[Global] Biofuels should serve as an instructive lesson for negotiators in Paris, because they are proof that not all energy sources work as well as anticipated. But journalists are unlikely to remind them or the public.
The early 2000s were the heyday of good press for biofuels. Major newspapers like The New York Times ran stories about Willie Nelson’s biodiesel startup and individuals converting their vehicles into “veggie” cars to run on french fry grease and other forms of biodiesels. The Washington Post even editorialized about people “dreaming big” plans like replacing hydrocarbon fuels (gasoline) with biodiesels. Later, ethanol proponents turned against it when the costs to the environment and people were far higher than imagined.
Filmmaker and green activist Josh Tickell made the movie Fields of Fuel in 2008 attacking gasoline and petroleum products as evil and about his campaign to get people to run their cars on biodiesel from used french fry oil. Tickell became a media sensation when he drove his “Veggie Van” around the country. He publicized high profile supporters like Nelson and actor Woody Harrelson and lamented the biodiesel bust.
Although Tickell criticized corn ethanol, he still promoted biodiesel from soybeans, power from algae, and other sources like wind and solar. He claimed those, along with increased efficiency, public transit and plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles could eliminate the need for fossil fuels.
Ethanol from corn or sugar, wood, and fuels from palm oil or other vegetable oils all fall into the biomass/biofuels category. In 2005, the U.S. implemented a renewable fuels standard (RFS) to begin reach a target of 36 billion gallons of “renewable” fuels by 2020. That prompted ethanol gasoline blends like E10, and the EPA would like to require E15 but so far have only allowed that blend. They have not mandated it.
As it turned out ethanol blends are extremely corrosive and hard on engines and vehicles, according to Equipment World. “Ethanol attracts water. When the two get together, they create the perfect environment to grow a type of bacteria called acetobacter. After getting drunk on their EPA-sponsored kegger in your gas tank, the acetobacter excrete acetic acid. And acetic acid is very corrosive,” Equipment World said. E15 would be even harder on machines.
Back in 2006, Bloomberg Business (then Businessweek) reported that pipelines cannot be used for ethanol “because it picks up excess water and impurities.” It must be trucked, hauled by trains or on barges.
Conservatives have also criticized the cost burden of the mandate. According to the Manhattan Institute, the RFS “saddled American motorists with more than $10 billion per year in extra fuel costs” since 2007.
On the whole, “bioenergy — that is, wood, ethanol made from corn or sugarcane, or diesel made from palm oil — is proving an ecological disaster: It encourages deforestation and food-price hikes that cause devastation among the world’s poor, and per unit of energy produced, it creates even more carbon dioxide than coal,” according to Matt Ridley’s Wall Street Journal essay. Ridley is an author and member of the British House of Lords.
Over time, the consequences shook even biofuel proponents’ faith in ethanol. Environmental damage, and food riots around the globe caused biofuel proponents like Tickell and the liberal news media to admit corn ethanol was an environmental disaster. Former Vice President Al Gore did a public about face saying his support for it was a “mistake”.
Tree Hugger even admitted the fuel turned out to be inefficient and came with many “unintended consequences.” Environmentalists haven’t given up on biofuels entirely. More recently they’ve touted algae as the “biofuel” of the future, but whether it can succeed where ethanol failed remains to be seen.