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Are Biofuels Really a Boondoggle? The Perils and Promise of Turning Plants into Gasoline

​Tea Party activists, environmentalists and petrolistas now condemn the industry in equal measure, but is there more to the story?

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Kovarik first got interested in biofuels back in 1978 while working for famed U.S. muckraker and newspaper columnist Jack Anderson. "Anderson hated the oil industry. He thought it was underhanded and conniving and he thought that anything that challenged the power of the Big Oil was good."

After meeting a group of protesting farmers who powered their tractors with biofuels, Kovarik got hooked on the subject. While other reporters laughed at rural folks who energized their machinery with "moonshine," Kovarik recognized a unique energy story with two dramatic polar themes.

On the one hand biofuels offer a promising replacement for dirty fossil fuels, and on the other they compete with food production.

It is also an ancient story. Vegetable oils, animal fats and turpentine from wood dominated the use of fuels for cooking and illumination in human households until the 19th century. But this growing demand for plants or biomass destroyed forests, impoverished soils and diminished biodiversity especially in Europe.

Then along came the U.S. oil boom in the 1870s. After the Civil War, the U.S. government put a tax on turpentine made from southern pines. In so doing it inadvertently made tax-free kerosene distilled from Pennsylvania oil the popular choice for cooking and illumination. A massive government subsidy set oil off on a path of market dominance. explains Kovarik.

"All energy is political and snake oil comes in kinds of guises," adds the historian.

Henry Ford feared peak oil

Although the first combustion engines ran on ethyl alcohol and turpentine, gasoline soon dominated the booming combustion engine industry too. But concerns about the longevity of petroleum supplies worried luminaries such as Alexander Bell and Henry Ford,  writes Kovarik in his 2012 short history of biofuels.

Nor surprisingly, oil-poor European nations such as France and Germany first developed biofuels on a large commercial scale.

To counter the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil, Germany built a large potato alcohol market in the 1900s. The industry powered tractors, hair irons, heaters, stoves and even coffee roasters. The French did the same with sugar beets.

As many as 30 countries supported some kind of ethanol blending program for gasoline including Brazil, Cuba and the Philippines. Most of the fuel came from sugarcane plantations.

In India, the agrarian Kanaiyalal Manekial Munshi advocated using farm waste for biofuels instead of crops or seeds due to concerns about famine and food prices.

Meanwhile, crop-based fuels squarely challenged mineral-based gasoline even in the U.S., the world's first petro state. A U.S. auto industry representative, for example, told a U.S. Senate committee that crop-based alcohol was "preferable" to and cleaner than gasoline.

In fact, some 2,000 engine fuel studies between 1905 and 1907 by a variety of government offices including the U.S. Navy concluded that a gallon of ethanol burned more cleanly than a gallon of gasoline.

But in the 1920s and 1930s, Big Oil took on the emerging biofuels industry with a vengeance. While farmers viewed ethanol as a way to replace critical grain and hay markets killed by the demise of horse transport, Big Oil viewed the agrarian movement as intolerable competition.

Prominent biofuel advocates even included car magnate Henry Ford. The Michigan farm boy envisaged a decentralized energy system producing fuel, fibre and chemicals in rural areas. In contrast, Big Oil offered highly centralized and concentrating technologies.

Other supporters argued that crop-based fuels could revolutionize agricultural economics, reduce city smog, end rural migration to cities and weaken Big Oil's grip on the government and the economy.

Knock, knock

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