Do the Math

Human beings have been burning fossil fuels like they’re going out of style. And they definitely are: We are running out of accessible oil, and we must dramatically cut back on our fossil fuel use to prevent the greenhouse effect from wreaking extreme ecological, human, and economic havoc.

Biofuels—a better term is agrofuels—are often presented as the silver bullet that will enable us to drive our SUVs merrily into the future. Any burnable plant matter can be an agrofuel, but ethanol (fermented from corn, sugar cane, or other food crops) is most common today; biodiesel, derived from soy, palm, or other vegetable oil, is also coming into use.

In theory, agrofuels seem like a great idea. Plants are a renewable resource, and, while burning agrofuels creates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the feedstock plants absorb an equivalent amount of CO 2 as they grow.

So what’s not to love? That’s certainly the attitude of the U.S. government, which offers a 51-cent credit to fuel companies for every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline (U.S. ethanol consumption topped 5 billion gallons in 2006 and is climbing). The European Union aims to replace 10 percent of its vehicle fuel with agrofuel by 2020.

But the rosy picture collapses completely when you do the math. A “life cycle analysis” of our current system of corn ethanol production (including growing crops, distilling fuel, transporting inputs and outputs long distances, and making farm machinery) shows that the whole process burns nearly as much fuel energy as it makes. In many estimates, it burns more than it makes.

This is not a fuel source—it’s a massive exercise in greenwashing theater, a cycle that burns extra oil and adds to global warming. The force behind it is not environmentalism, but the political power of Big Corn.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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