Since the early 2000’s, ethanol and other biofuels have been seen as a solution to our dependence on oil. This has proven not simply a misguided course, but brought with it unintended consequences to the world’s food supply. It has been a distraction from focusing on clean energy sources as a means of powering our transport needs in the futureWhile corn ethanol was originally believed to be a promising alternative to petroleum, it has been largely discredited on several counts. Now we need to determine if, and which, biofuels could be part of the solution, and to what degree, if any, they would reduce greenhouse gases
See also page on Biomass Energy



  •      Issues of climate damage, cost and food supply
  •      Technical problems with ethanol as a fuel
  •      Political factors and subsidies
  •      Global ethanol production
  •       . . . “if you have to buy gas!”
Issues of climate damage, cost and food supply

A joint U.S. Department of Energy/U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that 1.3 billion tons of biomass, predominantly cellulosic feedstocks, could be produced for biofuel production in the United States annually with only modest changes in farming practices. This quantity of feedstocks could be used to produce enough biofuel, mostly ethanol, to satisfy about one third of current U.S. petroleum demand. The potential could be even larger if technology is developed to take advantage of additional forms of biomass such as algae. link

(The U.S. became the world’s largest producer of ethanol fuels in 2005. By 2010 the U.S. produced 13.2 billion gallons of fuel, and including Brazil accounted for 88% of world production that year. Most is produced using corn as feedstock.) 

January 2013: Global growth. The world has experienced a major growth in biofuel production, in part due to higher fuel prices, particularly in the United States. However, some argue that biofuels compete with food production and negatively impact prices. U.S. increases in corn production have largely gone to ethanol rather than to human consumption or animal feed. Corn-based ethanol rose from 15% of total U.S. corn production in 2006 to an estimated 40% in 2012. The 2011 NGO report recommends G20 countries end mandates and subsidies on biofuels and open “international markets so that renewable fuels and feed stocks can be produced where it is economically, environmentally, and socially feasible to do so.” link

April 2014: Ethanol fuels ozone pollution. Running vehicles on ethanol rather than petrol can increase ground-level ozone pollution, according to a study of fuel use in São Paulo, Brazil. Ozone (O3) is a major urban pollutant that can cause severe respiratory problems. It can form when sunlight triggers chemical reactions involving hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted by vehicles. Ethanol has been promoted as a ‘green’ fuel because its combustion tends to produce lower emissions of CO2, hydrocarbons and NOx than petrol. But the impact on air quality of a wholesale transition from petrol to ethanol has been difficult to assess, with different atmospheric chemistry models predicting a variety of consequences. link

April 2014: Corn biofuels worse than gasoline in short term. Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a new study shows. The $500,000 study paid for by the federal government concludes that biofuels made with corn residue release 7% more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline. While biofuels are better in the long run, the study says they won’t meet a standard set in a 2007 energy law to qualify as renewable fuel. link

July 2011: How Europe’s biofuels policy threatens the climate. Countries around Europe are steadily increasing the share of biofuels in transport fuel to meet EU renewable energy targets. At the same time, there is ongoing debate around the sustainability of certain biofuels, due to impacts on land-use change caused by their expansion. A European Commission study to be published shortly is expected to reveal that greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuels made from oilseed crops such as rapeseed, soy and palm oil, in particular, may exceed emissions from fossil fuels. This is because of emissions resulting from ‘indirect land use change’: the conversion of land-types that store carbon, such as forests, grasslands and peatlands, into farmland to grow crops for food, feed and fibres that have been displaced by fuel crops   Greenpeace conducted a study between May and June 2011. link   (Greenpeace study)

February 2008: Biofuels deemed a greenhouse threat. Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, according to two studies being published. The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious journal Science, are likely to add to the controversy. link

April 2010: Corn ethanol mandates based on shaky assumptions – link

April 2010: EU says biofuels can cause four times more carbon emissions.
A new report commissioned in Brussels found some biofuels can lead to four times more carbon dioxide polluting the atmosphere than equivalent fossil fuels. Biofuels have already been criticised for causing food shortages in countries where land for rice or wheat has been displaced by fields of soy beans or sugarcane for fuel. Environmental campaigners say the latest report proves the renewable energy source is also bad for climate change. link

April 2011: Biofuels could kill 192,000+ per year in developing countries. World Bank research indicates that the increase in biofuel production over 2004 levels would push more than 35 million additional people into absolute poverty in 2010 in developing countries. Using statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), estimates indicate that this would lead to at least 192,000 excess deaths per year, plus disease resulting in the loss of 6.7 million disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) per year. link

Why cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels are not sustainable. Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster than the rate topsoil can be formed by natural processes and in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends. Fuels from biomass are not sustainable, are ecologically destructive, have a net energy loss, and there isn’t enough biomass in America to make significant amounts of energy because essential inputs like water, land, fossil fuels, and phosphate ores are limited. Iowa has some of the best topsoil in the world. In the past century, half of it’s been lost, from an average of 18 to 10 inches deep. Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil reaches 6 inches or less, the average crop root zone depth. Loss of topsoil has been a major factor in the fall of civilizations. You end up with a country like Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia, where 75% of the farm land became a salt desert. link

July 2011: Switching from corn to grass would raise ethanol output and curb emissions. Growing perennial grasses on the least productive farmland now used for corn ethanol production in the U.S. would result in higher overall corn yields, more ethanol output per acre and better groundwater quality, researchers report in a new study. The switch would also slash emissions of two potent greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. link

 Technical problems with ethanol as a fuel

June 2011: EPA approves E15 despite engine risk. The Environmental Protection Agency previously approved E15 — 85% gasoline and 15% ethanol — for use in vehicles back to 2001 models. The approved label is part of the EPA’s final rule spelling out about how E15 can be sold and what standards it must meet. E15 isn’t available yet. EPA says sellers have to first register their blends with the agency to be sure they meet a number of standards. EPA says tests show E15 won’t harm 2001 and newer vehicles, which have hoses and gaskets and seals specially designed to resist corrosive ethanol. But using E15 fuel in older vehicles or in power equipment such as mowers, chainsaws and boats, can cause damage and now is literally a federal offense. link

January 2013: Oil industry study finds E15 damages fuel systems. A new study shows fuel containing 15% ethanol could damage a “substantial” number of cars on the road underscoring the need to repeal federal biofuel mandates, according to the oil industry. The study conducted by the Coordinating Research Council , a group created and supported by the oil and auto industries, found gasoline containing 15% ethanol, or E15, could cause critical fuel components in cars to break down. link

 Political factors and subsidies

January 2018: Europe’s ongoing problem with biofuels. Members of the European Parliament have rejected an attempt to phase out support for crop-based biofuels. The EU target of requiring 10% of transport fuels to be from renewable sources, adopted in 2008 for achievement by 2020, on the surface seems like a laudable goal. But critics say this has converted land use from cultivation of crops for food to biofuel, which drives up food prices and threatens food security. While palm oil can no longer receive subsidies under the new framework, other biofuels based on food crops still can. And because the market for all these crops are linked, farmers in places like Malaysia and Indonesia will still have an incentive to deforest land in order to grow it, says Marc-Olivier Herman of anti-hunger group Oxfam. link

August 2012: Global pressure on US to relax ethanol mandate. As the surge in corn prices revives a fierce food versus fuel debate, José Graziano da Silva, the director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, wrote in the Financial Times newspaper that competition for a U.S. corn crop that has been decimated by drought was only going to intensify. Much of the reduced crop would be claimed by biofuel production in line with U.S. federal mandates, leaving even less for food and feed markets. De Silva continued, “an immediate, temporary suspension of that mandate would give some respite to the market and allow more of the crop to be channeled towards food and feed uses.” link

January 2012: A federal tax credit for ethanol expires.  Ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product, the tax break, created more than 30 years ago, had long seemed untouchable, But in the last year, during which Congress was preoccupied with deficits and debt, it became a symbol of corporate welfare. Fiscal conservatives joined liberal environmentalists to kill it, with help from a diverse coalition of outside groups. link

Union of Concerned Scientists on ethanol  link

 Global ethanol production

October 2017: Brazil’s sugar-cane ethanol can cut emissions. Ethanol made from Brazil’s sugarcane could be a near-term solution to cutting CO2 emissions according to a new study. Brazil is already the world’s biggest sugarcane producer with 50% of its sugarcane going to make bioethanol. Today, two-thirds of cars in Brazil are flex-fuel, running on pure ethanol or gasoline-ethanol blendsThe country plans to boost its own bioethanol use to meet its goals for the Paris climate agreement, which can be achieved by replace as much as 13.7% of crude oil use by 2045 while protecting forests. link

June 2012: Global ethanol production to reach 85.2 billion litres in 2012. The Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA) forecasts fuel ethanol production to hit 85.2 billion litres in 2012. Despite the slowing Chinese economy and negative economic growth in many western countries, the GRFA predicts a 1% growth in ethanol output in 2012, up from the 84.5 billion litres produced in 2011. Global annual production has now surpassed 536 million barrels of ethanol per year according to the GRFA. link

June 2007: Ethanol bubble. Due to a combination of high oil prices and even more generous government subsidies, corn-based ethanol has become the rage. There were 110 ethanol refineries in operation in the U.S. at the end of 2006, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Many were being expanded, and another 73 were under construction. By the end of 2008, the United States’ ethanol production capacity will reach an estimated 11.4 billion gallons per year. The push for ethanol and other biofuels has spawned an industry that depends on billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, and not only in the United States. In 2005, global ethanol production was 9.66 billion gallons, of which Brazil produced 45.2% (from sugar cane) and the United States 44.5% (from corn). Global production of biodiesel (most of it in Europe), made from oilseeds, was almost one billion gallons. link

  .   .   .  if you have to buy gas  .   .   .

Sunoco selected as the most ethical gas company in the U.S. Sunoco is the only oil company that has signed the CERES (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies) principles, is a Global Sullivan Principles Signatory, and has a non-discrimination policy. Sunoco is a BELC (Business Environmental Leadership Council) member, and they have officially stated that they acknowledge that climate change is affecting our planet adversely. No gas station is environmental, and BP is second best despite a laundry list of both good and bad contributions to planet. link

UK petrol guide indicates low interest of major companies in renewables. In our Ethical Consumer 2007 Petrol (UK) report there were three clear leaders in terms of investment in renewable energy, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of total investment – BP, Chevron and Shell (in that order). We noted then that the figures showed that moving to renewable energy was neither a serious nor an urgent priority for Big Oil. The trend since then has been disappointing. Shell has pulled out of any significant investments in wind or solar energy, having invested $1.7 in renewables between 2004-2008. Instead it intends to concentrate on the controversial areas of biofuels and carbon capture and storage. Both of which suggest an interest in extending business as usual rather than the transformation of the energy system we so urgently need. Only Chevron and BP have anything other than marginal investment in renewables. Exxon still resolutely refuses to have anything to do with clean energy, despite the almost subliminal appearance of wind turbines on recent European commercials. It’s a damning indictment of the sector that BP tops the league while allocating 93% ($20bn) of its total investment to fossil fuels. In contrast, solar power was allocated just 1.4% and wind 2.8% (the remainder to biofuels) – link