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As a green alternative, biofuels are running out of gas

The promise of biofuels is running on empty.

EDITORIAL

Once seen as among the best hopes for saving the planet from the environmental ravages of fossil fuels, biofuels — fuels made from organic matter — are losing their luster under the weight of new research. And here in the Midwest, that means all that corn and soybeans might be better used feeding people.

Last week, the think tank World Resources Institute concluded Western governments have gone down the wrong road by trying to produce biofuels on a large scale. Doing so is vastly inefficient, worsens air pollution and gobbles up vast acreage needed for food, the institute said.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the European Parliament’s environment committee has put reform of the union’s biofuels policy on its Feb. 24 agenda. Everywhere you look, environmentalists are losing their enthusiasm for biofuels.

This isn’t good news for Illinois, which is the nation’s third-largest producer of ethanol, a renewable form of biofuel made from plant material such as corn, sugar cane or grassy plants. Over 95 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States currently contains a low level blend of ethanol, either 10 percent or 15 percent by volume.

The state’s 14 ethanol plants not only pumped out 1.37 billion gallons of fuel last year but also provided 73,156 jobs that paid $4.7 billion in wages last year.

It isn’t good news, either, for some Chicago aldermen who want to require gasoline stations to sell fuel at at least one pump with an ethanol mix 50 percent greater than the fuel they now are pumping. Although more than 95 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States contains ethanol, it doesn’t make sense to require adding even more ethanol to the mix. The aldermen’s ordinance, which was OKd by the Finance Committee in December, is lingering in the Council. It should be quietly taken out in the back and given the boot.

Biofuels may turn out to have a helpful a niche in our fight to reduce the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. It doesn’t require land, pesticides, fertilizer or plowing to turn plant waste, sawdust, tree trimmings, the leftovers from timber processing, urban waste wood, methane from landfills and cornstalks into fuel. Technological advancements also might make biofuels more competitive in the future.

But right now, turning cropland over to biofuel acreage is a net loss for the planet. That’s a road to higher food prices, big land grabs and less farmland for food crops. In its report, the WRI said boosting biofuel production enough to meet the goals of many governments would require all the land needed for the crops, grass and wood harvested today.

In America, up to 40 percent of the corn crop already goes into automobile fuel tanks instead of being used for food. You don’t have to be an apologist for Big Oil – which hates biofuels – to see this is a problem.

Interest in fossil fuels dates back to a time when alternative renewable energy sources were much pricier and America was worried about energy independence.

But costs have been dropping fast for wind and solar energy. And, for the same amount of land, they are more efficient. Solar panels, for example, can produce more than 50 times the amount of energy you’d get from biofuels coming from the same land area.

As for energy independence, shale oil has made the United States more confident it can achieve energy security without biofuels.

Boosted by billions of dollars of public subsidies and the beneficiary of federal mandates, biofuels are riding high for the moment. Production in North America almost doubled from 2011 to 2014. But declining oil prices are undercutting the demand for biofuels.

Biofuels are leading us down a dead end. We need to turn our attention to other forms of renewable energy that are more efficient.