The good and the bad of biofuels

During its production and when used in vehicles, corn-based ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, emitting 20 percent less of the heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming. Ethanol made from corn cobs and switchgrass could reduce emissions by 90 percent, some scientists believe.

Biodiesel, meanwhile, is nontoxic, biodegradable and suitable for sensitive environments, according to the National Biodiesel Board.

"They're really considered nontoxic, as you would expect," Bruce Hollebone of Environment Canada told the New York Times newspaper.

"You can eat the stuff, after all," he added. "But as with most organic materials, oil and glycerin deplete the oxygen content of water very quickly, and that will suffocate fish and other organisms. And for birds, a vegetable oil spill is just as deadly as a crude oil spill."

Production of biofuels carries an environmental cost. In Brazil, for example, 80 percent of that country's greenhouse gas emissions come from the deforestation resulting from land cleared to plant half its sugar cane for ethanol.

"Brazil has destroyed vast areas of the Amazon rain forest to plant hundreds of miles of sugar cane for ethanol," said David Kennell, professor emeritus at the Washington University School of Medicine. "And Malaysian and Indonesian rain forests are being destroyed for palm oil plantations. Palm oil gives the highest yield of biodiesel of any crops.

"Loss of forests can lead to soil erosion and flooding and contributes to global warming by removing carbon 'sinks' — forested areas that absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon."

In the United States, Archer Daniels Midland, the largest domestic producer of ethanol, is listed as the 10th worst corporate air polluter on the "Toxic 100" list of the Political Economy Research Institute.

The company's plant in Clinton, Iowa, generated nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants in 2004, before the real ethanol push began. One hundred tons is defined by EPA as a "major source."

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