A new study casts yet more doubt on the notion that biofuels are going to save the planet from global warming and us from paying high gas prices. The report just published by the Government Accountability Office, found much ballyhooed “next-generation” biofuels are likely to have the same kinds of pitfalls plaguing the last.
By now, the downsides of the oh-so-last-year corn-based fuels are well known; they use too much water, harmful chemicals and petroleum. This has led some biofuels boosters to place their bets on cellulose from such things as grasses, wood chips and even algae.
Cellulose, however, has never been grown on a commercial scale, as the GAO points out in its new study. That means relatively little is known about how much water, fertilizer and pesticides it will take to grow it in industrial quantities. There’s virtually no information on what impact that’ll have on soil and water quality either, not to mention how much water and energy it will take to turn harvests into biofuel.
This is just the latest news – much of it bad – for the emergent and yet booming biofuels industry, which begs the question: Isn’t it time to give up this pipe dream?
But that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. The buzz around biofuels is propelling any number of hair brained schemes. Besides cases of out-and-out fraud, there are plenty of dubious projects underway. Investor excitement over fuels made from such crops as corn and palm oil have driven up the prices of tortillas in Mexico and led to food riots in other countries. Plans to log this country’s publicly owned forests to feed biofuel plants, meanwhile, seem to make little sense for many reasons. One biggie is that climate scientists say we need to keep the world’s remaining forests upright if we are too stave off more global warming.
If we are going to burn it, why bother turning wood into cellulose anyway? Why not just cut down the trees for firewood? O.K., O.K., before some smarty pants chimes in with a reason why burning woody biomass is better than lighting up a plain, old fashioned log, let me just say my point is rhetorical: Why embrace dirty alternative fuel made from finite resources when there are cleaner, more renewable options out there?