Why politics, not science, is driving the biofuels boom

Not only are biofuels an inefficient way to burn food, they could also lead to a future water crisis. So why is the US continuing to plough ahead with production?

Apparently, this week is World Water Week

That allows a gaggle of "experts" to take a nice trip to Stockholm on expenses and chat about water sustainability over plates of pickled herring.

Forgive my sarcasm, but I am always unsure as to what these events achieve, but one ofthe main items on the agenda has caught my eye and I salute the watery Swedes that organised this event, the 14th such symposium. Let's hope they make a stir.

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The experts will look at the impact of the expected mass production of biofuels such as ethanol for the automobile industry on future water scarcity.

According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, which organised the conference, agricultural demand for water will double by 2050 due largely to the anticipated needs of the biofuels sector.

So, not only are biofuels an energy inefficient way to burn food, but they could lead to a future water crisis. David Trouba, a spokesman for the Stockholm International Water Institute, put it very well. He asked: "Where will the water to grow the food needed to feed a growing population come from if more and more water is diverted to crops for biofuels production?'

It's not just been a bunch of bearded experts at a fringe conference that have been expressing concern over the impact of biofuels on future water supplies. It is starting to become a mainstream issue. Democratic senator Matt McCoy of Des Moine Iowa has been raising the issue.

The prospect of introducing laws to force ethanol facilities to recycle water has already been discussed.

'As it relates to water, I'm more concerned about the production of ethanol right now' said the Senator, 'That's got me very, very concerned.'

Iowa's 27 ethanol plants use groundwater from underground aquifers... these aquifers provide drinking water as it bubbles into streams

Of course, these companies have to have a license to pump the groundwater, but guess what, that license only costs $25 That's just three-and-a-half times what it costs to buy a bottle of Evian Water in Vancouver (I just still can't get over it!)

Biofuels: inefficient, wasteful and downright dumb

It takes around 4 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol using ethanol to power the average US car for one year would require a staggering 11 acres of farmland this works out to be the same area needed to grow a year's supply of food for seven people, according to David Pimentel a leading agricultural expert from Cornell University.

He also calculated that it needs 131,000 British thermal units (BTUs) of energy to make one gallon of ethanol.

One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77, 000 BTUs. This means that 70% more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in it. Every time you make a gallon of ethanol there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTUs.

So, ethanol as fuel does not make sense from an agricultural, water strategy or on an energy efficiency front. It is a massive white elephant.

However, it appears that certainly in places like Iowa the biofuels debate is being driven by politics and not science. Iowa is a relatively poor part of the US where unemployment is a problem.

State Senator David Johnson, who is also the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he will not support regulations on how ethanol facilities use water until he sees proof that Iowa's aquifers are in trouble.

'My concern is that we continue to find ways to revitalize rural Iowa and we've hit on something here with biofuels and renewable fuels,' Johnson said in an interview.

So with ethanol factories being a political way to try and regenerate rural areas in the US, maybe World Water Week should be held in Des Moines instead of Stockholm next year. But, as ever, politics will be in the driving seat; until it all goes wrong, of course.

By Garry White for his Garry Writes' newsletter. To find out more about his monthly newsletter, Outstanding Investments, which expands on his views and makes specific recommendations in the resource, infrastructure and biotech sectors, click here: Outstanding Investments