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Biofuels Harm Planet, Cost More, British Group Says

Chatham House think tank says biofuels are ‘worse than fossil fuels.’

Biofuels harm the planet more than fossil fuels, and even lead to greater deforestation, according to a report put out this month by the British think tank Chatham House. The study also said that biofuels are far less cost effective than traditional fuels.

The think tank said that sticking with traditional fossil fuels might actually be better for the environment, since the use of cooking oil as an alternative fuel leads to higher imports of palm oil from Indonesia, a product often grown on deforested land.

“Agricultural biofuel use also indirectly drives expansion of agriculture into areas of high carbon stock such as rainforest or peatland, resulting in indirect land-use change, the emissions from which may outweigh any greenhouse gas savings the biofuels are able to offer,” the Chatham House press release said.

The United Kingdom has mandated an increase in biofuel in gasoline to 5 percent during the financial year of 2013-2014. Chatham House found that this green initiative will cost British taxpayers “in the region of $700 million (£460 million).”

According to a BBC report, the European Biodiesel Board has acknowledged the problems pointed out by Chatham House, but argued that biofuels have many positive qualities as well.

This report mirrors the debate a few years ago about ethanol in American gasoline. The media promoted ethanol and biofuels, the government mandated it, but the consequences were higher food prices and the realization that the corn-based fuel could actually have a negative environmental impact. Ethanol was blamed for food shortages in Haiti and Egypt which caused riots in those countries. Eventually some media outlets turned on ethanol.

The Associated Press and other outlets reported on Jan. 21, 2013, that the EPA would announce 15 percent ethanol (E15) is "safe" for cars made from 2001 to 2006. In the fall of 2010, the EPA approved E15 for cars manufactured since 2007. But the AP buried a crucial fact in the final sentence of its report: "Ethanol burns hotter than gasoline, causing catalytic converters, which help clean engine emissions, to break down faster."

Much of the early coverage of ethanol was positive, even declaring the fuel  "the wave of the future." But as grocery prices started to rise, the media started connecting the dots. The Business and Media Institute found in 2008 that in two years, the networks had run 69 stories about corn-based ethanol. In January 2007 and 2008, 34 of those stories – a little less than half overall – mentioned a connection between ethanol production and increased food prices for American consumers. In the years since, the media have continued the trend of correctly attributing inflation in food prices to ethanol as the government continues to mandate increased biofuel in gasoline blends.