Biofuel Challenges Big Oil
Shaw, Charles, In These Times
AS OIL SURPASSES $75 a barrel and gas hits $3 a gallon, Americans might find it hard to imagine higher costs. But this auto-centric perspective overlooks the hidden costs of our petroleum addiction.
"The diesel engine is the backbone of the American economy," says Matt Atwood, project manager for Biodiesel Systems, LLC, an independent, Madison, Wis.-based start-up. "While accounting for only 12 percent of our total fuel consumption, it transports 70 percent of the nation's goods to market in shipping containers hauled by semi-trucks." Diesel also accounts for transporting 18 million tons of freight and 14 million people every day, to the tune of $6 trillion a year, or about 51 percent of our GDP.
But what if diesel and petrochemicals could eventually be replaced by localized, sustainable industries of natural, renewable materials that are non-toxic and biodegradable?
This is the solution offered by the European Association for Bioindustries, known as EuropaBio. EuropaBio claims that industrial biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize industry by reducing pollution and waste, decreasing the use of energy, raw materials and water, and creating new materials and biofuels from our waste products-including biodegradable plastics and building materials, as well as renewable fuels like biodiesel and ethanol.
The key to industrial biotechnology, according to Novozymes, the "world leader" in enzyme technology, is new "cellulosic" technology. This involves genetically engineered enzymes that break down agricultural and forestry waste (and eventually, garbage and other unused organic matter) into usable energy and building material.
BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization ), the American biotech lobby group, has recently begun promoting a sustainable "bio-based economy." But opponents have called this new industrial paradigm everything from a "Trojan Horse to push the acceptance of GMO crops" to something "worse than fossil fuels."
They are concerned that the production of biofuel from crops consumes more energy than it produces, and therefore causes more air pollution, soil and water depletion and pollution, forest destruction and harm to animals.
In April, John Peck of the National Family Farm Coalition led a panel discussion in Chicago on GMOs during BioETHICS 2006, a conference that took place the same week as the annual BIO convention. Peck dismissed ethanol outright, explaining its recent vogue as an industry response to "vast quantities of [surplus] low quality Bt [GMO] corn that has hardly any market" and that producers want to "dump it at taxpayer expense into domestic ethanol production. …