Biomass Myths

Biofuels have remained controversial for a variety of reasons, including the contentious federal subsidy for ethanol. Whatever position one may take on the issue of federal agricultural subsidies, the issues associated with biofuels go well beyond the current ones associated with corn and ethanol production. Their complexity was made clearer in a May 2011 article, Four Myths Surrounding U. S. Biofuels, by two University of Georgia faculty members in the journal, Energy Policy.

Whether you agree with the authors about the validity of each of their four myths, the analysis is worth the attention of those interested in energy and alternative, sustainable energy production.  The myths (according to Professors M. and H. Wetzstein):

Myth No. 1: Biofuels will be adopted because we will soon run out of oil

Of course, we are not running out of oil despite the growth in the proportion of known reserves that are either heavy oil or oil sands; thus biofuels, while important to our overall supply of energy, will not replace petroleum in the foreseeable future. The authors turn to previous research from the Energy Journal and the Journal of Economic Perspectives with the following data. In 1980 our known oil reserves were 29 years; in 2008, 28 years later, they had grown to 45 years. Using analyses from the U.S. Geological Survey, Chilean academics projected petroleum availability for 160 years at current consumption levels at costs substantially below US$120 per barrel.

Myth No. 2: Biofuels will solve the major external costs associated with our automobile driving

As the authors explain, the major costs of automobiles are not associated with gasoline. The authors make the case that the major costs of automobiles come from mileage driven, the issues of roads, congestion, greenhouse gases, etc.  One area where some people have thought biofuels would reduce external costs is in terms of their reduction in the production of greenhouse gases.  The current state of biofuels production with the conversion of agricultural lands to biomass production does not, however, reduce greenhouse gases when compared with petroleum.  However, there is some potential in the future that biofuels could mitigate greenhouse gases; however, that will require additional biomass research, on-going at many of our universities like the University of Georgia and West Virginia University, and the development of production of cellulosic-based ethanol and the very substantial increase in economically produced fuel from perennial plants on non-agricultural land and forest-related products.

Myth No. 3: Biofuels cause food price inflation

This has been a widespread belief as we have watched as commodity prices have increased as more agricultural land was converted to more profitable ethanol production from corn rather than producing corn for human and animal consumption. Of course, the myth is only a myth, the authors argue; in the long-run. They agree that, in the short run, biofuels production has led to price inflation. Making No. 3 a myth depends upon market reforms that remove the government from price supports and the eventual conversion of biofuels production to non-agricultural land, as described previously.

Myth No. 4: Biofuels will become a major vehicle fuel

This myth, like No. 3, depends, so it seems.  With the potential for non-agricultural sources of biofuels through increased university research, it is conceivable that biofuels can become increasingly a source of vehicle fuel.  However, the authors argue that, prior to that occurring; we are more likely to see a transformation in our vehicles to hybrid and electric.

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