Biofuels mandate: a renewable road to ruin

“A decade ago, the U.S. mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, leading to industrial-scale deforestation — and a huge spike in carbon emissions.” A New York Times/ProPublica investigation by Abrahm Lustgarten. Excerpt:

In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.

The tropical rain forests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon.


  • Back in the 1980s, I recall biofuels being sold not as an environmentalist measure, but rather as an alternative to dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East.

  • A release of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere may ultimately provide benefits, given the possibility of improved agricultural productivity and increased habitability of high-latitude regions. Such talk of course is forbidden, on pain of being cast into the category of denialist crank or industry shill. What’s not beneficial is the impact on food prices and world hunger in the here-and-now.

    Every 5 to 10 years there’s a burst of public concern about the impact upon the poor of putting food in our fuel tanks. Then it’s forgotten, only to arise later, as if it had never been thought of before.

    Do you remember 25 years or so ago, how Mobil was pilloried in the press for pointing out that, net of fertilizer application and other energy-intensive inputs, growing corn to produce motor fuel additives actually increased fossil fuel emissions? That established the current paradigm: nowadays, environmentalism is simply something to make money off of, and no industry executive is going to risk being accused of “hate speech” or “tampering with our democracy” through ill-considered efforts to educate the public.