The Ethics of Biofuel

water 4 dieselAn Initial Ethical Evaluation of Alternative Energy Strategies: by Erich W. Schienke


Planning for adaptation to climate change raises ethical questions about the priorities: Examples from Tanzania » Initial Ethical Evaluations of Alternative Energy Strategies: the Example of Biofuels



I. Introduction

Biofuels represent a variety of different substances that, like fossil fuels, are used in a combustion process to derive energy. Biofuels are mainly derived from biomass that contain a high starch or sugar content, such as corn and sugar cane to produce ethanol, or a high oil content, such as vegetable oils or even leftover animal parts to produce biodiesel. For the most part, burning biodiesel and ethanol result in a significantly lower contribution to GHGs than do traditional fossil fuels. This is because the CO2 released from burning these fuels was CO2 that was recently sequestered from the atmosphere through photosynthesis in the form of vegetation (either used directly, or fed to animals.) This means that the overall CO2 levels are not going up because they are not being extracted from burning fossil fuels sequestered from deep within the earth. However, there is a problem in that many of the strategies that rely on fossil fuels for fertilizer, such as the massive corn industry, do not decrease the overall output of CO2 by more than 20 percent per unit volume of fuel (see: Adler, et al 2007).


Over the whole lifecycle from seed to ethanol, corn consumes about four-fifths a gallon of gasoline to produce one gallon of ethanol. This expenditure of fossil fuels to create biofuels comes from transportation of feedstocks (i.e. the corn) and the fossil fuels that are used in the highly energy intensive process of creating nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, and powered irrigation. For this reason, one of the first ethical questions that needs to be examined about policies that will increase the use of biofuels, is how much actual greenhouse gas emissions will be achieved by different biofuels throughout their life-cycle. As analyses of different biofuels greenhouse gas contributions are contested, constant improvement in our ability to determine the exact amount of greenhouse gases that will be produced in the production of each biofuel alternative will need to be done as a matter of ethics.

II. Global Dimensions

According to a study by McLaughlin, et al (2000), the energy consumption patterns for the agricultural sector break down in the following way: 31% for the production of inorganic fertilizer, 19% for running field machinery, 16% for transportation, 13% for irrigation, 08% for raising livestock (not including livestock feed), 05% for crop drying, 05% for pesticide production, and 08% miscellaneous. Relying on this paradigm as the means to save on overall fossil fuel consumption does not make sound political-economic sense when we begin to take into account at all of the energy needed to make this system work. The paradigm works even less when we consider the ethical dimensions of the impact of increased demand on corn for global food costs.

The impact of using corn as a feedstock for ethanol on global food costs alone raises significant concerns about distributive and procedural justice and should be enough reason to determine that another course of action is needed. In terms of distributive justice, rising fuel costs and rising corn demand (thus raising the cost) are causing corn prices in countries such as Mexico to soar beyond the cost locals are able to pay, and with treaties such as NAFTA in place, no protection can be guaranteed against a further price increase. While the U.S. and Canada are capable of paying these increase costs, poorer countries are being priced out of the market for corn to be used in feeding livestock. As an article from the Washington Post reports from January 2007, “tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer [2006]. On Jan. 18, Calderón announced an agreement with business leaders capping tortilla prices at 78 cents per kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, less than half the highest reported prices.” (Note: though white corn is used to make tortillas in Mexico, it is usually priced according to yellow corn, which is mainly used for feedstock and ethanol in the U.S.) Calderon’s stop-gap measure at capping corn prices an effort to correct for a lack of procedural justice in these issues, however, in the face of NAFTA and Calderon’s commitment to free trade, such caps can only go so far to correct a systematic injustice. Namely, that the people most affected by rising corn prices have little or no say in the wider technological decisions that are driving interests in corn ethanol — a process being driven primarily by certain agriculture lobbies in Washington. For these reasons alone, corn-based ethanol is perhaps the least ethically sound strategy for biofuels production.

III. Local Considerations: An Example From Pennsylvania

In May 2006, Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania unveiled a plan called the PennSecurity Fuels Initiative, mainly as a means to curb reliance upon foreign energy supplies. The initiative proposes that 900 million gallons of gas/diesel will be replaced by 2016. Pennsylvania currently uses 6.2 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuels per year (PA Environment Digest) across all sectors. This works out to be approximately 54.4 Million Metric tons (MMt) of additional CO2 added to the atmosphere per year. [Note: In 2000, gas (15%) and diesel (5%) counts for 20% of all PA GHG emissions.] Governor Rendell’s plan for replacing 900 million gallons per year of fossil fuel with biofuels by 2016 would equate to a savings of 14.5 percent of current gas and diesel usage. This would result in a reduction of emissions by about 7.9 MMt CO2 per year (see Table 1). While this measure alone does not solve the overall emissions problems, it does contribute significantly to a wider portfolio of emissions reduction measures and stimulates the call for innovations both in technology and land-use strategy. However, while biodiesel is part of the profile, much of the PennSecurity initiative is based on the use of E85, (fuel containing a mixture of 85% ethanol). In the US, E85 production is currently mainly dependent on corn and other starchy foodstuffs as the feedstock. This has significant implications for land use, particularly since a state like Pennsylvania is not currently a major producer of starchy feedstocks. As a result, if ethanol is to be processed in refineries within the state, feedstocks will need to be brought in on train. In sum, while the goal of 900 million gallons is laudable, there are many ethical questions that need to be addressed in choosing that path towards fulfilling that goal.

A recent study conducted by Adler et al (2007), produced a lifecycle assessment of various crops for use in biofuels production. The findings suggested that, “compared with the lifecycle of gasoline and diesel, ethanol and biodiesel from corn rotations reduced GHG emissions by ~40%, reed canarygrass by ~85%, and switchgrass and hybrid poplar by ~115%.” With relatively modest reductions of GHGs of ~40%, corn again does not seem like the best option, particularly when compared with the GHG emissions savings of reed canary grass, switch grass, or hybrid poplar. Add to this the fact that a state like Pennsylvania would need to radically alter land-use strategies in many areas, or import almost all the necessary corn, to sustain the production of 900 million gallons of biofuels, and we will begin to see that the construction of E85 refineries based on corn is probably not the best option economically or ethically. The table below, following the parameters of the PennSecurity Fuels initiative, details how the choice of each significant feedstock would affect emissions of CO2.

See table here.

Table 1. Comparative chart of projected GHG savings based on life-cycle analysis of three different biofuel processes. (Projections based on life-cycle findings in Adler, et al 2007.) Click here for the spreadsheet of this table, with calculations.

Based on contribution to GHG emissions reduction alone, switchgrass and hybrid poplar seem to be the best choice. Certain economic problems arise from the perspective of the farmer, however, when we consider the time it takes to yield a crop of switchgrass is in the three-year range, while hybrid poplar runs in the seven-year range before harvest. The concerns about turnaround time, however, would be mainly rooted in policies that require current land used for farming and livestock maintenance to be converted to biofuels production. Pennsylvania farmers, however, have already been experiencing the squeeze on available farmland due to extensive sprawl increasing the price of land, and poorly integrated land-use planning for regional urban development. In addition, many farms have been abandoned in Pennsylvania for lack of markets in which PA farmers can compete. Farming in Pennsylvania has not been particularly successful in matching the prices one can get for farm products compared to land-use value being pushed up by surrounding sprawl. However, it is possible that the land-use value of farms may go up because of new demand, which might increase the competitive ability of depressed farming areas. The state does possess, however, a significant acreage of forest cover, much of which is already being harvested for timber products. The most equitable approach across the state may be to open up the forestry sector to the farming of hybrid poplar and switchgrass. Further study of social and economic conditions will be necessary to further determine the best path of development.

IV. The Question of Genetic Engineering

Ethical issues are also present when evaluating the agricultural production of feedstocks, most all of which include some form of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering (GE) is used to increase yield per acre, growing cycle, and composition (higher starch content). Biofuels are not viable on a large scale in the U.S. without the use of genetically engineered food and nonfood crops. Currently, genetic modification is being developed to increase the volume and turn-around time in all of the crops in Table 1.

With corn, there is a significant concern about cross-pollination into non-GE corn crops. Other possible signs of risk of GE feedstocks are coming to the fore, such as the possible contribution of GE pollen to the colony collapse disorder of bee colonies all across the U.S. and Europe. Long-term risks of human consumption of these foods are still not known. Avoiding increasing the amount of GE in relation to at least food based feedstocks for use in biofuels would be preferable, and follow from the application of the precautionary principle to this case, though, it appears some genetic modification to current corn crops is assumed necessary. The same need for genetic modification applies to hybrid poplars and switchgrasses. However, since they are not specific food sources for humans, it is even less likely there will be an imperative to study the possible impacts to the wider ecosystem from genetic modification of the wood and grass species.

IV. Summary

To summarize the ethical issues at stake in considering biofuels production, principles of distributive justice require that the benefits and burdens of biomass production be distributed fairly across stakeholders. Distributional consequences of environmental change are likely to arise in the consideration of how planting of biofuels stock can affect livelihood changes such as changing access to environmental and ecosystem services, the disruption of clean water, hunting and fishing grounds, and/or natural scenery. In addition, consideration will be given to possible impacts on human health brought on by resulting environmental changes from farming biomass feedstocks, from the location of biomass processing sites, and from the disposal of wastes generated by biomass processing facilities. Whereas, principles of procedural justice require the economically and demographically fair and representative selection of citizens in decision-making processes. However, as illustrated by Kaswan (2003), minority and poor communities are less likely to participate effectively and have effective voting power in the context of land use planning and the zoning decision-making process. Attention to issues of procedural justice is warranted in that procedural fairness serves as a foundation that will likely result in outcomes acceptable to those involved in the process (Warren 2000).

Moving forward, biofuels production is a necessary component of the U.S. Energy Portfolio both as a means to reduce dependence on foreign energy and as a path towards overall GHG reductions. However, as described in this article, there are a wide variety of ethical issues that need to be considered when considering which biofuels technology path is best for any given region. There are some sweeping issues that need to be addressed, such as the expanded use of GE corn. While other issues, such as considering the impact of land-use changes on livelihoods, are going to be more regional in nature. Proceeding with decisions such as these needs to be based on further research and deliberation before certain development trajectories are locked into place.

V. Conclusion

For these reasons, before policies are implemented that would put into place much greater use of biofuels, additional research is necessary to understand the life-cycle environmental, economic, and social impacts of biofuels. Armed with this knowledge a comparative ethical analysis of different biofuel technologies could be performed. This ethical analysis will consider the relative contribution of biofuels in solving the problem of climate change, as well as distributive and procedural justice issues entailed by different policies on biofuels. A complete ethical analysis cannot be performed until there is a better understanding of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of biofuels.


Erich W. Schienke Rock Ethics Institute Science, Technology and Society Program Pennsylvania State University University Park, PA 16801

References: Adler, Paul , Stephen J. Del Grasso, and William J. Parto. “Life-Cycle Assessment of Net Greenhouse-Gas Flux for Bioenergy Cropping Systems ” Ecological Applications 17, no. 3 (2007): 675-91.

Kaswan, A. “Distributive Justice and the Environment.” North Carolina Law Review 81 (2003).

McLaughlin, N.B, and et al. “Comparison of Energy Inputs for Inorganic Fertilizer and Manure Based Corn Production.” Canadian Agricultural Engineering 42, no. 1 (2000).

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Dcnr to Develop Carbon Management Plan, Update Greenhouse Gas Inventory.”

Roig-Franzia, Manuel. “A Culinary and Cultural Staple in Crisis.” Washington Post, Saturday, January 27 2007.

Warren, R. K. “Public Trust and Procedural Justice.” American Judges Association Court Review 37, no. 3 (2000).