Aletho News


Biofuel Delusions

Thomas Freidman’s Folly

By ROBERT BRYCE | December 31, 2010

Debunking the tsunami of hype about biofuels doesn’t require much. A standard calculator will do. Alas, Thomas Friedman can’t be bothered to do the handful of simple calculations that prove the futility of the biofuels madness.

In a recent piece, the New York Times columnist and best-selling author praised the Navy and Marines for, as he put it “building a strategy for ‘out-greening’ Al Qaeda, ‘out-greening’ the Taliban and ‘out-greening’ the world’s petro-dictators.”

Hmm. I’ve never heard of Taliban fighters using tanks or F-15s. And if Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda operatives are worrying about the size of their carbon footprints, that revelation might eclipse the latest news about Lady Gaga – at least for a few hours.

Nevertheless, Friedman reports that the military is planning to “run its ships on nuclear energy, biofuels and hybrid engines, and fly its jets with bio-fuels.” Friedman goes on to say that the brass at the Pentagon is only pursuing “third generation” biofuels made from algae and non-food sources. But here’s the reality: the commercial viability of advanced biofuels is a lot like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy: lots of people believe in it but no one ever sees it.

To be sure, the logisticians at the Pentagon know that the US military’s profligate use of oil on the battlefield is a strategic liability. And while it’s obvious that the Defense Department could – given its nearly $700 billion in annual spending — make significant contributions in the development of new energy technologies, those advances are unlikely to happen on the biofuels front.

For decades, various pundits have been proclaiming that biofuels will displace our need for oil. Back in 1976, energy analyst Amory Lovins, a darling of the Green/Left, wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which he said that there are “exciting developments in the conversion of agricultural, forestry and urban wastes to methanol and other liquid and gaseous fuels.” He went on, saying that those fuels “now offer practical, economically interesting technologies sufficient to run an efficient U.S. transport sector.”

Today, 34 years after Lovins said that biofuels “now offer” the ability to run the transport sector, biofuels remain little more than a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars. According to the Congressional Budget Office, producing enough corn ethanol to match the energy contained in a single gallon of conventional gasoline costs taxpayers $1.78. Even with those subsidies, which total about $7 billion per year, corn ethanol still only provides about 3 percent of America’s oil needs. And by mandating the consumption of ethanol, Congress has created an industry that now gobbles up about one-third of America’s corn crop.

Those numbers are germane to Friedman’s claim that biofuels will be an essential part of the DOD’s new “green” future. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist lauded the Navy for its experiments with jet fuel derived from camellina, a plant in the mustard family. In April, the Navy flew an F-18 using a mixture of conventional jet fuel and camellina-based fuel. The cost of that biofuel: about $67.50 per gallon.

The fundamental problem with using plants to make liquid motor fuel isn’t want-to, it’s physics. We pump oil out of the earth because of its high energy density. That is it contains lots of stored chemical energy by both weight and volume. Camellina, like switchgrass, and nearly every other plant-based feedstock now being considered for “advanced” biofuel production, has low energy density. Thus, in order to produce a significant quantity of liquid fuels that have high energy density – such as jet fuel, diesel, or gasoline — from those plants, you need Bunyanesque quantities of the stuff.

Friedman would have understood that had he done a bit of math on soybean-based biodiesel. The US produces about 3.2 billion bushels of soybeans per year and each bushel can be processed into about 1.5 gallons of biodiesel. Thus, if it made sense to do so, we could convert all US soybean production into diesel with total output of about 4.8 billion gallons.

How much fuel is that? By Pentagon standards, it’s not much. In 2008, the DOD consumed 132.5 million barrels of oil products, or about 5.5 billion gallons. Put another way, even if the US decided to convert  all of its soybean production into motor fuel, doing so would only provide about 87 percent of the Pentagon’s total oil needs.

Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School who has written extensively about the problems with biofuels, says that biofuels don’t make much sense because it “takes a huge amount of land to produce a modest amount of energy.” The key issue, says Searchinger, is scale. He points out that even if we used “every piece of wood on the planet, every piece of grass eaten by livestock, and all food crops, that much biomass could only provide about 30 percent of the world’s total energy needs.”

Some crops can provide a relatively good feedstock for biofuels. For instance, Brazil utilizes sugar cane to produce ethanol. (Brazil is the world’s second-largest ethanol producer, behind the US.) But even if  the US military commandeered all of Brazil’s ethanol production — which totaled 6.5 billion gallons in 2008 – that volume of energy still wouldn’t be enough to keep the Pentagon’s planes, trucks, and tanks moving. Recall that ethanol contains just two-thirds of the heat energy of gasoline. Therefore Brazil’s 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol is equal to 4.3 billion gallons of refined oil product, far less than the US military’s consumption of 5.5 billion gallons per year.

Going beyond Brazil, biomass-based fuels may be worthwhile on tropical islands, like Hawaii, that have lots of rainfall and plenty of arable land. Furthermore, fuels derived from photosynthetic algae might – repeat, might – someday become commercial.

Friedman ended his column by saying that “we might really get a green revolution in the military.” Sure, that’s a possibility. But before Friedman writes another article about the promise of biofuels he should invest in a calculator.


December 31, 2010 - Posted by | Deception, Economics, Mainstream Media, Warmongering | , , , , ,


  1. Biofuels are real. They can be produced from just about any carbon material.

    Clearing our last forests to make fuel is insane.

    Our forests produce massive amounts of unused carbon matter every year that may be chared for fertilizer & the gas turned to
    liquid fuel.

    Algae fules are real & so are ocean forests
    of kelp farms & algae possible.


    Comment by kim | January 1, 2011

  2. nobody rational is proposing to clear forests for fuel. that’s simply false.

    The fallen dead forest fire material is a substantial valuable resource for fuel & char.


    Comment by kim | January 1, 2011

    • Biomass electrical generating plants in current use require one semi-load of wood chips every 6 minutes. Anyone claiming that that volume of supply is filled by environmentalists gathering fallen branches is obviously a liar.

      Secondly, even if that absurd claim were possible, fallen “dead” forest matter is what provides nutrients for ferns, mosses and other water retentive ground cover which in fact reduces forest susceptibility to fire. It only takes a year or two for wood on the ground to decay to the point of being a poor fire accelerant.

      Furthermore, all of this “dead” wood and undergrowth is essential for future generations of forest as well as biodiversity.


      Comment by aletho | January 1, 2011

  3. In the northeast USA it’s illegal to use
    good trees for chip for burners.

    It’s only limbs, chip bark, fallen material.
    You are way off base on your theory……..


    Comment by kim | January 1, 2011

    • Prove it.

      Where are your sources?

      I have not presented a “theory” but rather basic ecological facts that are accepted by biologists worldwide and which have been understood by farmers for over ten thousand years.


      Comment by aletho | January 1, 2011

  4. a managed forest is better & more productive than mismanaged forest and can sustain the forest floor & produce fuel. this is undisputed by foresters…….


    Comment by kim | January 1, 2011

    • kim,

      You are repeating the false claims of those who promote logging of public lands.

      Primeval or natural old growth forests are widely known to be less prone to catastrophic fires because the mature high canopy shades the understory and naturally restricts the build up of fuel near the ground level where fire frequents. Any honest forester will concur.

      As to “productive”, well perhaps you can get more board feet of crappy second growth wood of inferior species per decade from a plantation forest but you need to also factor the actual value of that product which rots in ten years. You also need to consider that the plantation forest has no biodiversity.

      Any forest which is “managed” can be shown to be mis-managed.


      Comment by aletho | January 1, 2011


    * Enhanced stewardship and conservation measures

    * Biomass must be certified to have been collected and harvested only with an approved conservation, forest stewardship, or similar plan to protect soil and water quality and preserve land productivity into the future.

    * Harvesting must occur with an approved harvest plan.

    * BCAP project areas cannot occur on native sod.

    * All crop collection, harvesting and transportation must be in strict accordance with invasive plant species protections.


    Comment by kim | January 3, 2011

    • Certification?

      Who will be the certifier?

      Once the plants are built the feeding must go on. Forests will be cleared in an ever expanding radius around the plants.

      Have you not ever seen a coal train? Car after car after car. And coal is a vastly more concentrated energy source than chipped wood.

      The linked USDA guidelines are a complete fantasy. One would be less naive to believe in Santa Claus.

      And all of this is for what?

      “to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil, improve domestic energy security”

      In other words we will see the utter and complete devastation of our environment so that the Zionist occupied government can start a war in the Persian gulf. That’s what the driving agenda is.


      I once lived on a large tract of forest in the urban/wildland interface. We had a fire scare in the region and were advised to remove branches from the forest floor to protect our homes. I did so.

      The very next heavy rains washed away the matted leaf debris which holds moisture in the ground and provides mulch nutrients. Ferns and trillium which live on decaying wood disappeared. Even the hardy succulents died as the environment became less moderated. The sun would reflect off of the barren rocks and dry everything without deep roots. Finally, even the trees succumbed to disease. Probably a result of deprivation of nutrients. Highly flammable brush took over where once a humid lush forest floor had existed.

      At that point I restored branches to the ground and spread fireplace ashes as a fertilizer. It took a decade but the cool damp forest floor came back.

      I have also lived around logging operations. Slash piles are left behind after an area is logged. When the weather conditions are appropriate the loggers return and burn the slash. The ash from the slash is essential for the regeneration of the forest. Bark is left to rot. This also is essential. Without detritus a logged area would turn into a mineral desert, eroded by rains down to the bare bedrock. I have seen this myself also.

      This fantasy that you have linked to above can never be. There is simply no way to achieve it. It is entirely impossible on every level.


      Comment by aletho | January 3, 2011

  6. Actually there are serious proposals to chip up and burn the old growth pinyon/juniper forests of the Great Basin in Nevada. Senator Harry Reid supports this. His son Rory brought it up in the recent gubernatorial debate there, I am glad he lost, by the way.

    Check it out here:


    Comment by william mcdonald | January 25, 2011

    • Thanks for the link William. I’m re-posting the article here at Aletho News.

      Clear-cutting Pinon is clearly insane.


      Comment by aletho | January 25, 2011


    Forests into Fuel: Promise and Limits of Biomass in the Northeast
    By The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Communications Office | February 24, 2011
    Millbrook, NY, USA — Forest biomass could replace as much as one quarter of the liquid fossil fuel now being used for industrial and commercial heating in the Northeastern United States. That’s according to a new report released last week by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

    But the report, Forest Biomass and Bioenergy: Opportunities and Constraints in the Northeastern United States, also has sharp caveats: The potential for forest biomass varies widely within the region, and forest resources must be carefully managed to protect the other important services and goods they provide. Under the right circumstances, however, the report found that forest biomass can provide a domestic energy resource, create local jobs, and provide incentives to forest owners.

    “In targeted applications, the heat generated by locally-grown biomass can reduce dependence on fossil fuels and support local economies,” said Dr. Charles D. Canham, a forest ecologist at the Cary Institute and co-author of the report. “But each forested landscape is different, and regional variation in forest conditions and energy infrastructure means there is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

    The report analyzed U.S.D.A. Forest Service Forest data from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

    It found that using forest biomass for heat in the region was far more effective in replacing liquid fossil fuels than converting it to cellulosic ethanol for road transport. Biomass burned in combined heat and power plants reduced fossil fuel use more than five times more effectively than substituting gasoline with cellulosic ethanol.

    Under best-case scenarios, however, the energy generated sustainably from forest biomass in the Northeast could replace only 1.4% of the region’s total fossil fuel energy. But for some states, biomass energy could be much more compelling when replacing fossil fuel use in certain sectors.

    “Maine and New Hampshire show the greatest potential for forest biomass energy,” said Dr. Thomas Buchholz, a researcher at the University of Vermont’s Carbon Dynamics Lab and co-author on the report. “Our study found that New Hampshire could replace as much as 84 percent of its liquid fossil fuel dependence in the industrial and commercial heating sector, and Maine could replace 49 percent of its liquid fossil fuel dependence in the home-heating sector.”

    But the report cautioned that utmost care must be observed in all parts of the region.

    “There is a misconception that Northeastern forestland is a vast, untapped resource,” Canham commented. “This is simply not true. Unrealistic growth in biomass energy facilities could lead to serious degradation of forest resources. While forest biomass is part of the renewable energy toolkit, it is by no means a panacea.”

    “Forest biomass can be an important element of a low-carbon energy future,” added contributing author Dr. Steven Hamburg of Environmental Defense Fund. “But we’ll need ongoing scientific oversight to ensure it is done sustainably.

    The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is a private, not-for-profit environmental research and education organization in Millbrook, N.Y. For more than twenty-five years, Cary Institute scientists have been investigating the complex interactions that govern the natural world. Their objective findings lead to more effective policy decisions and increased environmental literacy. Focal areas include air and water pollution, climate change, invasive species, and the ecological dimensions of infectious disease.

    Copyright © 1999-2011
    All rights reserved.


    Comment by kim | February 26, 2011

    • Oddly, the synopsis of the report from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies does not touch on habitat loss and ecosystems.

      Forest resources should be conserved for local exploitation. Chain saws do enough damage, once you introduce mechanized harvesting you are without any doubt engaging in environmental devastation.

      The threat is major:

      America’s forests to be ground up for European biofuel mandates

      By John Davis – February 23rd, 2011

      An American maker of wood pellets has acquired a deep water port, and that should help the company receive, store and load more than 3 million tons of woody biomass for export each year.

      Biomass Magazine reports that Enviva LP will expand its shipping capacity with the deep water port terminal in Chesapeake, Virginia:

      The location is one of a few on the Eastern Seaboard suitable for the export of wood pellets and will serve as the shipment point for pellets manufactured at Enviva’s recently announced plant in nearby Ahoskie, N.C. The new plant will produce 330,000 tons of wood pellets annually from more than 600,000 tons of raw supplies, according to Enviva.

      The Chesapeake port is Enviva’s second and the company will continue to ship pellets made at its Gulf region plants from its Mobile, Ala., port. The Virginia terminal was formerly owned by Giant Cement Co., which will continue to use a portion of it for cement sales. Expansion of the terminal will require 40 to 60 skilled workers and contractors during the initial phase of construction, and its permanent staff of 12 is expected to double by the third year of operation. Upgrades are expected to be complete in November, coinciding with pellet production at the new Ahoskie facility, according to Enviva.

      “The Chesapeake region has for a long time been a key nexus of international trade in the United States,” said Enviva CEO John Keppler. “We are particularly excited to be one of the first green economy manufacturers to rebalance the flow of trade in favor of exports from this port in Virginia.” The company said the terminal purchase is a reflection of its commitment to ensuring the safety, reliability, sustainability and quality of its product. It also allows the company to better satisfy growing overseas demand for wood pellets.

      The port will be able to handle ships with more than 44,000 tons of Enviva pellets on board. Most of Enviva’s customers are in Europe, but the company has been expanding its U.S. base.


      Comment by aletho | February 26, 2011

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.