Are Bio-Fuels a “Green” Solution to Minnesota’s Energy Woes?


The rising price of gasoline is fueling a political debate about ethanol and bio-diesel.

Is ethanol a simple solution to Minnesota’s energy problems?

This Grist article points out that foreign producers of ethanol have the edge over Minnesota corn growers. We are more likely to be burning cheap, imported ethanol from Brazil than subsidized ethanol from Minnesota .

Ethanol distilleries cannot be located in many corn-growing regions that are dependant on underground aquifers. Ethanol factories use a lot of water, as much as 500 gallons a minute.

The production of corn causes topsoil erosion and pesticide contamination. Growing, transporting and distilling corn into ethanol is done for the most part with fossil fuels. The energy efficiency of corn-produced ethanol is not very good and a source of controversy.

Ethanol factories pollute the air with harmful chemicals.

George Monbiot has written several columns on bio-fuels. In his most recent, he suggests that bio-diesel may actually be more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels. He quotes a Friends of the Earth Report that documents the destruction of habitats caused by palm-oil plantations, a growing source of bio-diesel:

“Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orang-utan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist(9). The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.”

Minnesota imports a great deal of fossil fuels. Finite supplies of petroleum and natural gas are diminishing. Foreign sources of petroleum are uncertain as they face a growing threat of war and political instability. Global warming is another serious problem caused by burning fossil fuels.

Ethanol should have a place in the energy policy debate, but ethanol is not an environmentally friendly, magic bullet for dependence on fossil fuels or global warming.