Right, New York Times, Biofuels Are Bad for the Environment

A recent guest op-ed in The New York Times identifies some of the problems with biofuels that make them much less environmentally friendly than their promoters claim. The most common biofuels in the United States are ethanol and biodiesel, refined primarily from corn and soybeans, respectively.

The article, “The Climate Solution That’s Horrible for the Climate,” written by Michael Grunwald, describes many detrimental effects of using ethanol and biodiesel. Some examples include that they “accelerate food inflation and global hunger,” because the crops produced and land used to grow them them could otherwise be used to feed humans and animals. Indeed, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimated that the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standards program, which mandates the use of increasing amounts of biofuels, was a 30 percent increase in corn prices.

Additionally, Grunwald says:

“[B]ut they’re also a disaster for the climate and the environment. And that’s mainly because they’re inefficient land hogs. It takes about 100 acres worth of biofuels to generate as much energy as a single acre of solar panels; worldwide, a land mass larger than California was used to grow under 4 percent of transportation fuel in 2020.”

Corn-based ethanol in particular is a problem, he says, because it “uses almost as much fossil fuel — from fertilizers made of natural gas to diesel tractors, industrial refineries and other sources — as the ethanol replaces.”

Although Grunwald is wrong when claims later in his editorial that traditional fuels are “broiling” the planet, he is correct that biofuels do not help the environment, and they contribute to the waste of land that otherwise could go towards producing food.

The New York Times is not the only mainstream media outlet shedding light on biofuels’ deficiencies recently. Climate Realism reported a few months ago that Time Magazine had soured on corn ethanol. In that post, a Time staff writer said that ethanol blend mandates “are just a way of locking in higher corn prices while actually making the climate situation worse.”

If an individual is concerned about carbon dioxide emissions or actual pollutants, biofuels are not the answer. Data presented in Energy at a Glance: Ethanol and Biodiesel shows that, in kilograms of CO2 per energy output equivalent, ethanol emits more CO2 than pure gasoline. It takes 1.5 times more fuel to travel an equivalent distance on ethanol than with gasoline, due to ethanol’s lower energy density.

In terms of pollutants regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) an agency study confirmed that “air quality modeling suggests that production and use of ethanol as fuel to displace gasoline is likely to increase such air pollutants as PM2.5, ozone, and SOx in some locations.”

Writing for Climate Realism, “Real Threats to Biodiversity and Humanity,” Paul Driessen says this concerning the environmental impact of biofuels:

Keep-fossil-fuels-in-the-ground lobbyists need to calculate how many acres of soybeans, canola and other biofuel crops would be needed to replace today’s petrochemical feed stocks; how much water, fertilizer, labor and fuel would be needed to grow harvest and process them; and how much acreage would have to be taken from food production or converted from bee and wildlife habitat.

Biofuels are neither a practical nor desirable replacement for fossil fuels, even if they needed replacing, which they don’t. The New York Times and Grunwald are correct that they are land-hungry, polluting, and serve to raise the cost of food. Despite some of the unsubstantiated climate change claims made in the article, they at least got those facts right.

Linnea Lueken
Linnea Luekenhttps://www.heartland.org/about-us/who-we-are/linnea-lueken
Linnea Lueken is a Research Fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy. While she was an intern with The Heartland Institute in 2018, she co-authored a Heartland Institute Policy Brief "Debunking Four Persistent Myths About Hydraulic Fracturing."

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