Peak Soil: biofuels are unsustainable and a threat to America


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Peak Soil: Why cellulosic ethanol, biofuels are 
unsustainable and a threat to America

Written by Alice Friedemann
Released April 10, 2007

"The nation that destroys its soil destroys 
itself." - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Peak Soil: Why Cellulosic ethanol and other 
Biofuels are Not Sustainable and are a Threat to 
America's National Security

* Part 1. The Dirt on Dirt.

* Part 2. The Poop on Ethanol: Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)

* Part 3. Biofuel is a Grim Reaper.
* Part 4. Biodiesel: Can we eat enough French Fries?

* Part 5. If we can't drink and drive, then burn 
baby burn. - Energy Crop Combustion

* Part 6. The problems with Cellulosic Ethanol could drive you to drink.

* Part 7. Where do we go from here?
* Appendix
* Department of Energy's Biofuel Roadmap Barriers
* References

Editor's note: There are many serious problems 
with biofuels, especially on a massive scale, and 
it appears from this report that they cannot be 
surmounted. So let the truth of Alice 
Friedemann's meticulous and incisive diligence 
wash over you and rid you of any confusion or 
false hopes. The absurdity and destructiveness of 
large scale biofuels are a chance for people to 
eventually even reject the internal combustion 
engine and energy waste in general. One can also 
hazard from this report that bioplastics, as 
well, cannot make it in a big way.

The author looks ahead to post-petroleum living 
with considered conclusions: "Biofuels have yet 
to be proven viable, and mechanization may not be 
a great strategy in a world of declining energy." 
And, "Šonly a small amount of biomass (is) 
unspoken for" by today's essential economic and 
ecological activities. To top it off, she points 
out, "Crop production is reduced when residues 
are removed from the soil. Why would farmers want 
to sell their residues?" Here's an Oh- 
god-she-nailed-it zinger: "As prices of 
fertilizer inexorably rise due to natural gas 
depletion, it will be cheaper to return residues 
to the soil than to buy fertilizer." Looking 
further along than most of us, Alice has among 
her conclusions: "It's time to start increasing 
horse and oxen numbers, which will leave even 
less biomass for biorefineries." - JL

Part 1. The Dirt on Dirt.

Ethanol is an agribusiness get-rich-quick scheme 
that will bankrupt our topsoil.

Nineteenth century western farmers converted 
their corn into whiskey to make a profit 
(Rorabaugh 1979). Archer Daniels Midland, a large 
grain processor, came up with the same scheme in 
the 20th century. But ethanol was a product in 
search of a market, so ADM spent three decades 
relentlessly lobbying for ethanol to be used in 
gasoline. Today ADM makes record profits from 
ethanol sales and government subsidies 
(Barrionuevo 2006).

The Department of Energy hopes to have biomass 
supply 5% of the nation's power, 20% of 
transportation fuels, and 25% of chemicals by 
2030. These combined goals are 30% of the current 
petroleum consumption (DOE Biomass Plan, DOE 
Feedstock Roadmap).

Fuels made from biomass are a lot like the 
nuclear powered airplanes the Air Force tried to 
build from 1946 to 1961, for billions of dollars. 
They never got off the ground. The idea was 
interesting -- atomic jets could fly for months 
without refueling. But the lead shielding to 
protect the crew and several months of food and 
water was too heavy for the plane to take off. 
The weight problem, the ease of shooting this 
behemoth down, and the consequences of a crash 
landing were so obvious, it's amazing the project 
was ever funded, let alone kept going for 15 

Biomass fuels have equally obvious and 
predictable reasons for failure. Odum says that 
time explains why renewable energy provides such 
low energy yields compared to non-renewable 
fossil fuels. The more work left to nature, the 
higher the energy yield, but the longer the time 
required. Although coal and oil took millions of 
years to form into dense, concentrated solar 
power, all we had to do was extract and transport 
them (Odum 1996)

With every step required to transform a fuel into 
energy, there is less and less energy yield. For 
example, to make ethanol from corn grain, which 
is how all U.S. ethanol is made now, corn is 
first grown to develop hybrid seeds, which next 
season are planted, harvested, delivered, stored, 
and preprocessed to remove dirt. Dry-mill ethanol 
is milled, liquefied, heated, saccharified, 
fermented, evaporated, centrifuged, distilled, 
scrubbed, dried, stored, and transported to 
customers (McAloon 2000).

Fertile soil will be destroyed if crops and other 
"wastes" are removed to make cellulosic ethanol.

"We stand, 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" (Sampson 1981).

Loss of topsoil has been a major factor in the 
fall of civilizations (Sundquist 2005 Chapter 3, 
Lowdermilk 1953, Perlin 1991, Ponting 1993). You 
end up with a country like Iraq, formerly 
Mesopotamia, where 75% of the farm land became a 
salty desert.

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.

Soil Science 101 - There Is No "Waste" Biomass

Long before there was "Peak Oil", there was "Peak 
Soil". 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 
(Pate 2004, Klee 1991).

Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil 
reaches 6 inches or less, the average crop root 
zone depth (Sundquist 2005).

Crop productivity continually declines as topsoil 
is lost and residues are removed. (Al-Kaisi May 
2001, Ball 2005, Blanco-Canqui 2006, BOA 1986, 
Calviño 2003, Franzleubbers 2006, Grandy 2006, 
Johnson 2004, Johnson 2005, Miranowski 1984, 
Power 1998, Sadras 2001, Troeh 2005, Wilhelm 

On over half of America's best crop land, the 
erosion rate is 27 times the natural rate, 11,000 
pounds per acre (NCRS 2006). The natural, 
geological erosion rate is about 400 pounds of 
soil per acre per year (Troeh 2005). Some is due 
to farmers not being paid enough to conserve 
their land, but most is due to investors who farm 
for profit. Erosion control cuts into profits.

Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster 
than the rate topsoil can be formed by natural 
processes (Pimentel 2006). That might make the 
average person concerned. But not the USDA -- 
they've defined erosion as the average soil loss 
that could occur without causing a decline in 
long term productivity.

Troeh (2005) believes that the tolerable soil 
loss (T) value is set too high, because it's 
based only on the upper layers -- how long it 
takes subsoil to be converted into topsoil. T 
ought to be based on deeper layers - the time for 
subsoil to develop from parent material or parent 
material from rock. If he's right, erosion is 
even worse than NCRS figures.

Erosion removes the most fertile parts of the 
soil (USDA-ARS). When you feed the soil with 
fertilizer, you're not feeding plants; you're 
feeding the biota in the soil. Underground 
creatures and fungi break down fallen leaves and 
twigs into microscopic bits that plants can eat, 
and create tunnels air and water can infiltrate. 
In nature there are no elves feeding 
(fertilizing) the wild lands. When plants die, 
they're recycled into basic elements and become a 
part of new plants. It's a closed cycle. There is 
no bio-waste.

Soil creatures and fungi act as an immune system 
for plants against diseases, weeds, and insects - 
when this living community is harmed by 
agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, even more 
chemicals are needed in an increasing vicious 
cycle (Wolfe 2001).

There's so much life in the soil, there can be 10 
"biomass horses" underground for every horse 
grazing on an acre of pasture (Wardle 2004). If 
you dove into the soil and swam around, you'd be 
surrounded by miles of thin strands of 
mycorrhizal fungi that help plant roots absorb 
more nutrients and water, plus millions of 
creatures, most of them unknown. There'd be 
thousands of species in just a handful of earth 
-- springtails, bacteria, and worms digging airy 
subways. As you swam along, plant roots would 
tower above you like trees as you wove through 
underground skyscrapers.

Plants and creatures underground need to drink, 
eat, and breathe just as we do. An ideal soil is 
half rock, and a quarter each water and air. When 
tractors plant and harvest, they crush the life 
out of the soil, as underground apartments 
collapse 9/11 style. The tracks left by tractors 
in the soil are the erosion route for half of the 
soil that washes or blows away (Wilhelm 2004).

Corn Biofuel (i.e. butanol, ethanol, biodiesel) is especially harmful because:

* Row crops such as corn and soy cause 50 times 
more soil erosion than sod crops [e.g., hay] 
(Sullivan 2004) or more (Al-Kaisi 2000), because 
the soil between the rows can wash or blow away. 
If corn is planted with last year's corn stalks 
left on the ground (no-till), erosion is less of 
a problem, but only about 20% of corn is grown 
no-till. Soy is usually grown no-till, but 
insignificant residues to harvest for fuel.

* Corn uses more water, insecticide, and 
fertilizer than most crops (Pimentel 2003). Due 
to high corn prices, continuous corn (corn crop 
after corn crop) is increasing, rather than 
rotation of nitrogen fixing (fertilizer) and 
erosion control sod crops with corn.

* The government has studied the effect of 
growing continuous corn, and found it increases 
eutrophication by 189%, global warming by 71%, 
and acidification by 6% (Powers 2005).

* Farmers want to plant corn on highly-erodible, 
water protecting, or wildlife sustaining 
Conservation Reserve Program land. Farmers are 
paid not to grow crops on this land. But with 
high corn prices, farmers are now asking the 
Agricultural Department to release them from 
these contracts so they can plant corn on these 
low-producing, environmentally sensitive lands 
(Tomson 2007).

* Crop residues are essential for soil nutrition, 
water retention, and soil carbon. Making 
cellulosic ethanol from corn residues -- the 
parts of the plant we don't eat (stalk, roots, 
and leaves) - removes water, carbon, and 
nutrients (Nelson, 2002, McAloon 2000, Sheehan, 

These practices lead to lower crop production and 
ultimately deserts. Growing plants for fuel will 
accelerate the already unacceptable levels of 
topsoil erosion, soil carbon and nutrient 
depletion, soil compaction, water retention, 
water depletion, water pollution, air pollution, 
eutrophication, destruction of fisheries, 
siltation of dams and waterways, salination, loss 
of biodiversity, and damage to human health 
(Tegtmeier 2004).

Why are soil scientists absent from the biofuels debate?

I asked 35 soil scientists why topsoil wasn't 
part of the biofuels debate. These are just a few 
of the responses from the ten who replied to my 
off-the-record poll (no one wanted me to quote 
them, mostly due to fear of losing their jobs):

* "I have no idea why soil scientists aren't 
questioning corn and cellulosic ethanol plans. 
Quite frankly I'm not sure that our society has 
had any sort of reasonable debate about this with 
all the facts laid out. When you see that even if 
all of the corn was converted to ethanol and that 
would not provide more than 20% of our current 
liquid fuel use, it certainly makes me wonder, 
even before considering the conversion 
efficiency, soil loss, water contamination, food 
price problems, etc."

* "Biomass production is not sustainable. Only 
business men and women in the refinery business 
believe it is."

* "Should we be using our best crop land to grow 
gasohol and contribute further to global warming? 
What will our children grow their food on?"

* "As agricultural scientists, we are programmed 
to make farmers profitable, and therefore profits 
are at the top of the list, and not soil, family, 
or environmental sustainability".

* "Government policy since WWII has been to 
encourage overproduction to keep food prices down 
(people with full bellies don't revolt or object 
too much). It's hard to make a living farming 
commodities when the selling price is always at 
or below the break even point. Farmers have had 
to get bigger and bigger to make ends meet since 
the margins keep getting thinner and thinner. We 
have sacrificed our family farms in the name of 
cheap food. When farmers stand to make few bucks 
(as with biofuels) agricultural scientists tend 
to look the other way".

* "You are quite correct in your concern that 
soil science should be factored into decisions 
about biofuel production. Unfortunately, we soil 
scientists have missed the boat on the importance 
of soil management to the sustainability of 
biomass production, and the long-term impact for 
soil productivity."

This is not a new debate. Here's what scientists had to say decades ago:

Removing "crop residuesŠwould rob organic matter 
that is vital to the maintenance of soil 
fertility and tilth, leading to disastrous soil 
erosion levels. Not considered is the importance 
of plant residues as a primary source of energy 
for soil microbial activity. The most prudent 
course, clearly, is to continue to recycle most 
crop residues back into the soil, where they are 
vital in keeping organic matter levels high 
enough to make the soil more open to air and 
water, more resistant to soil erosion, and more 
productive" (Sampson 1981).

"ŠMassive alcohol production from our farms is an 
immoral use of our soils since it rapidly 
promotes their wasting away. We must save these 
soils for an oil-less future" (Jackson 1980).

Natural Gas in Agriculture

When you take out more nutrients and organic 
matter from the soil than you put back in, you 
are "mining" the topsoil. The organic matter is 
especially important, since that's what prevents 
erosion, improves soil structure, health, water 
retention, and gives the next crop its nutrition. 
Modern agriculture only addresses the nutritional 
component by adding fossil-fuel based 
fertilizers, and because the soil is unhealthy 
from a lack of organic matter, copes with insects 
and disease with oil-based pesticides.

"Fertilizer energy" is 28% of the energy used in 
agriculture (Heller, 2000). Fertilizer uses 
natural gas both as a feedstock and the source of 
energy to create the high temperatures and 
pressures necessary to coax inert nitrogen out of 
the air (nitrogen is often the limiting factor in 
crop production). This is known as the 
Haber-Bosch process, and it's a big part of the 
green revolution that made it possible for the 
world's population to grow from half a billion to 
6.5 billion today (Smil 2000, Fisher 2001).

Our national security is at risk as we become 
dependent on unstable foreign states to provide 
us with increasingly expensive fertilizer. 
Between 1995 and 2005 we increased our fertilizer 
imports by more than 148% for Anhydrous Ammonia, 
93% for Urea (solid), and 349 % of other nitrogen 
fertilizers (USDA ERS). Removing crop residues 
will require large amounts of imported fertilizer 
from potential cartels, potentially so expensive 
farmers won't sell crops and residues for 

Improve national security and topsoil by 
returning residues to the land as fertilizer. We 
are vulnerable to high-priced fertilizer imports 
or "food for oil", which would greatly increase 
the cost of food for Americans.

Agriculture competes with homes and industry for 
fast depleting North American natural gas. 
Natural gas price increases have already caused 
over 280,000 job losses (Gerard 2006). Natural 
gas is also used for heating and cooking in over 
half our homes, generates 15% of electricity, and 
is a feedstock for thousands of products.

Return crop residues to the soil to provide 
organic fertilizer, don't increase the need for 
natural gas fertilizers by removing crop residues 
to make cellulosic biofuels.

Part 2. The Poop on Ethanol: Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)

To understand the concept of EROEI, imagine a 
magician doing a variation on the 
rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick. He strides onstage 
with a rabbit, puts it into a top hat, and then 
spends the next five minutes pulling 100 more 
rabbits out. That is a pretty good return on 

Oil was like that in the beginning: one barrel of 
oil energy was required to get 100 more out, an 
Energy Returned on Energy Invested of 100:1.

When the biofuel magician tries to do the same 
trick decades later, he puts the rabbit into the 
hat, and pulls out only one pooping rabbit. The 
excrement is known as byproduct or coproduct in 
the ethanol industry.

Studies that show a positive energy gain for 
ethanol would have a negative return if the 
byproduct were left out (Farrell 2006). Here's 
where byproduct comes from: if you made ethanol 
from corn in your back yard, you'd dump a bushel 
of corn, two gallons of water, and yeast into 
your contraption. Out would come 18 pounds of 
ethanol, 18 pounds of CO2, and 18 pounds of 
byproduct - the leftover corn solids.

Patzek and Pimentel believe you shouldn't include 
the energy contained in the byproduct, because 
you need to return it to the soil to improve 
nutrition and soil structure (Patzek June 2006). 
Giampetro believes the byproduct should be 
treated as a "serious waste disposal problem and 
Š an energy cost", because if we supplied 10% of 
our energy from biomass, we'd generate 37 times 
more livestock feed than is used (Giampetro 1997).

It's even worse than he realized - Giampetro 
didn't know most of this "livestock feed" can't 
be fed to livestock because it's too energy and 
monetarily expensive to deliver - especially 
heavy wet distillers byproduct, which is 
short-lived, succumbing to mold and fungi after 4 
to 10 days. Also, byproduct is a subset of what 
animals eat. Cattle are fed byproduct in 20% of 
their diet at most. Iowa's a big hog state, but 
commercial swine operations feed pigs a maximum 
of 5 to 10% byproduct (Trenkle 2006; Shurson 

Worst of all, the EROEI of ethanol is 1.2:1 or 
1.2 units of energy out for every unit of energy 
in, a gain of ".2". The "1" in "1.2" represents 
the liquid ethanol. What is the ".2" then? It's 
the rabbit feces - the byproduct. So you have no 
ethanol for your car, because the liquid "1" 
needs to be used to make more ethanol. That 
leaves you with just the ".2" --- a bucket of 
byproduct to feed your horse - you do have a 
horse, don't you? If horses are like cattle, then 
you can only use your byproduct for one-fifth of 
his diet, so you'll need four supplemental 
buckets of hay from your back yard to feed him. 
No doubt the byproduct could be used to make 
other things, but that would take energy.

Byproduct could be burned, but it takes a 
significant amount of energy to dry it out, and 
requires additional handling and equipment. More 
money can be made selling it wet to the cattle 
industry, which is hurting from the high price of 
corn. Byproduct should be put back into the 
ground to improve soil nutrition and structure 
for future generations, not sold for short-term 
profit and fed to cattle who aren't biologically 
adapted to eating corn.

The boundaries of what is included in EROEI 
calculations are kept as narrow as possible to 
reach positive results.

Researchers who find a positive EROEI for ethanol 
have not accounted for all of the energy inputs. 
For example, Shapouri admits the "energy used in 
the production of Š farm machinery and 
equipmentŠ, and cement, steel, and stainless 
steel used in the construction of ethanol plants, 
are not included". (Shapouri 2002). Or they 
assign overstated values of ethanol yield from 
corn (Patzek Dec 2006). Many, many, other inputs 
are left out.

Patzek and Pimentel have compelling evidence 
showing that about 30 percent more fossil energy 
is required to produce a gallon of ethanol than 
you get from it. Their papers are published in 
peer-reviewed journals where their data and 
methods are public, unlike many of the positive 
net energy results.

Infrastructure. Current EROEI figures don't take 
into account the delivery infrastructure that 
needs to be built. There are 850 million 
combustion engines in the world today. Just to 
replace half the 245 million cars and light 
trucks in the United States with E85 vehicles 
will take 12-15 years, It would take over $544 
million dollars of delivery ethanol 
infrastructure (Reynolds 2002 case B1) and $5 to 
$34 billion to revamp 170,000 gas stations 
nationwide (Heinson 2007).

The EROEI of oil when we built most of the 
infrastructure in this country was about 100:1, 
and it's about 25:1 worldwide now. Even if you 
believe ethanol has a positive EROEI, you'd 
probably need at least an EROEI of at least 5 to 
maintain modern civilization (Hall 2003). A 
civilization based on ethanol's ".2" rabbit poop 
would only work for coprophagous (dung-eating) 

Of the four articles that showed a positive net 
energy for ethanol in Farrells 2006 Science 
article, three were not peer-reviewed. The only 
positive peer-reviewed article (Dias De Oliveira, 
2005) states "The use of ethanol as a substitute 
for gasoline proved to be neither a sustainable 
nor an environmentally friendly option" and the 
"environmental impacts outweigh its benefits". 
Dias De Oliveria concluded there'd be a 
tremendous loss of biodiversity, and if all 
vehicles ran on E85 and their numbers grew by 4% 
per year, by 2048, the entire country, except for 
cities, would be covered with corn.

Part 3. Biofuel is a Grim Reaper.

The energy to remediate environmental damage is left out of EROEI calculations.

Global Warming

Soils contain twice the amount of carbon found in 
the atmosphere, and three times more carbon than 
is stored in all the Earth's vegetation (Jones 

Climate change could increase soil loss by 33% to 
274%, depending on the region (O'Neal 2005).

Intensive agriculture has already removed 20 to 
50% of the original soil carbon, and some areas 
have lost 70%. To maintain soil C levels, no crop 
residues at all could be harvested under many 
tillage systems or on highly erodible lands, and 
none to a small percent on no-till, depending on 
crop production levels (Johnson 2006).

Deforestation of temperate hardwood forests, and 
conversion of range and wetlands to grow energy 
and food crops increases global warming. An 
average of 2.6 million acres of crop land were 
paved over or developed every year between 1982 
and 2002 in the USA (NCRS 2004). The only new 
crop land is forest, range, or wetland.

Rainforest destruction is increasing global 
warming. Energy farming is playing a huge role in 
deforestation, reducing biodiversity, water and 
water quality, and increasing soil erosion. Fires 
to clear land for palm oil plantations are 
destroying one of the last great remaining 
rainforests in Borneo, spewing so much carbon 
that Indonesia is third behind the United States 
and China in releasing greenhouse gases. 
Orangutans, rhinos, tigers and thousands of other 
species may be driven extinct (Monbiot 2005). 
Borneo palm oil plantation lands have grown 
2,500% since 1984 (Barta 2006). Soybeans cause 
even more erosion than corn and suffer from all 
the same sustainability issues. The Amazon is 
being destroyed by farmers growing soybeans for 
food (National Geographic Jan 2007).and fuel 
(Olmstead 2006).

Biofuel from coal-burning biomass factories 
increases global warming (Farrell 2006). Driving 
a mile on ethanol from a coal-using biorefinery 
releases more CO2 than a mile on gasoline (Ward 
2007). Coal in ethanol production is seen as a 
way to displace petroleum (Farrell 2006, 
Yacobucci 2006) and it's already happening 
(Clayton 2006).

Current and future quantities of biofuels are too 
minisucle to affect global warming (ScienceDaily 

Surface Albedo. "How much the sun warms our 
climate depends on how much sunlight the land 
reflects (cooling us), versus how much it absorbs 
(heating us). A plausible 2% increase in the 
absorbed sunlight on a switch grass plantation 
could negate the climatic cooling benefit of the 
ethanol produced on it. We need to figure out 
now, not later, the full range of climatic 
consequences of growing cellulose crops" (Harte 


Farm runoff of nitrogen fertilizers has 
contributed to the hypoxia (low oxygen) of rivers 
and lakes across the country and the dead zone in 
the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the cost of the lost 
shrimp and fisheries and increased cost of water 
treatment are not subtracted from the EROEI of 

Soil Erosion

Corn and soybeans have higher than average 
erosion rates. Eroded soil pollutes air, fills up 
reservoirs, and shortens the time dams can store 
water and generate electricity. Yet the energy of 
the hydropower lost to siltation, energy to 
remediate flood damage, energy to dredge dams, 
agricultural drainage ditches, harbors, and 
navigation channels, aren't considered in EROEI 

The majority of the best soil in the nation is 
rented and has the highest erosion rates. More 
than half the best farmland in the United States 
is rented: 65% in Iowa, 74% in Minnesota, 84% in 
Illinois, and 86% in Indiana. Owners seeking 
short-term profits have far less incentive than 
farmers who work their land to preserve soil and 
water. As you can see in the map below [check 
with us later or use link below], the dark areas, 
which represent the highest erosion rates, are 
the same areas with the highest percentage of 
rented farmland.

Water Pollution

Soil erosion is a serious source of water 
pollution, since it causes runoff of sediments, 
nutrients, salts, eutrophication, and chemicals 
that have had no chance to decompose into 
streams. This increases water treatment costs, 
increases health costs, kills fish with 
insecticides that work their way up the food 
chain (Troeh 2005).

Ethanol plants pollute water. They generate 13 
liters of wastewater for every liter of ethanol 
produced (Pimentel March 2005)

Water depletion

Biofuel factories use a huge amount of water - 
four gallons for every gallon of ethanol 
produced. Despite 30 inches of rain per year in 
Iowa, there may not be enough water for corn 
ethanol factories as well as people and industry. 
Drought years will make matters worse (Cruse 

Fifty percent of Americans rely on groundwater 
(Glennon 2002), and in many states, this 
groundwater is being depleted by agriculture 
faster than it is being recharged. This is 
already threatening current food supplies 
(Giampetro 1997). In some western irrigated corn 
acreage, groundwater is being mined at a rate 25% 
faster than the natural recharge of its aquifer 
(Pimentel 2003).


Every acre of forest and wetland converted to 
crop land decreases soil biota, insect, bird, 
reptile, and mammal biodiversity.

Part 4. Biodiesel: Can we eat enough French Fries?

The idea we could run our economy on discarded 
fried food grease is very amusing. For starters, 
you'd need to feed 7 million heavy diesel trucks 
getting less than 8 mpg. Seems like we're all 
going to need to eat a lot more French Fries, but 
if anyone can pull it off, it would be Americans. 
Spin it as a patriotic duty and you'd see people 
out the door before the TV ad finished, the most 
popular government edict ever.

Scale. Where's the Soy? Biodiesel is not ready 
for prime time. Although John Deere is working on 
fuel additives and technologies to burn more than 
5% accredited biodiesel (made to ASTM D6751 
specifications - vegetable oil does not qualify), 
that is a long way off. 52 billion gallons of 
diesel fuel are consumed a year in the United 
States, but only 75 million gallons of biodiesel 
were produced - two-tenths of one percent of 
what's needed. To get the country to the point 
where gasoline was mixed with 5 percent biodiesel 
would require 64 percent of the soybean crop and 
71,875 square miles of land (Borgman 2007), an 
area the size of the state of Washington. 
Soybeans cause even more erosion than corn.

Biodiesel shortens engine life. Currently, 
biodiesel concentrations higher than 5 percent 
can cause "water in the fuel due to storage 
problems, foreign material plugging filtersŠ, 
fuel system seal and gasket failure, fuel gelling 
in cold weather, crankcase dilution, injection 
pump failure due to water ingestion, power loss, 
and, in some instances, can be detrimental to 
long engine life" (Borgman 2007). Biodiesel also 
has a short shelf life and it's hard to store - 
it easily absorbs moisture (water is a bane to 
combustion engines), oxidizes, and gets 
contaminated with microbes. It increases engine 
NOx emissions (ozone) and has thermal degradation 
at high temperatures (John Deere 2006).

On the cusp of energy descent, we can't even run 
the most vital aspect of our economy, 
agricultural machines, on "renewable" fuels. John 
Deere tractors can run on no more than 5% 
accredited biodiesel (Borgman 2007). Perhaps this 
is unintentionally wise - biofuels have yet to be 
proven viable, and mechanization may not be a 
great strategy in a world of declining energy.

Part 5. If we can't drink and drive, then burn 
baby burn. Energy Crop Combustion

Wood is a crop, subject to the same issues as 
corn, and takes a lot longer to grow. Burning 
wood in your stove at home delivers far more 
energy than the logs would if converted to 
biofuels (Pimentel 2005). Wood was scarce in 
America when there were just 75 million people. 
Electricity from biomass combustion is not 
economic or sustainable.

Combustion pollution is expensive to control. 
Some biomass has absorbed heavy metals and other 
pollutants from sources like coal power plants, 
industry, and treated wood. Combustion can 
release chlorinated dioxins, benzofurans, 
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cadmium, 
mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel, and zinc.

Combustion contributes to global warming by 
adding nitrogen oxides and the carbon stored in 
plants back into the atmosphere, as well as 
removes agriculturally essential nitrogen and 
phosphate (Reijnders 2006)

EROEI in doubt. Combustion plants need to 
produce, transport, prepare, dry, burn, and 
control toxic emissions. Collection is energy 
intensive, requiring some combination of 
bunchers, skidders, whole-tree choppers, or tub 
grinders, and then hauling it to the biomass 
plant. There, the feedstock is chopped into 
similar sizes and placed on a conveyor belt to be 
fed to the plant. If biomass is co-fired with 
coal, it needs to be reduced in size, and the 
resulting fly ash may not be marketable to the 
concrete industry (Bain 2003). Any alkali or 
chlorine released in combustion gets deposited on 
the equipment, reducing overall plant 
efficiencies, as well as accelerating corrosion 
and erosion of plant components, requiring high 
replacement and maintenance energy.

Processing materials with different physical 
properties is energy intensive, requiring 
sorting, handling, drying, and chopping. It's 
hard to optimize the pyrolysis, gasification, and 
combustion processes if different combustible 
fuels are used. Urban waste requires a lot of 
sorting, since it often has material that must be 
removed, such as rocks, concrete and metal. The 
material that can be burned must also be sorted, 
since it varies from yard trimmings with high 
moisture content to chemically treated wood.

Biomass combustion competes with other industries 
that want this material for construction, mulch, 
compost, paper, and other profitable ventures, 
often driving the price of wood higher than a 
wood-burning biomass plant can afford. Much of 
the forest wood that could be burned is 
inaccessible due to a lack of roads.

Efficiency is lowered if material with a high 
water content is burned, like fresh wood. 
Different physical and chemical characteristics 
in fuel can lead to control problems (Badger 
2002). When wet fuel is burned, so much energy 
goes into vaporizing the water that very little 
energy emerges as heat, and drying takes time and 

Material is limited and expensive. California 
couldn't use crop residues due to low bulk 
density. In 2000, the viability of California 
biomass enterprise was in serious doubt because 
the energy to produce biomass was so high due to 
the small facilities and high cost of collecting 
and transporting material to the plants (Bain 

Part 6. The problems with Cellulosic Ethanol could drive you to drink.

Many plants want animals to eat their seed and 
fruit to disperse them. Some seeds only germinate 
after going through an animal gut and coming out 
in ready-made fertilizer. Seeds and fruits are 
easy to digest compared to the rest of the plant, 
that's why all of the commercial ethanol and 
biodiesel are made from the yummy parts of 
plants, the grain, rather than the stalks, 
leaves, and roots.

But plants don't want to be entirely devoured. 
They've spent hundreds of millions of years 
perfecting structures that can't easily be eaten. 
Be thankful plants figured this out, or 
everything would be mown down to bedrock.

If we ever did figure out how to break down 
cellulose in our back yard stills, it wouldn't be 
long before the 6.5 billion people on the planet 
destroyed the grasslands and forests of the world 
to power generators and motorbikes (Huber 2006)

Don Augenstein and John Benemann, who've been 
researching biofuels for over 30 years, are 
skeptical as well. According to them, "Šsevere 
barriers remain to ethanol from lignocellulose. 
The barriers look as daunting as they did 30 
years ago".

Benemann says the EROEI can be easily determined 
to be about five times as much energy required to 
make cellulosic ethanol than the energy contained 
in the ethanol.

The success of cellulosic ethanol depends on 
finding or engineering organisms that can 
tolerate extremely high concentrations of 
ethanol. Augenstein argues that this creature 
would already exist if it were possible. 
Organisms have had a billion years of 
optimization through evolution to develop a 
tolerance to high ethanol levels (Benemann 2006). 
Someone making beer, wine, or moonshine would 
have already discovered this creature if it could 

The range of chemical and physical properties in 
biomass, even just corn stover (Ruth 2003, 
Sluiter 2000), is a challenge. It's hard to make 
cellulosic ethanol plants optimally efficient, 
because processes can't be tuned to such wide 
feedstock variation.

Where will the Billion Tons of Biomass for Cellulosic Fuels Come From?

The government believes there is a billion tons 
of biomass "waste" to make cellulosic biofuels, 
chemicals, and generate electricity with.

The United States lost 52 million acres of 
cropland between 1982 and 2002 (NCRS 2004). At 
that rate, all of the cropland will be gone in 
140 years.

There isn't enough biomass to replace 30% of our 
petroleum use. The potential biomass energy is 
miniscule compared to the fossil fuel energy we 
consume every year, about 105 exa joules (EJ) in 
the USA. If you burned every living plant and its 
roots, you'd have 94 EJ of energy and we could 
all pretend we lived on Mars. Most of this 94 EJ 
of biomass is already being used for food and 
feed crops, and wood for paper and homes. Sparse 
vegetation and the 30 EJ in root systems are 
economically unavailable - leaving only a small 
amount of biomass unspoken for (Patzek June 2006).

Over 25% of the "waste" biomass is expected to 
come from 280 million tons of corn stover. Stover 
is what's left after the corn grain is harvested. 
Another 120 million tons will come from soy and 
cereal straw (DOE Feedstock Roadmap, DOE Biomass 

There isn't enough no-till corn stover to 
harvest. The success of biofuels depends on corn 
residues. About 80% of farmers disk corn stover 
into the land after harvest. That renders it 
useless -- the crop residue is buried in mud and 
decomposing rapidly.

Only the 20 percent of farmers who farm no-till 
will have stover to sell. The DOE Billion Ton 
vision assumes all farmers are no-till, 75% of 
residues will be harvested, and fantasizes corn 
and wheat yields 50% higher than now are reached 
(DOE Billion Ton Vision 2005).

Many tons will never be available because farmers 
won't sell any, or much of their residue 
(certainly not 75%).

Many more tons will be lost due to drought, rain, or loss in storage.

Sustainable harvesting of plants is only 1/200th 
at best. Plants can only fix a tiny part of solar 
energy into plant matter every year -- about 
one-tenth to one-half of one percent new growth 
in temperate climates.

To prevent erosion, you could only harvest 51 
million tons of corn and wheat residues, not 400 
million tons (Nelson, 2002). Other factors, like 
soil structure, soil compression, water 
depletion, and environmental damage weren't 
considered. Fifty one million tons of residue 
could make about 3.8 billion gallons of ethanol, 
less than 1% of our energy needs.

Using corn stover is a problem, because corn, 
soy, and other row crops cause 50 times more soil 
erosion than sod crops (Sullivan 2004) or more 
(Al-Kaisi 2000), and corn also uses more water, 
insecticides and fertilizers than most crops 
(Pimentel 2003).

The amount of soy and cereal straw (wheat, oats, 
etc) is insignificant. It would be best to use 
cereal grain straw, because grains use far less 
water and cause far less erosion than row crops 
like corn and soybeans. But that isn't going to 
happen, because the green revolution fed billions 
more people by shortening grain height so that 
plant energy went into the edible seed, leaving 
little straw for biofuels. Often 90% of soybean 
and cereal straw is grown no-till, but the amount 
of cereal straw is insignificant and the soybean 
residues must remain on the field to prevent 

Energy Crops

Poor, erodible land. There aren't enough acres of 
land to grow significant amounts of energy crops. 
Potential energy crop land is usually poor 
quality or highly erodible land that shouldn't be 
harvested. Farmers are often paid not to farm 
this unproductive land. Many acres in switchgrass 
are being used for wildlife and recreation.

Few suitable bio-factory sites. Biorefineries 
can't be built just anywhere - very few sites 
could be found to build switchgrass plants in all 
of South Dakota (Wu 1998). Much of the state 
didn't have enough water or adequate drainage to 
build an ethanol factory. The sites had to be on 
main roads, near railroad and natural gas lines, 
out of floodplains, on parcels of at least 40 
acres to provide storage for the residues, have 
electric power, and enough biomass nearby to 
supply the plant year round.

No energy crop farmers or investors. Farmers 
won't grow switchgrass until there's a 
switchgrass plant. Machines to harvest and 
transport switchgrass efficiently don't exist yet 
(Barrionuevo 2006). The capital to build 
switchgrass plants won't materialize until there 
are switchgrass farmers. Since "ethanol 
production using switchgrass required 50% more 
fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced" 
(Pimentel 2005), investors for these plants will 
be hard to find.

Energy crops are subject to Liebig's law of the 
minimum too. Switchgrass may grow on marginal 
land, but it hasn't escaped the need for minerals 
and water. Studies have shown the more rainfall, 
the more switchgrass you get, and if you remove 
switchgrass, you're going to need to fertilize 
the land to replace the lost biomass, or you'll 
get continually lower yields of switchgrass every 
time you harvest the crop (Vogel 2002). Sugar 
cane has been touted as an "all you need is 
sunshine" plant. But according to the FAO, the 
nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium requirements 
of sugar cane are roughly similar to maize (FAO 

Bioinvasive Potential. These fast-growing 
disease-resistant plants are potentially 
bioinvasive, another kudzu. Bioinvasion costs our 
country billions of dollars a year (Bright, 
1998). Johnson grass was introduced as a forage 
grass and it's now an invasive weed in many 
states. Another fast-growing grass, Miscanthus, 
is now being proposed as a biofuel. It's been 
described as "Johnson grass on steroids" (Raghu 

Sugar cane: too little to import. Brazil uses oil 
for 90% of their energy, and 17 times less oil 
(Jordan 2006). Brazilian ethanol production in 
2003 was 3.3 billion gallons, about the same as 
the USA in 2004, or 1% of our transportation 
energy. Brazil uses 85% of their cane ethanol, 
leaving only 15% for export.

Sugar Cane: can't grow it here. Although we grow 
some sugar cane despite tremendous environmental 
damage (WWF) in Florida thanks to the sugar 
lobby, we're too far north to grow a significant 
amount of sugar cane or other fast growing C4 

Wood ethanol is an energy sink. Ethanol 
production using wood biomass required 57% more 
fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced 
(Pimentel 2005).

Wood is a nonrenewable resource. Old-growth 
forests had very dense wood, with a high energy 
content, but wood from fast-growing plantations 
is so low-density and low calorie it's not even 
good to burn in a fireplace. These plantations 
require energy to plant, fertilize, weed, thin, 
cut, and deliver. The trees are finally available 
for use after 20 to 90 years - too long for them 
to be considered a renewable fuel (Odum 1996). 
Nor do secondary forests always come back with 
the vigor of the preceding forest due to soil 
erosion, soil nutrition depletion, and 
mycorrhizae destruction (Luoma 1999).

There's not enough wood to fuel a civilization of 
300 million people. Over half of North America 
was deforested by 1900, at a time when there were 
only 75 million people (Williams 2003). Most of 
this was from home use. In the 18th century the 
average Northeastern family used 10 to 20 cords 
per year. At least one acre of woods is required 
to sustainably harvest one cord of wood (Whitney 

Energy crop limits. Energy crops may not be 
sustainable due to water, fertilizer, and 
harvesting impacts on the soil (DOE Biomass 
Roadmap 2005). Like all other monoculture crops, 
ultimately yields of energy crops will be reduced 
due to "pest problems, diseases, and soil 
degradation" (Giampetro, 1997).

Energy crop monoculture. The "physical and 
chemical characteristics of feedstocks vary by 
source, by year, and by season, increasing 
processing costs" (DOE Feedstock Roadmap). That 
will encourage the development of genetically 
engineered biomass to minimize variation. 
Harvesting economies of scale will mean these 
crops will be grown in monoculture, just as food 
crops are. That's the wrong direction - to farm 
with less energy there'll need to be a return to 
rotation of diverse crops, and composted residues 
for soil nutrition, pest, and disease resistance.

A way around this would be to spend more on 
researching how cellulose digesting microbes 
tackle different herbaceous and woody biomass. 
The ideal energy crop would be a perennial, 
tall-grass prairie / herbivore ecosystem (Tilman 

Farmers aren't Stupid: They won't sell their residues

Farmers are some of the smartest people on earth 
or they'd soon go out of business. They have to 
know everything from soil science to commodity 

Crop production is reduced when residues are 
removed from the soil. Why would farmers want to 
sell their residues?

Erosion, water, compression, nutrition. 
Harvesting of stover on the scale needed to fuel 
a cellulosic industry won't happen because 
farmers aren't stupid, especially the ones who 
work their own land. Although there is a wide 
range of opinion about the amount of residue that 
can be harvested safely without causing erosion, 
loss of soil nutrition, and soil structure, many 
farmers will want to be on the safe side, and 
stick with the studies showing that 20% (Nelson, 
2002) to 30% (McAloon et al., 2000; Sheehan, 
2003) at most can be harvested, not the 75% 
agribusiness claims is possible. Farmers also 
care about water quality (Lal 1998, Mann et al, 
2002). And farmers will decide that permanent 
soil compression is not worth any price (Wilhelm 
2004). As prices of fertilizer inexorably rise 
due to natural gas depletion, it will be cheaper 
to return residues to the soil than to buy 

Residues are a headache. The further the farmer 
is from the biorefinery or railroad, the slimmer 
the profit, and the less likely a farmer will 
want the extra headache and cost of hiring and 
scheduling many different harvesting, collection, 
baling, and transportation contractors for corn 

Residues are used by other industries. Farm 
managers working for distant owners are more 
likely to sell crop residues since they're paid 
to generate profits, not preserve land. But even 
they will sell to the highest bidder, which might 
be the livestock or dairy industries, furfural 
factories, hydromulching companies, biocomposite 
manufacturers, pulp mills, or city dwellers faced 
with skyrocketing utility bills, since the high 
heating value of residue has twice the energy of 
the converted ethanol.

Investors aren't stupid either. If farmers can't 
supply enough crop residues to fuel the large 
biorefinery in their region, who will put up the 
capital to build one?

Can the biomass be harvested, baled, stored, and transported economically?

Harvesting. Sixteen ton tractors harvest corn and 
spit out stover. Many of these harvesters are 
contracted and will continue to collect corn in 
the limited harvest time, not stover. If tractors 
are still available, the land isn't wet, snow 
doesn't fall, and the stover is dry, three 
additional tractor runs will mow, rake, and bale 
the stover (Wilhelm 2004). This will triple the 
compaction damage to the soil (Troeh 2005), 
create more erosion-prone tire tracks, increase 
CO2 emissions, add to labor costs, and put 
unwanted foreign matter into the bale (soil, 
rocks, baling wire, etc).

So biomass roadmaps call for a new type of 
tractor or attachment to harvest both corn and 
stover in one pass. But then the tractor would 
need to be much larger and heavier, which could 
cause decades-long or even permanent soil 
compaction. Farmers worry that mixing corn and 
stover might harm the quality of the grain. And 
on the cusp of energy descent, is it a good idea 
to build an even larger and more complex machine?

If the stover is harvested, the soil is now 
vulnerable to erosion if it rains, because 
there's no vegetation to protect the soil from 
the impact of falling raindrops. Rain also 
compacts the surface of the soil so that less 
water can enter, forcing more to run off, 
increasing erosion. Water landing on dense 
vegetation soaks into the soil, increasing plant 
growth and recharging underground aquifers. The 
more stover left on the land, the better.

Baling. The current technology to harvest 
residues is to put them into bales of hay. Hay is 
a dangerous commodity -- it can spontaneously 
combust, and once on fire, can't be extinguished, 
leading to fire loss and increased fire insurance 
costs. Somehow the bales have to be kept from 
combusting during the several months it takes to 
dry them from 50 to 15 percent moisture. A large, 
well drained, covered area is needed to vent 
fumes and dissipate heat. If the bales get wet 
they will compost (Atchison 2004).

Baling was developed for hay and has been adapted 
to corn stover with limited success. 
Biorefineries need at least half a million tons 
of biomass on hand to smooth supply bumps, much 
greater than any bale system has been designed 
for. Pelletization is not an option, it's too 
expensive. Other options need to be found. (DOE 
Feedstock Roadmap)

To get around the problems of exploding hay 
bales, wet stover could be collected. The 
moisture content needs to be around 60 percent, 
which means a lot of water will be transported, 
adding significantly to the delivery cost.

Storage. Stover needs to be stored with a 
moisture content of 15% or less, but it's 
typically 35-50%, and rain or snow during harvest 
will raise these levels even higher (DOE 
Feedstock Roadmap). If it's harvested wet anyhow, 
there'll be high or complete losses of biomass in 
storage (Atchison 2004).

Residues could be stored wet, as they are in 
ensilage, but a great deal of R&D are needed and 
to see if there are disease, pest, emission, 
runoff, groundwater contamination, dust, mold, or 
odor control problems. The amount of water 
required is unknown. The transit time must be 
short, or aerobic microbial activity will damage 
it. At the storage site, the wet biomass must be 
immediately washed, shredded, and transported to 
a drainage pad under a roof for storage, instead 
of baled when drier and left at the farm. The wet 
residues are heavy, making transportation 
costlier than for dry residues, perhaps 
uneconomical. It can freeze in the winter making 
it hard to handle. If the moisture is too low, 
air gets in, making aerobic fermentation 
possible, resulting in molds and spoilage.

Transportation. Although a 6,000 dry ton per day 
biorefinery would have 33% lower costs than a 
2,000 ton factory, the price of gas and diesel 
limits the distance the biofuel refinery can be 
from farms, since the bales are large in volume 
but low in density, which limits how many bales 
can be loaded onto a truck and transported 

So the "economy of scale" achieved by a very 
large refinery has to be reduced to a 2,000 dry 
ton per day biorefinery. Even this smaller 
refinery would require 200 trucks per hour 
delivering biomass during harvest season (7 x 
24), or 100 trucks per day if satellite sites for 
storage are used. This plant would need 90% of 
the no-till crop residues from the surrounding 
7,000 square miles with half the farmers 
participating. Yet less than 20% of farmers 
practice no-till corn and not all of the farmland 
is planted in corn. When this biomass is 
delivered to the biorefinery, it will take up at 
least 100 acres of land stacked 25 feet high.

The average stover haul to the biorefinery would 
be 43 miles one way if these rosy assumptions all 
came true (Perlack 2002). If less than 30% of the 
stover is available, the average one-way trip 
becomes 100 miles and the biorefinery is 
economically impossible.

There is also a shortage of truck drivers, the 
rail system can't handle any new capacity, and 
trains are designed to operate between hubs, not 
intermodally (truck to train to truck). The 
existing transportation system has not changed 
much in 30 years, yet this congested, inadequate 
infrastructure somehow has to be used to 
transport huge amounts of ethanol, biomass, and 
byproducts (Haney 2006).

Cellulosic Biorefineries (see Appendix for more barriers)

There are over 60 barriers to be overcome in 
making cellulosic ethanol in Section III of the 
DOE "Roadmap for Agriculture Biomass Feedstock 
Supply in the United States" (DOE Feedstock 
Roadmap 2003). For example:

"Enzyme Biochemistry. Enzymes that exhibit high 
thermostability and substantial resistance to 
sugar end-product inhibition will be essential to 
fully realize enzyme-based sugar platform 
technology. The ability to develop such enzymes 
and consequently very low cost enzymatic 
hydrolysis technology requires increasing our 
understanding of the fundamental mechanisms 
underlying the biochemistry of enzymatic 
cellulose hydrolysis, including the impact of 
biomass structure on enzymatic cellulose 
decrystallization. Additional efforts aimed at 
understanding the role of cellulases and their 
interaction not only with cellulose but also the 
process environment is needed to affect further 
reductions in cellulase cost through improved 

No wonder many of the issues with cellulosic 
ethanol aren't discussed - there's no way to 
express the problems in a sound bite.

It may not be possible to reduce the complex 
cellulose digesting strategies of bacteria and 
fungi into microorganisms or enzymes that can 
convert cellulose into ethanol in giant steel 
vats, especially given the huge physical and 
chemical variations in feedstock. The field of 
metagenomics is trying to create a chimera from 
snips of genetic material of cellulose-digesting 
bacteria and fungi. That would be the ultimate 
Swiss Army-knife microbe, able to convert 
cellulose to sugar and then sugar to ethanol.

There's also research to replicate termite gut 
cellulose breakdown. Termites depend on 
fascinating creatures called protists in their 
guts to digest wood. The protists in turn 
outsource the work to multiple kinds of bacteria 
living inside of them. This is done with energy 
(ATP) and architecture (membranes) in a system 
that evolved over millions of years. If the 
termite could fire the protists and work directly 
with the bacteria, that probably would have 
happened 50 million years ago. This process 
involves many kinds of bacteria, waste products, 
and other complexities that may not be reducible 
to an enzyme or a bacteria.

Finally, ethanol must be delivered. A motivation 
to develop cellulosic ethanol is the high 
delivery cost of corn grain ethanol from the 
Midwest to the coasts, since ethanol can't be 
delivered cheaply through pipelines, but must be 
transported by truck, rail, or barge (Yacobucci 

The whole cellulosic ethanol enterprise falls 
apart if the energy returned is less than the 
energy invested or even one of the major 
stumbling blocks can't be overcome. If there 
isn't enough biomass, if the residues can't be 
stored without exploding or composting, if the 
oil to transport low-density residues to 
biorefineries or deliver the final product is too 
great, if no cheap enzymes or microbes are found 
to break down lignocellulose in wildly varying 
feedstocks, if the energy to clean up toxic 
byproducts is too expensive, or if organisms 
capable of tolerating high ethanol concentrations 
aren't found, if the barriers in Appendix A can't 
be overcome, then cellulosic fuels are not going 
to happen.

If the obstacles can be overcome, but we lose 
topsoil, deplete aquifers, poison the land, air, 
and water -- what kind of Faustian bargain is 

Scientists have been trying to solve these issues for over thirty years now.

Nevertheless, this is worthy of research money, 
but not public funds for commercial refineries 
until the issues above have been solved. This is 
the best hope we have for replacing the half 
million products made from and with fossil fuels, 
and for liquid transportation fuels when 
population falls to pre-coal levels.

Part 7. Where do we go from here?
Subsidies and Politics

How come there are over 116 ethanol plants with 
79 under construction and 200 more planned? The 
answer: subsidies and tax breaks.

Federal and state ethanol subsidies add up to 79 
cents per liter (McCain 2003), with most of that 
going to agribusiness, not farmers. There is also 
a tax break of 5.3 cents per gallon for ethanol 
(Wall Street Journal 2002). An additional 51 
cents per gallon goes mainly to the oil industry 
to get them to blend ethanol with gasoline.

In addition to the $8.4 billion per year 
subsidies for corn and ethanol production, the 
consumer pays an additional amount for any 
product with corn in it (Pollan 20005), beef, 
milk, and eggs, because corn diverted to ethanol 
raises the price of corn for the livestock 

Worst of all, the subsidies may never end, 
because Iowa plays a leading role in who's 
selected to be the next president. John McCain 
has softened his stand on ethanol (Birger 2006). 
All four senators in California and New York have 
pointed out that "ethanol subsidies are nothing 
but a way to funnel money to agribusiness and 
corn states at the expense of the rest of the 
country" (Washington Post 2002).

"Once we have a corn-based technology up and 
running the political system will protect it," 
said Lawrence J. Goldstein, a board member at the 
Energy Policy Research Foundation. "We cannot 
afford to have 15 billion gallons of corn-based 
ethanol in 2015, and that's exactly where we are 
headed" (Barrionuevo 2007).


Soil is the bedrock of civilization (Perlin 1991, 
Ponting 1993). Biofuels are not sustainable or 
renewable. Why would we destroy our topsoil, 
increase global warming, deplete and pollute 
groundwater, destroy fisheries, and use more 
energy than what's gained to make ethanol? Why 
would we do this to our children and 

Perhaps it's a combination of pork barrel 
politics, an uninformed public, short-sighted 
greedy agribusiness corporations, jobs for the 
Midwest, politicians getting too large a percent 
of their campaign money from agribusiness 
(Lavelle 2007), elected leaders without science 
degrees, and desperation to provide liquid 
transportation fuels (Bucknell 1981, Hirsch 2005).

But this madness puts our national security at 
risk. Destruction of topsoil and collateral 
damage to water, fisheries, and food production 
will result in less food to eat or sell for 
petroleum and natural gas imports. Diversion of 
precious dwindling energy and money to impossible 
solutions is a threat to our nations' future.

Fix the unsustainable and destructive aspects of 
industrial agriculture. At least some good would 
come out of the ethanol fiasco if more attention 
were paid to how we grow our food. The effects of 
soil erosion on crop production have been hidden 
by mechanization and intensive use of fossil fuel 
fertilizers and chemicals on crops bred to 
tolerate them. As energy declines, crop yields 
will decline as well.

Jobs. Since part of what's driving the ethanol 
insanity is job creation, divert the subsidies 
and pork barrel money to erosion control and 
sustainable agriculture. Maybe Iowa will emerge 
from its makeover looking like Provence, France, 
and volunteers won't be needed to hand out free 
coffee at rest areas along I-80.

Continue to fund cellulosic ethanol research, 
focusing on how to make 500,000 fossil-fuel-based 
products (i.e. medicine, chemicals, plastics, 
etc) and fuel for when population declines to 
pre-fossil fuel carrying capacity. The feedstock 
should be from a perennial, tall-grass prairie 
herbivore ecosystem, not food crops. But don't 
waste taxpayer money to build demonstration or 
commercial plants until most of the research and 
sustainability barriers have been solved.

California should not adopt the E10 ethanol blend 
for global warming bill AB 32. Biofuels are at 
best neutral and at worst contribute to global 
warming. A better early action item would be to 
favor low-emission vehicle sales and require all 
new cars to have energy efficient tires.

Take away the E85 loophole that allows Detroit 
automakers to ignore CAFE standards and get away 
with selling even more gas guzzling vehicles 
(Consumer Reports 2006). Raise the CAFE standards 
higher immediately.

There are better, easier ways to stretch out 
petroleum than adding ethanol to it. Just keeping 
tires inflated properly would save more energy 
than all the ethanol produced today. Reducing the 
maximum speed limit to 55, consumer driving tips, 
truck stop electrification, and many other 
measures can save far more fuel in a shorter time 
than biofuels ever will, far less destructively. 
Better yet, Americans can bike or walk, which 
will save energy used in the health care system.

Let's stop the subsidies and see if ethanol can fly.
Reform our non-sustainable agricultural system

* Give integrated pest management and organic agriculture research more funding

* The National Resources Conservation Service 
(NCRS) and other conservation agencies have done 
a superb job of lowering the erosion rate since 
the dustbowl of the 1930's. Give these agencies a 
larger budget to further the effort.

* To promote land stewardship, change taxes and 
zoning laws to favor small family farms. This 
will make possible the "social, economic, and 
environmental diversity necessary for 
agricultural and ecosystem stability" (Opie 2000).

* Make the land grant universities follow the 
directive of the Hatch Act of 1887 to improve the 
lives of family farmers. Stop funding 
agricultural mechanization and petrochemical 
research and start funding how to fight pests and 
disease with diverse crops, crop rotations, and 
so on (Hightower 1978).

* Don't allow construction of homes and 
businesses on prime farm land. * Integrate 
livestock into the crop rotation.

* Teach family farmers and suburban homeowners 
how to maximize food production in limited space 
with Rodale and Biointensive techniques.

* Since less than 1 percent of our elected 
leaders and their staff have scientific 
backgrounds, educate them in systems ecology, 
population ecology, soil, and climate science. So 
many of the important issues that face us need 
scientific understanding and judgment.

* Divert funding from new airports, roads, and 
other future senseless infrastructure towards 
research in solar, wind, and cellulosic products. 
We're at the peak of scientific knowledge and our 
economic system hasn't been knocked flat yet by 
energy shortages - if we don't do the research 
now, it may never happen.

It's not unreasonable to expect farmers to 
conserve the soil, since the fate of civilization 
lies in their hands. But we need to pay farmers 
for far more than the cost of growing food so 
they can afford to conserve the land. In an 
oil-less future, healthy topsoil will be our most 
important resource.

Responsible politicians need to tell Americans 
why their love affair with the car can't 
continue. Leaders need to make the public 
understand that there are limits to growth, and 
an increasing population leads to the "Tragedy of 
the Commons". Even if it means they won't be 
re-elected. Arguing this amidst the church of 
development that prevails this is like walking 
into a Bible-belt church and telling the 
congregation God doesn't exist, but it must be 

We are betting the farm on making cellulosic 
fuels work at a time when our energy and 
financial resources are diminishing. No matter 
how desperately we want to believe that human 
ingenuity will invent liquid or combustible fuels 
despite the laws of thermodynamics and how 
ecological systems actually work, the possibility 
of failure needs to be contemplated.

Living in the moment might be enlightenment for 
individuals, but for a nation, it's disastrous. 
Is there a Plan B if biofuels don't work? Coal is 
not an option. CO2 levels over 1,000 ppm could 
lead to the extinction of 95% of life on the 
planet (Lynas 2007, Ward 2006, Benton 2003).

Here we are, on the cusp of energy descent, with 
mechanized petrochemical farms. We import more 
farm products now than we sell abroad (Rohter 
2004). Suburban sprawl destroys millions of acres 
of prime farm land as population grows every 
year. We've gone from 7 million family farms to 2 
million much larger farms and destroyed a deeply 
satisfying rural way of life.

There need to be plans for de-mechanization of 
the farm economy if liquid fuels aren't found. 
There are less than four million horses, donkeys, 
and mules in America today. According to 
Bucknell, if the farm economy were de-mechanized, 
you'd need at least 31 million farm workers and 
61 million horses. (Bucknell 1981)

The population of the United States has grown 
over 25 percent since Bucknell published Energy 
and the National Defense. To de-mechanize now, 
we'd need 39 million farm workers and 76 million 
horses. The horsepower represented by just farm 
tractors alone is equal to 400 million horses. 
It's time to start increasing horse and oxen 
numbers, which will leave even less biomass for 

We need to transition from petroleum power to 
muscle power gracefully if we want to preserve 
democracy. Paul Roberts wonders whether the 
coming change will be "peaceful and orderly or 
chaotic and violent because we waited too long to 
begin planning for it" (Roberts 2004).

What is the carrying capacity of the nation? Is 
it 100 million (Pimentel 1991) or 250 million 
(Smil 2000)? Whatever carrying capacity is 
decided upon, pass legislation to drastically 
lower immigration and encourage one child 
families until America reaches this number. Or we 
can let resource wars, hunger, disease, extreme 
weather, rising oceans, and social chaos 
legislate the outcome.

Do you want to eat or drive? Even without growing 
food for biofuels, crop production per capita is 
going to go down as population keeps increasing, 
fossil fuel energy decreases, topsoil loss 
continues, and aquifers deplete, especially the 
Ogallala (Opie 2000). Where will the money come 
from to buy imported oil and natural gas if we 
don't have food to export?

There is no such thing as "waste" biomass. As we 
go down the energy ladder, plants will 
increasingly be needed to stabilize climate, 
provide food, medicine, shelter, furniture, heat, 
light, cooking fuel, clothing, etc.

Biofuels are a threat to the long-term national 
security of our nation. Is Dr. Strangelove in 
charge, with a plan to solve defense worries by 
creating a country that's such a salty polluted 
desert, no one would want to invade us? Why is 
Dr. Strangelove spending the last bits of energy 
in Uncle Sam's pocket on moonshine? Perhaps he's 
thinking that we're all going to need it, and the 
way things are going, he's probably right.

Department of Energy Biofuel Roadmap Barriers

This is a partial summary of biofuel barriers 
from Department of Energy. Unless otherwise 
footnoted, the problems with biomass fuel 
production are from the Multi Year Program Plan 
DOE Biomass Plan or Roadmap for Agriculture 
Biomass Feedstock Supply in the United States. 
(DOE Biomass Plan, DOE Feedstock Roadmap).

Resource and Sustainability Barriers

1) Biomass feedstock will ultimately be limited 
by finite amounts of land and water

2) Biomass production may not be sustainable 
because of impacts on soil compaction, erosion, 
carbon, and nutrition.

3) Nor is it clear that perennial energy crops 
are sustainable, since not enough is known about 
their water and fertilizer needs, harvesting 
impacts on the soil, etc.

4) Farmers are concerned about the long-term 
effects on soil, crop productivity, and the 
return on investment when collecting residues.

5) The effects of biomass feedstock production on 
water flows and water quality are unknown

6) The risks of impact on biodiversity and public lands haven't been assessed.

Economic Barriers (or Investors Aren't Stupid)

1) Biomass can't compete economically with fossil 
fuels in transportation, chemicals, or electrical 

2) There aren't any credible data on price, 
location, quality and quantity of biomass.

3) Genetically-modified energy crops worry 
investors because they may create risks to native 
populations of related species and affect the 
value of the grain.

4) Biomass is inherently more expensive than fossil fuel refineries because

a) Biomass is of such low density that it can't 
be transported over large distances economically. 
Yet analysis has shown that biorefineries need to 
be large to be economically attractive - it will 
be difficult to find enough biomass close to the 
refinery to be delivered economically.

b) Biomass feedstock amounts are unpredictable 
since unknown quantities will be lost to extreme 
weather, sold to non-biofuel businesses, rot or 
combust in storage, or by used by farmers to 
improve their soil.

c) Ethanol can't be delivered in pipelines due to 
likely water contamination. Delivery by truck, 
barge, and rail is more expensive. Ethanol is a 
hazardous commodity which adds to its 
transportation cost and handling.

d) Biomass varies so widely in physical and 
chemical composition, size, shape, moisture 
levels, and density that it's difficult and 
expensive to supply, store, and process.

e) The capital and operating costs are high to 
bale, stack, palletize, and transport residues

f) Biomass is more geographically dispersed, and 
in much more ecologically sensitive areas than 
fossil resources.

g) The synthesis gas produced has potentially 
higher levels of tars and particulates than 
fossil fuels.

h) Biomass plants can't benefit from the same 
large-scale cost savings of oil refineries 
because biomass is too dispersed and of low 

5) Consumers won't buy ethanol because it costs 
more than gasoline and contains 34% less energy 
per gallon. Consumer reports wrote they got the 
lowest fuel mileage in recent years from ethanol 
due to its low energy content compared to 
gasoline, effectively making ethanol $3.99 per 
gallon. Worse yet, automakers are getting 
fuel-economy credits for every E85 burning 
vehicle they sell, which lowers the overall 
mileage of auto fleets, which increases the 
amount of oil used and lessens energy 
independence. (Consumer Reports)

Equipment and Storage Barriers

1) There are no harvesting machines to harvest 
the wide range of residue from different crops, 
or to selectively harvest components of corn 

2) Current biomass harvesting and collection 
methods can't handle the many millions of tons of 
biomass that need to be collected.

3) How to store huge amounts of dry biomass hasn't been figured out.

4) No one knows how to store and handle vast 
quantities of different kinds of wet biomass. You 
can lose it all since it's prone to spoiling, 
rotting, and spontaneous combustion

Preprocessing Barriers

1) We don't even know what the optimum properties 
of biomass to produce biofuels are, let alone 
have instruments to measure these unknown 

2) Incoming biomass has impurities that have to 
be gotten out before grinding, compacting, and 
blending, or you may damage equipment and foul 
chemical and biological processes downstream.

3) Harvest season for crops can be so short that 
it will be difficult to find the time to harvest 
cellulosic biomass and pre-process and store a 
year of feedstock stably.

4) Cellulosic biomass needs to be pretreated so 
that it's easier for enzymes to break down. 
Biomass has evolved for hundreds of millions of 
years to avoid chemical and biological 
degradation. How to overcome this reluctance 
isn't well enough understood yet to design 
efficient and cost-effective pre-treatments.

5) Pretreatment reactors are made of expensive 
materials to resist acid and alkalis at high 
temperatures for long periods. Cheaper reactors 
or low acid/alkali biomass is needed.

6) To create value added products, ways to 
biologically, chemically, and mechanically split 
components off (fractionate) need to be figured 

7) Corn mash needs to be thoroughly sterilized 
before microorganisms are added, or a bad batch 
may ensue. Bad batches pollute waterways if 
improperly disposed of. (Patzek Dec 2006).

Cellulosic Ethanol Showstoppers

1) The enzymes used in cellulosic biomass production are too expensive.

2) An enzyme that breaks down cellulose must be 
found that isn't disabled by high heat or ethanol 
and other end-products, and other low cost 
enzymes for specific tasks in other processes are 
needed. 3) If these enzymes are found, then cheap 
methods to remove the

impurities generated are needed. Impurities like 
acids, phenols, alkalis, and salts inhibit 
fermentation and can poison chemical catalysts.

4) Catalysts for hydrogenation, hydrgenolysis, 
dehydration, upgrading pyrolysis oils, and 
oxidation steps are essential to succeeding in 
producing chemicals, materials, and 
transportation fuels. These catalysts must be 
cheap, long-lasting, work well in fouled 
environments, and be 90% selective.

5) Ethanol production needs major improvements in 
finding robust organisms that utilize all sugars 
efficiently in impure environments.

6) Key to making the process economic are cheap, 
efficient fermentation organisms that can produce 
chemicals and materials. Wald writes that the 
bacteria scientists are trying to tame come from 
the guts of termites, and they're much harder to 
domesticate than yeast was. Nor have we yet 
convinced "them to multiply inside the unfamiliar 
confines of a 2,000-gallon stainless-steel tank" 
or "control their activity in the 
industrial-scale quantities needed" (Wald 2007).

7) Efficient aerobic fermentation organisms to 
lower capital fermentation costs.

8) Fermentation organisms that can make 95% pure fermentation products.

9) Cheap ways of removing impurities generated in 
fermentation and other steps are essential since 
the costs now are far too high.


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