Driving extinction: The case against biofuel subsidies

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The dinosaur- and tree-fern-filled swamps of the Carboniferous period, which lasted from about 360 to 300 million years ago, bequeathed us the massive oil and gas deposits that fuel modern industrial society. 

A major oil company once ran a clever cartoon ad showing a dinosaur transforming into black gooey oil, which was sucked out of the ground and pumped into a car.

With a growing shortage of partly decayed Carboniferous dinosaurs and tree ferns, we are now devoting ever-increasing percentages of our current landscapes to automobile fuel production. Picture this: woodlots, hedgerows, birds and butterflies replaced by endless fields of corn, which is harvested, refined to ethanol, and mixed with the gasoline provided by your local filling station.

You probably won't see a cartoon ad showing this. 

The majestic Monarch butterfly is rapidly heading for extinction, as diverse farm landscapes morph into pesticide-saturated industrial monocultures. Don't blame farmers -- they're simply responding to higher corn prices.

Logic says bioethanol is a fool's game. Carboniferous oil and gas deposits that were the result of millions of years of photosynthesis can't be replaced by annual growth of corn. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has concluded that even under the most "optimistic" scenario, biofuels could provide only 17 per cent of the world's transportation fuel needs.

But logic has little value in 21st-century economic policy. As fossil fuels get scarcer and more expensive, the pressure to convert agricultural land from food to biofuel production will become greater and greater -- even without government biofuel subsidies.

In the 2007 federal budget, Canada plunged boldly into the brave new world of biofuels with $2 billion in "cleaner transportation" subsidies. Most of the funding supported construction of new ethanol refineries, but $500 million was allocated for research into converting trees and other woody vegetation directly into ethanol, avoiding the step of planting corn (this is still a work in progress).

The $2 billion for biofuels showed up in the "preserving our environment" portion of the 2007 budget. This was the Harper government's single largest environmental initiative, supposedly aimed at dealing with climate change.

Did any of the young whippersnappers in the PMO actually consider whether this would benefit the environment?

The answer is clearly "No." Departmental officials were totally caught off guard by this massive commitment to biofuel subsidies. However, thanks to the persistent work of certain officials in Environment Canada, the following federal budget (in 2008) provided "$10 million over two years for scientific research and analysis on biofuels emissions." 

Announce first, study later. A tangible result of this rather modest additional funding was a quiet decision to drop the national target for replacement of gasoline by ethanol from 10 to 5 per cent (a target that has now been surpassed). 

Most troubling, however, is that there is still a very active debate in the scientific community as to whether biofuels provide any net benefit in terms of greenhouse gas reductions. Indeed, there is evidence that corn ethanol production actually increases greenhouse gas emissions if "indirect land use change" is taken into account. When biofuel production displaces food production onto previously uncultivated land, plowing up this land causes its soil carbon to be released as carbon dioxide (in addition to the loss of biodiversity).

It could be noted that other industrialized nations (the U.S. and members of the European Union) jumped on the biofuel bandwagon before Canada and are still debating whether to reduce their own targets.

Canada's biofuel subsidies support about two dozen refineries, including some owned by Suncor Energy, Husky Energy and Maple Leaf Foods. In February 2013, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wrote a letter to inform the biofuels industry that subsidies will end in 2017.

The OECD is urging its members to drop both biofuel subsidies and ethanol targets. It points out that when governments monkey about with support measures -- especially without first having done their homework -- the results can be unfortunate.

The poorer countries of the world agree. They would prefer to have cheap food to feed hungry families, rather than seeing the world's farmlands devoted to feeding SUVs.

How about you? Eat, or drive?

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: futureatlas.com/flickr

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