Volatility

April 1, 2009

Some Preliminary Biofuel Notes

Filed under: Climate Crisis, Corporatism — Tags: — Russ @ 3:45 am

 

One of the basic laws of energy production is that the best, easiest to exploit, least expensive energy sources are exploited first. This is true of both the quality within a given resource (e.g., easy-flowing on-shore sweet crude is sought before heavy oil or deepwater fields) as well as among different resources. The fact that civilization has embarked upon the biofuel project with such vigor is proof of two things: (1) that as a civilization we are moving beyond the days of what’s best, easiest, cheapest, and (2) our preferred response to this will not be to devolve consumption of liquid fuel according to new realities, but rather for an ever-shrinking elite to use whatever combination of technology, externalization, and force is necessary to maintain its luxury consumption. I intend to explore this resource ideology in detail in subsequent posts. For today I think a short tour around the world according to aggrofuels will provide some pointers.
 
(As for what reality demands, a good question to ask about the personal car model is, would it ever have developed at anything like it did if cheap gasoline from cheap, plentiful oil had never existed? Only if the answer to this is yes could it possibly be “reasonable” to now try to prop up the car model through more and more expensive Rube Goldberg energy infrastructure schemes. Otherwise we’re simply in the realm of reactionary “sunk-cost” psychology and calcified interests, features of feudalism, not capitalism.)
 
The benefits touted for burning food to fill gas tanks are that this will allow happy motoring to continue, will render America more “energy independent”, and will do these while emitting less carbon. But as is the case with every other alternative to oil which still assumes high consumption, so here the claims don’t pan out.
 
The alleged carbon benefits are the most dubious. The cycle of growing the crop to eventually burn it as fuel was in theory carbon neutral because the next crop would capture the carbon emitted in burning the last one.  The basic flaw if not fraud in these pro-biofuel carbon analyses was that, while they touted the carbon-sinking qualities of the feedstock, they neglected to compare this to the existing carbon sinks which would be destroyed to make way for the aggrofuel plantations, and whether this wouldn’t counteract or reverse the alleged carbon mitigation benefit. (As one commentator put it, it’s like they expected biofuels would be grown only on parking lots.)
 
But more recent analyses are less upbeat. One study found that corn monoculture is so inferior to American plains grassland as a carbon sink that the cycle must amortize over 93 years before it achieves carbon “neutrality”. Until then it’s a net emitter. (If you add in the economic chain reaction through which American corn ethanol mandates lead to accelerated Brazilian rainforest and grassland destruction, this amortization goes as high as 167 years.) For Asian peatland drained to make way for oil palm monocropping, the emission hit may extend as far as 400 years.
 
(One of the political attractions of biofuels is how, by using bogus analyses which don’t fully account for the carbon costs, governments can launder a portion of their countries’ emissions while claiming to seek compliance with Kyoto and domestic mitigation policy.)
 
There is also considerable dissent from the claim that biofuels represent a significant energy gain. The earlier more sanguine EROEI projections (which were still anemic) have fallen away, and the widely accepted figure today is something like a 6:5 energy return, or a 1.2 EROEI, a 20% energy gain. There remain other analyses which say even this may be optimistic; that there may even be a net loss. And this 1.2 figure is based on the current still relatively cheap fossil fuel platform. As the EROEI of oil, natural gas, or coal inputs become worse, the EROEI of biofuels which depend upon these inputs will degrade.
 
We can see that from any overall energy perspective, aggrofuels make little sense. The only way they become explicable is if we differentiate between an energy issue as opposed to a liquid fuel issue. If a society is dead set on consuming a huge amount of liquid fuels, and it can pass on the energy and financial costs of this to others and to the environment, then the EROEI of the process becomes irrelevant.
 
This is demonstrated by the massive subsidies and inefficiencies required for America to artificially construct a corn ethanol industry. When you add up direct commodity crop payments, the ethanol blenders’ credit, tariff walls against foreign ethanol, and a host of other subsidies, you end up with an “industry” which would never exist if it wasn’t the beneficiary of corporate welfare. In 2008 the total subsidy was $9-11 billion, artificially reducing the price of ethanol $1.10-1.30 a gallon. From 2006 to 2012 the welfare may run to $92 billion.
 
And today, with oil prices and gasoline consumption down, the industry has been in quite a doldrum, with plants operating below capacity, projects on hold, and companies including major producer Verasun going bankrupt. The industry’s response has not been to seek innovative adaptation the way a true capitalist would, but to engage in rent-seeking activity, lobbying for a higher gasoline blend wall (currently 10%) to 15 or even 20%, even though there’s zero rationale for this, and it may even be destructive to engines.
 
So there we see examples of how the biofuel industry is not rational from a “free market” perspective, just as biofuels themselves are not rational from the perspectives of energy efficiency or serious carbon policy.
 
I’ll delve more into this and the broader geopolitics and ideology of aggrofuels in later posts.       

1 Comment

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    Comment by Douglas Blackwell — January 7, 2010 @ 9:42 am


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