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Rethinking the great green hope


The honeymoon is officially over for biofuels, once hailed in some quarters as among the most promising of alternative energy sources. Sure, observers have been raising questions about their greenness for some time, but on balance, the mainstream press coverage has been as glowing as that given to new rock bands and presidential pets. Lately, though, journalists seem to have wholly rethought these plant and animal-derived fuels.

Last month, the London Times reported on a finding by the British Royal Society that such alternative energy sources could actually cause more ecological damage than they prevented if not created and used properly. Likewise, reporters and scientists have begun sounding the alarm about the effect that biofuel crops will have on deforestation and the world's food supply. "We're rushing into biofuels, and we need to be very careful," an economist told the Los Angeles Times in an article entitled "Biofuel crops increase carbon emissions." On NPR this month, scientists debated whether biofuels were helpful or harmful to the environment.

Unfortunately, a combination of cheerleading from journalists in the past and political pressure from farmers and other interested parties has already set in motion programs that ensure biofuels will be with us for a long time to come. The wheels of bureaucracy often turn much slower than the news cycle, and if biofuels in the U.S. turn out to be an expensive boondoggle, they could be a problem we're stuck with for some time. "Federal legislation passed last year calls for production of ethanol to more than double over the next decade," the L.A. Times story noted. "In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relies heavily on biofuels."

Partially, the latest rash of skeptical articles was prompted by advances in the science behind biofuels – something over which journalists have no control. And these findings don't necessarily prove ethanol et al are irredeemably bad for the environment. What they suggest, and what smart environmental journalists knew long ago, is that biofuels will have their trade-offs just like any other source of energy. There's little doubt, though, that some harder questioning, earlier, from the press could have gone a long way towards making sure the way biofuels are actually used is as smart, effective, and green as possible.