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Biofuels pros and cons reach far beyond simple questions related to the environment. On one hand, they come from renewable sources, unlike finite fossil fuels. However, economic concerns — like high production costs and potential impacts on world hunger — remain key sources of controversy.
Before further examining opposing viewpoints, let’s consider the basics. The term “biofuel” describes any fuel derived from plants, algae, or animal waste. Two simple examples: wood and grass. Power plans increasingly burn these — alongside, or instead of, fossil fuels — to generate electricity.
Other more common, and more complex, types of biofuels include:
- Ethanol: an alcohol produced by fermenting sugars from plants, typically corn or sugarcane
- Biodiesel: an additive to petroleum diesel that’s derived from fat, like vegetable oil, animal fat, and recycled cooking grease
- Renewable diesel: an alternative to petroleum diesel, derived from fat or organic waste
- Biomethane: produced by capturing and refining gases emitted by landfills, agricultural waste, animal manure, wastewater, and other sources
The US mainly considers biofuels as transportation fuel, given the “vast infrastructure already in place to use them,” Encyclopedia Britannica notes.
That said, let’s now dive deeper into biofuels pros and cons, beginning with the pros.
First, biomass generates biofuels as an inexhaustible and renewable resource. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, biomass encompasses “all the Earth’s vegetation and many products and coproducts that come from it.” Domestic biomass sources — like agricultural residue and industrial waste — are renewable as long as they’re managed properly. In contrast, the earth’s fossil fuel reserves (including coal, oil, natural gas, and petroleum) developed over millions of years and are finite.
Secondly, biofuel production may help reduce carbon dioxide emissions — the leading cause of global climate change. Proponents believe that biofuel production is carbon neutral. Energy crops, like corn, pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When they’re burned to produce biofuel, they reintroduce that existing carbon. Therefore, advocates believe that increasing biofuel usage could lessen the world’s reliance on fossil fuels — which release CO2 previously trapped in the earth’s core.
Lastly, biofuels can be made domestically. This can create jobs quickly and lift economies out of recession. Domestic production also allows countries with little or no access to fossil fuel reserves or refining capabilities to lessen their dependence on fossil fuel-rich countries.
Biofuels present drawbacks as well.
First, some fossil fuels are more efficient power sources. The energy content of ethanol is 33 percent lower than regular gasoline, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. Biodiesel’s energy content is about 7 percent lower than traditional diesel fuel.
Secondly, biofuels haven’t proven their worth in relation to production costs. The most controversial example: ethanol produced from corn. “… the process of growing corn to produce ethanol consumes fossil fuels in farming equipment, in fertilizer manufacturing, in corn transportation, and in ethanol distillation,” Encyclopedia Britannica explains. “In this respect, ethanol made from corn represents a relatively small energy gain.”
Additionally, some biofuel production techniques harm the environment. While racing to increase production, populations around the world have razed forests and disrupted agriculture. “As [US] farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat, and polluted water supplies,” the Associated Press observed.
Lastly, critics have long warned that shifting agricultural resources from food to energy production raises food prices. Economists largely agree, noting that poor populations in developing countries suffer the most.
Biofuels Pros and Cons: Where Both Sides Stand
At the federal level, Republicans and Democrats have turned to biofuels at times of crisis. For example, a Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992 after the Gulf War launched a global energy crisis. This boosted energy efficiency standards and adoption of alternative fuels, including biofuels and domestically produced natural gas.
Gas prices soared again in 2000, as electricity shortages hit California and the Northwest. Republican President George W. Bush incentivized the use of alternative fuel to decrease dependence on foreign oil, reduce gas emissions, and spur rural economic development. The government drove the US to become the world’s largest ethanol producer in 2005.
Former Democratic President Barack Obama continued the push for biofuel. Although his 2015 Clean Power Plan — which set the nation’s first limits on CO2 emissions from power plants — better defines his climate legacy.
In contrast, Republican President Trump championed a coal industry revival. Under his watch, the EPA sharply increased biofuel waivers for oil refiners — enraging Midwestern corn growers.
Finally, under Democratic Joe Biden, the EPA reversed course, backing the ethanol industry. Although, his clean energy agenda largely centers on modernizing the country’s electric power plants and increasing electric car use.