Department of Energy Rebuttal to: Energy Insecurity, The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels

Zia Haq

This paper does not have any analysis of critical issues of energy systems including petroleum systems and biofuel systems.

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T. A. Kiefer 3/1/2013

The rebuttals from the DoD and the DoE are most notable for the points they do not dispute. The arguments raised in my Energy Insecurity article can be categorized as,

The Seven Deadly Sins of Biofuels:

  1. crippling fossil fuel dependence
  2. deficient EROI at scale
  3. poor quality (energy density, power density, infrastructure and engine compatibility, need for hydrotreatment, etc.)
  4. huge environmental impact (land and water footprint, nitrate poisoning (eutrophication) and agrichemical runoff, irreversible conversion of and damage to biodiverse habitat)
  5. higher lifecycle GHG emissions (when properly counting land use change and all N2O, CH4, and CO2)
  6. increased global instability (food competition, "green grabbing" land confiscation, displacement of native populations, pseudo-slave labor)
  7. decreased energy security (higher cost, greater price volatility, annual production with no reserves, vulnerable to weather and crop failures, etc.)

Each one of these arguments by itself is fatal to the claim of biofuels as promoting national security. The longer version of the paper adds to these fatal flaws the vulnerability of current and future increased dependence on imported agricultural minerals, the historical perspective of what low EROI, retrograde, biomass-based civilizations look like, and the nation’s history of fruitless encounters with biofuels. Of all the evidence against biofuels presented in my article, the rebuttals question EROI and water footprint. However, they critique only my computational methodology, not the underlying fact of massive disadvantage to biofuels.

It surprised me to hear that DoE does not consider fuel price or fuel density to be related to national security. The cost of energy is directly linked to stability of supply and to overall economic health. Energy density affects the fuel economy of vehicles and thus the number and length of convoys needed to supply fuel to the troops on the battlefield. The higher price of biofuels leaves less of the nation’s GDP for sustainment and growth, and the lower density of biofuels would require more fuel trucks on the battlefield subject to ambush and IED attack.

I must admit I was not able to follow the logic of how rain on crops in the US Midwest reduces the energy required to desalinate seawater in Saudi Arabia. It was also disheartening to have the Department of Energy confuse the thermal efficiency of a power plant for the EROI of a fuel. In contrast to both rebuttals, my article is an attempt to be straightforward and transparent so those interested in this issue will not be intimidated by jargon, but instead retrace my research for themselves.

The remaining criticisms simply misquote the paper. Careful readers—those truly willing to explore the 6,000 words of endnotes as well as the 9,600 words of the text—will discover how the government’s own reports and university studies in peer-reviewed journals across the four disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, and economics converge to paint a coherent and damning portrait of biofuels.

The best accuracy test of any theory or worldview is whether it is predictive. Since the final version of my article a month ago, two new studies documenting the environmental damage of biofuels within the United States have been released, and the only US enterprise to ever sell cellulosic ethanol for EPA Renewable Fuel Standard (RIN) credits has filed for Chapter 11. Now I leave it to the SSQ audience to dig deeper and decide for themselves—are Biofuels an empty promise?

T. A. Kiefer

See Wright, C. K., and M. C. Wimberly. “Recent Land Use Change in the Western Corn Belt Threatens Grasslands and Wetlands,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (February 19, 2013). doi:10.1073/pnas.1215404110; and Faber et al., “Plowed Under,” Environmental Working Group, February 2012.

Susanne Retka Schill. “Western Biomass Energy in Chapter 11 Reorganization.” Ethanol Producer Magazine, February 12, 2013.

Karl Mickelson, Lt Col, USAF (ret) 3/25/2013 3:30:35 PM

CAPT Kiefer wrote an excellent article. He points out in his rebuttal irrefutable analysis on why biofuels are a solution without a problem. But from the DoD and DOE rebuttals, it would appear he was far too effective for their tastes, and potentially threatening to policy. DoD may be a very large consumer of fuels, but it should act as good stewards of the taxpayers' money and get those fuels as cheaply as possible. When the market has created a more cost effective solution, then DoD should implement it. Anything less is detrimental to both the DoD and the US. Good job CAPT Kiefer, we need far more officers of your caliber.