On the Inefficient Road Again

     BioWillie. Its not a genetically modified country singer; its a new alternative fuel. And as the media have reported on Willie Nelsons crop-based energy business venture, some journalists have been caught up in his celebrity and overlooked the fuels problems.

     American Morning reporter Carol Costello fueled interest in Nelsons new endeavor on the December 30 CNN show: Willie Nelson, he's got a brand new career. Now hes selling fuel. Hes making biofuel; its made from any number of crops. She continued, Nelson says it not only helps the farmers but it is an anti-war statement. Miles OBrien then said, wed have to invade Nebraska, to get the corn, right? and both anchors had a hearty laugh.

     Three days later Today on NBC ran a segment on BioWillie. It can keep us from being so dependent on energy from around the world, which weve got to do that, Nelson said. The only other person interviewed was Tim Guiterman, the biodiesel director at the University of Colorado. He said that biofuels work in any diesel engine. The engines need no modification. Its accessible, its affordable, its available.

     But that rosy picture isnt the whole story of biofuels. Danny Hakim of The New York Times wrote an article about BioWillie on December 30, titled His Car Smelling Like French Fries, Willie Nelson Sells Biodiesel. Unlike CNN and NBC, Hakim included the shortcomings of biofuel. Though advocates claim that it reduces smog-forming emissions, it generates more nitrogen oxide, which creates ozone smog.

     Hakim also stated that biofuels could not be produced in vast enough quantities to supplant oil-based fuel, or come close to it, unless the nation starts turning the suburbs over to farmland.

     Environmentalist George Monbiot described this in greater detail in the Guardian. He lamented that By promoting biodiesel as a substitute, we have missed the fact that it is worse than the fossil-fuel burning it replaces. This is in part due to deforestation that occurs from farming. From 1985 to 2000, oil-palm plantations used for biofuels caused approximately 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia.

     Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute noted another problem with ethanol. He quoted former CIA Director R. James Woolseys congressional testimony. If ethanol is produced from corn, Woolsey said, it takes about seven gallons of oil to produce eight of ethanol. The Oregonian also reported on the inefficiency of producing biofuels. Tad Padzek from the University of California and David Pimentel of Cornell University found that growing corn, soybeans or other plants and converting them into bio-fuels can use more energy than the bio-ethanol or bio-diesel generates.

     Willie Nelson claims that his fuel yields better gas mileage, but that is not necessarily the case. Catos Reynolds explained that ethanol is impractical to produce, and it is not fuel-efficient. With fuel that is 85 percent ethanol, Dodge Stratus mileage drops 20 to 15 mpg in the city, and from 28 to 20 on the highway. Likewise, a Ford Explorer goes from 16 to 12 and 21 to 16 for city and highway mpg, respectively.

     Even the Sierra Club isnt sold on the idea. Daniel Becker, its top global warming expert, said, In order to grow soybeans, you need multiple passes over the field with diesel tractors, you need a lot of fertilizer thats energy intensive to produce and, at the end of the day, you have a product that is no boon for the environment. He continued in the New York Times article: If youre going to go to the trouble of using an alternative fuel, use a good alternative fuel. If you really want to listen to Willie Nelson, go buy one of his records and play it in a hybrid.

     When the Sierra Club and Cato agree that an environmental policy is bad, that should tell us something.