New research raises concern on biofuel safety

Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters
Workers prepare to pump crude palm oil at a biodiesel plant in Ipoh, north of Kuala Lumpur. New research suggests that some biofuels are less ecofriendly than they seem. Another concern, expressed by non-governmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Oxfam, is that government-subsidized large-scale production of biofuels could increase food prices. For many of southeast Asia's struggling biofuel makers, the industry has been brought to a standstill with a surge in palm oil prices.

Creating fuel from plants seems like a win-win proposition. It reduces dependence on foreign oil, and it doesn't produce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming – at least that's what advocates claim. But biofuels are not without their critics.

Some recent research suggests bio fuels could have a greater environmental impact – biodiversity loss, destruction of farmland, and the energy necessary to produce them, for example – than burning fossil fuels, reports The Guardian, a British daily.

"… [A]lmost half of the biofuels, a total of 12, had greater total environmental impacts than fossil fuels. These included economically-significant fuels such as US corn ethanol, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and soy diesel, and Malaysian palm-oil diesel." Because of the questions raised over biofuel safety, the European Union is working on a proposal to ban some imported biofuels believed to do more harm than good. The International Herald Tribune reports in its environment blog: "The idea is to refuse imports of fuels made from raw materials grown in forests, grasslands or wetlands that were recently cleared. The EU also wants biofuels used in Europe to deliver at least a minimal reduction in greenhouse gases compared to conventional gasoline and diesel."

Another concern, expressed by non-governmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Oxfam, is that government-subsidized large-scale production of biofuels could increase food prices in developing countries. In a recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Joachim von Braun writes:

"… In general, subsidies for biofuels that use agricultural production resources are extremely anti-poor because they implicitly act as a tax on basic food, which represents a large share of poor people's consumption expenditures and becomes even more costly as prices increase…. The trade-offs between food and fuel will actually be accelerated when biofuels become more competitive relative to food and when, consequently, more land, water, and capital are diverted to biofuel production."

Such concerns have led researchers and businesses to look for more earth- and people-friendly biofuels. Businessweek reports that General Motors is investing in Coskata, an Illinois company that claims to have found a process to make a better kind of ethanol.

"GM and Coskata say that the company's highly efficient methods for making ethanol can take away many of the problems that have kept the fuel on the back burner. First, they plan to use agricultural waste and household garbage to make ethanol, which means fuel production wouldn't push food prices up. And second, Coskata claims its production will be so efficient that it won't give back all the oil savings just making the stuff."

That's none too soon for some parts of the country pressing ahead to mandate ethanol as part of the fuel mix. Starting this week, Oregon state law requires that all gasoline retailers in counties around Portland pump fuel with 10 percent ethanol, or E10. The Oregonian reports:

"By fall, all gas stations in Oregon must sell the blend. Just a handful of states demand the use of ethanol, and Oregon officials trumpet the transition as proof of the state's green ambitions."
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