Are Biofuels a Cure or Disease?

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 included a biofuels mandate. Everyone, from the environmental community to President George W. Bush, has touted renewable biofuels as one of the answers to America's reliance on foreign oil sources. But now, some are asking if biofuels are really a cure or if they actually represent a new problem.

One of the organizations, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association (NPRA), has suggested that biofuels might not be the panacea some claim they are. Its Executive Vice President, Charles T. Drevna, has pointed to three new reports from the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), FarmEcon and the Chesapeake Bay Commission that cast doubt upon whether increasing the biofuel mandate established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 is necessary, or even wise, given its potential impact on food prices and the reported negligible environmental benefits resulting from ethanol's production, distribution and use.

"[Experts] have cautioned policymakers against relying heavily on biofuels to achieve the two goals of enhancing energy security and improving our environmental quality," Drevna said. "The new reports from the OECD, FarmEcon and the Chesapeake Bay Commission really tell the rest of the story when it comes to the biofuel mandate and its negative consequences."

The OECD report asks the basic question, "is the cure worse than the disease," and discusses the potential "food-versus-fuel" debate. FarmEcon says that the cost increases associated with ethanol subsidies are already showing up "in the prices of meat, poultry, dairy, bread, cereals and many other products made from grains and soybeans." Finally, the Chesapeake Bay Commission warns that "biofuels could lead to shifts in crop patterns and acreages that create an uncertain future for farmers and foresters and seriously worsen the overload of nutrients to our rivers and the Bay" if handled incorrectly.

In its recent report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted: "In theory, there might be enough land available around the globe to feed an ever-increasing world population and produce sufficient biomass feedstock simultaneously, but it is more likely that land-use constraints will limit the amount of new land that can be brought into production leading to a 'food-versus-fuel' debate."

In an article by Dr. Thomas Elam, FarmEcon reported, "Nearly all of the world's current grain supply would be needed to fuel the U.S. gasoline-powered vehicle fleet, leaving almost nothing for world food needs. Put another way, each one percent of the U.S. gasoline supply that is replaced by ethanol uses almost one percent of our current global grain production. Clearly, the global demand for food places a severe limit on the feasibility of using grain supplies for producing a large percentage of U.S. motor fuels."

"We strongly urge policymakers to consider these consequences as they debate increasing the federal biofuels mandate in pending or future energy legislation," Drevna concluded.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and la condition humaine from his home in Villeperce, France. He eats virtually every day.