POSTED ON FEBRUARY 20, 2008:
Taking on the Times
Studies discredit biofuels role as an alternative energy source. But local producer begs to differ
Biofuels' Todd Stephens
Todd Stephens is "steaming" angry.
As co-founder of the newly open-for-business Tulsa Biofuels LLC, the up-and-coming biofuel baron said he's been seething since he read a recent New York Times article entitled "Studies Deem Biofuels a Greenhouse Threat."
As NYT writer Elisabeth Rosenthal reported, based on two recently published studies in the journal Science, biofuels aren't as "green" as previously believed, once the carbon footprint created by their production and transport is factored into the equation.
The studies in question examine the global emissions effect from the conversion of natural land into cropland to grow the corn and other crops used for biofuel.
First, the process of burning or plowing the natural vegetation to clear the way for cropland creates its own share of carbon emissions.
According to one of the studies, the clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas saved by the fuel annually grown on that land.
Also, once the land is cleared and the crops are planted, the biofuel crops themselves don't absorb nearly the amount of carbon as the rainforest or grassland cleared to make room for them.
Further, as the demand for biofuels grows, and for the corn from which to make it, people still need to eat and--from providing feed for beef cattle to high-fructose corn syrup for ketchup and almost everything else, corn is used in virtually every kind of food imaginable. So, more and more lands have to be cleared to grow the stuff to accommodate both markets.
Adding to the ever-expanding demand for cropland is the increased value of corn created by the biofuel market, which makes it less profitable for farmers to alternate crops. As a result, more lands have to be cleared to grow the soy previously grown in corn fields every other season.
And then, of course, once the corn is grown, harvested, and processed into vegetable oil, it has to be transported--usually by conventionally fueled trucks and ships.
"These plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they were burned was balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions--for refining and transport, for example," Rosenthal wrote.
Choose Your Poison
"That article really pissed me off," Stephens said. "It wasn't balanced at all. It was a chop job," he added.
"It made some very good points, but it also made some stretches," Stephens continued.
After a few minutes of venting, the irritated entrepreneur boiled his response down to three main points.
First, he said, "Paint a balanced picture: petroleum-based fuels are bad--way worse for the environment than biofuels."
Also, he emphasized that biofuels are renewable.
"Where is the discussion about biofuels being renewable? You can't grow more damn petroleum!" he said.
Secondly, Stephens conceded that "ethanol does kind of suck," explaining that the "energy exchange ratio is bad."
Ethanol, the most common variety of biofuel, he explained, only has a 1-to-1.2 energy input/output ration.
In other words, for every unit of energy that goes into producing ethanol, only 1.2 units are produced.
Biodiesel, on the other hand, (which is what Tulsa Biofuels makes) has a 1-to-3.5 input/output ratio.
Stephens said some of the criticisms leveled against ethanol production by the Times article are "definitely valid."
"When you go to Malaysia and India and destroy natural ecosystems and plant massive crops, you create a large monoculture, and that's horrible for biodiversity," he said.
Also, Stephens said, many purveyors of biofuels care more about getting the "green" from the growing market for biofuels than in actually being "green," so they'll transport massive amounts of vegetable oil across the ocean from places as far away as India, emitting as much greenhouse gas as what would have been created if their customers just stuck to fossil fuels in the first place.
"It doesn't matter what the carbon footprint is. They don't care about that. They just care about selling biofuels to people who are buying," he said.
As a member of the National Biodiesel Board, Stephens said he's been fighting against that practice among his fellow biofuel producers.
His third point is that not all biofuels are created equal, despite the Times' article's "sweeping" and "unbalanced" statements.
For instance, Stephens' company, Tulsa Biofuels, doesn't use corn grown specifically for the production of fuel, and so doesn't contribute to the loss of natural land, nor the greenhouse emissions from clearing it.
Instead, they use waste cooking oil from local restaurants and schools (for full details on the process, see "Running on Full Imagination" in the November 8-14 issue of UTW at www.urbantulsa.com).
Also, Stephens said they don't create any significant carbon footprint transporting the waste oil to their processing plant, since the company truck is fueled entirely from the biodiesel made at the plant.
Stephens' and his colleagues' personal vehicles are also fueled entirely from biodiesel.
He said he gives Rosenthal a "smidge" of credit for a one-sentence mention that attention should be turned to developing biofuels that don't require raising crops, such as the biodiesel created at Tulsa Biofuels.
Apart from that brief mention, Stephens said the article "focused on all of the negatives and none of the good" related to biofuels.
When asked if his criticism is aimed at Rosenthal or at the studies she cites in her article, Stephens said, "I think she might have cited the studies out of context, or used it to paint a picture it wasn't meant to paint."
However, he also acknowledged that he hasn't read the studies himself.
That might have something to do with Stephens not knowing what studies provided the basis for the article.
"She cites two studies and then neglects to name the studies, who paid for them, or what their parameters were. Sounds wobbly to me," he said.
"I wonder if these same studies took into account the amount of pollution produced by the massive off-shore drilling rigs, the huge oil extraction pipeline equipment used to withdraw petroleum fuels from the ground, not to mention the strip mining of coal and the emissions of the coal-fired power plants to power the refineries in the gulf that make this petroleum fuel?" Stephens said.
"Again--unbalanced and poorly-done life-cycle assessments," he added.
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