses’ ethanol yields are dismal. Plus, harvesting costs would be very high. Factoring in the cost of road-building and the highway fuels needed for transporting the harvest, it is hard to see there would be a net gain in fuel, and there would certainly be a net loss to wildlife.

Why all of this focus on biofuels? Current U.S. and EU ethanol mandates have already produced two huge food-price spikes in the past three years, causing political unrest around the world. Japan says it has spent $78 billion on biomass projects in the past six years — with no effective impact on its global warming emissions.

Let’s remember that the world’s temperatures have officially increased by a net of only 0.2 degree over the past 70 years. Even that warming assumes we believe the “adjusted” temperatures in the “official” records kept by James Hansen’s NASA and the discredited University of East Anglia.

Let’s burn our newly abundant natural gas instead of the biofuels, put nuclear energy higher on the wish list and let the marginal lands be wild.

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