Thursday, February 10, 2005

Like Easter Island, only with cars

When European sailors first reached the shores of Easter Island in the middle of the Pacific, all they saw were a huge expanse of grass and some curious stone statues. The people who had once lived there were long gone. The sailors wondered how such massive pieces of stone could have been moved and placed upright without the use of timbers as levers. They correctly deduced that the island had once had trees. Much later, archeologists discovered that all of the trees had been felled for fuel and buildings and to clear land for agriculture, and that after the last tree was gone, the people who lived there eventually perished in a final frenzy of cannibalism.

Now a modern wise man, a university scientist, seems to have recaptured the spirit of Easter Island. He has given us the latest way to use trees: to make ethanol. It's touted as a renewable fuel; but presumably, if we had to fuel America's fleet of SUVs and minivans with trees, our landscape would start to resemble that of the ill-fated Pacific island.

Now, let me pause here to say something: "STOP WITH THE BIOFUELS, ALREADY!" First, many crops, such as the corn used to make ethanol, require huge petroleum and natural gas inputs in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and fuel for machinery. There is simply no net energy gained by fermenting corn grown this way to make ethanol. (And don't tell me you are going to grow organic corn for this purpose!) Second, please note at the bottom of the linked article that the remaining wood fiber is burned. When you ferment and/or burn biofuels, you produce carbon dioxide. I am certain we already have enough of that particular greenhouse gas. Third, the way we manage forests for wood products in NOT sustainable in the least.

Yes, this new process may be a way to get more product out of trees and to use materials that might otherwise be wasted. But, it's not a solution to anything except to increasing the profits of forestry and chemical giants. Biofuels are not the answer to our transportation fuel needs. Instead, if we're not careful, they could become part of the problem.

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3 comments:

monkeygrinder said...

I think you are right on target here.

Even if it were plausible that EROEI were to make it possible to pump trees into hummers, that completely ignores the fact that we need to start LOCKING UP all the free carbon in the oceans and atmosphere that we "freed" over the previous one hundred years.

Kind of like moving a pile of dirt across the yard.

j&c said...

In general, I agree that most biodiesel is a waste of time and money and energy.

There is one source that may be worth it, however. There is a tree, jatropha, whose seeds produce biodiesel fuel and whose seeds' byproducts can be used for other purposes, such as animal feed. The trees themselves do not have to be harvested, only the seeds.

The only disadvantage to jatropha is that the energy ratio is only 1.5 (output/input). Even so, it may have a place in some countries.

http://www.socialtext.net/brightgreen/index.cgi?jatropha

Justin said...

Your overview of Easter Island is incorrect. The inhabitants were present when the Dutch first discovered the island and are still there today.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_island