Bio-Fooling the American Public

May 12, 2009

I draw your attention to an excellent article by Time’s Michael Grunwald on the topic of biofuels. It’s always good to see the issue raised and criticized, which Grunwald does ably.

The meat of his article is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been rigging its “stress tests” on America’s energy future. Those tests, which were mandated by the 2007 Energy Bill, have painted a very rosy picture of both ethanol and (the fabled) switchgrass based biofuels.

It’s all producing results that are very favorable for the Big Agriculture, the energy firms and America’s automobile-centric culture. As Grunwald relates:

When the EPA studied a reasonable 30-year time period, even with its generous assumptions, soy biodiesel and corn-ethanol plants powered by coal or natural gas actually produced more emissions than gasoline; corn ethanol only passed the stress test (and just barely) when powered by the cleanest possible power. And that analysis assumed it’s a good trade-off to accept massive emissions today in exchange for reductions over 30 years, when in fact massive emissions today could help trigger devastating ice melts and other feedback loops that could make reductions over 30 years practically irrelevant.

But the EPA also studied a 100-year time horizon, which makes the numbers look a bit better for corn and soy, but makes no sense: Who knows if we’re going to use biofuels or gas or even automobiles for the next 100 years? Scientists believe we need to reduce our emissions 80% by 2050 to avoid catastrophe; the notion that we should tear down our rain forests and peatlands today in the hope that our cars will burn a bit cleaner a century from now is political analysis, not environmental analysis.

Obama’s energy policy is no better for the planet than his predecessor’s, and it’s essential that we realize just how bad it is. Without major reform of its urban culture – giving public transportation pride of place and making cities much more livable places, his policy represents business as usual.

And business as usual means mining the earth for resources at a rate that simply cannot be sustained, just in a manner which differs from George W. Bush.

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