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Fuel Made From Amber Waves of Grain
Homegrown ethanol can help solve our oil dependence and global warming

Picture of native prairie grass
No, money doesn't grow on trees -- but energy grows wild on the prairie. And that energy could free us from oil dependence, curb global warming, and allow us to grow our own transportation fuel. American farmers will soon be able to produce both food and energy. When they do, tomorrow's heartland could end up looking more like the land mapped by Lewis and Clark than the industrialized Corn Belt we see today: Native grasses -- switchgrass, for instance -- would ripple across the plains and fill grain elevators from Maine to Texas. It sounds like some utopian vision, but it's within our reach.

Skeptics have claimed that ethanol could never meet our transportation energy needs, but the barriers are beginning to crumble.For instance, critics have argued that manufacturing ethanol -- from corn or other plants -- requires more energy from fossil fuels than it produces. However,two recently published reviews of the scientific literature show experts think otherwise: Ethanol offers net energy savings when compared with gasoline, even when one takes into account the fuel needed to make fertilizer, to run the tractors that plow the fields and harvest the crops, and to process the plant material into ethanol fuel.

In the February 15 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, Roel Hammerschlag of the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment reported that studies on technologies that produce ethanol from the fibrous stems and stalks of plants, or cellulose, instead of just the sugars found in corn kernels, showed the greatest energy benefits over gasoline. Hammerschlag, whose work was funded in part by NRDC, also found that ethanol derived from switchgrass contains about six times more energy than was contained in the fossil fuels that were burned to make it. The energy savings are substantial because the whole plant can be used: Parts that can't be fermented to make ethanol are burned, firing the turbines that drive the entire process.

Alexander Farrell of the University of California, Berkeley, published a literature review in the January 27 issue of Science that reached nearly identical conclusions. Farrell also noted that corn-based ethanol offers greenhouse gas reductions of about 13 percent over gasoline while ethanol derived from cellulose reduces emissions by 88 percent over gasoline.

"The technological challenges in making ethanol from a wide variety of crops have been solved," says NRDC's Nathanael Greene, one of the nation's leading ethanol experts.

Similarly, there are no technological obstacles to running cars on ethanol or making it available at the fuel pump (as has been amply demonstrated in Brazil, where homegrown ethanol provides 40 percent of the nation's transportation fuel). But there are political challenges.Most gas stations are owned or franchised by major oil companies that won't reap the rewards of ethanol use. "We need policies that require ethanol pumps at gas stations," Greene says. "And we need money to implement new technologies on a large scale, bringing cellulosic manufacturing to maturity."

Growing enough crop -- be it switchgrass, corn, or another plant -- to fuel all our autorelated transportation needs presents certain obstacles, but Greene estimates that innovations now on the horizon could bring us within striking distance by 2050. Cars that get 50 miles a gallon are a technological possibility now, as are breeds of switchgrass that have yields double that of today's crop. And as the process of making ethanol from cellulose improves, even more fuel will be extracted from each ton of plant material.

"We're not going to fix every problem with one solution," Greene says." Our goal is to solve two of our biggest challenges -- oil dependence and global warming -- without creating new ones. Ethanol can help."
-- Laura Wright

Help Save Greenland

Kiehl's Since 1851, the New York City apothecary that has peddled its celebrated beauty products from a corner store in the city's East Village neighborhood for more than a century, has expanded its community work -- all the way to Greenland. With NRDC's help, Kiehl's launched to spread the word about the effects of climate change on this Arctic nation, an ice-covered island vital to climate stability around the world. For each person who visits the site and clicks on the picture of Greenland, Kiehl's will donate 25 cents to NRDC, up to $125,000.
-- Laura Wright

Inside NRDC
The View from NRDC

Summer's Hottest Movie
Al Gore

Al Gore has long been a foe of global warming. Finally, his message is getting out: On May 24, Paramount Pictures released An Inconvenient Truth, a film co-produced by NRDC trustee Laurie David.

For showings near you, go to

Whale Facts: Keeping the Navy Honest

On the morning of July 3, 2004, more than 150 whales crowded into the shallow waters of Hanalei Bay off the island of Kaua'i, Hawaii. About 30 miles away, the Navy was conducting training exercises using mid-frequency active sonar. On January 15, 2005, 35 whales beached themselves along North Carolina's Outer Banks after another Navy sonar exercise. The initial report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the Outer Banks stranding, released only after NRDC sued the agency under the Freedom of Information Act, cited sonar as a possible cause of the beaching while ruling out other possibilities. In April, NOAA released another report, this one on the Hawaii strandings. It clearly stated that sonar was the "plausible, if not likely" cause, in stark contrast to the Navy's denial that sonar was to blame. The findings led NOAA to ask the Navy to reduce the power of its sonar during a similar training exercise scheduled to take place in June in Hawaii.
-- Kathryn McGrath

Editors' note: In the Summer 2006 issue of OnEarth, the article "Whale Facts: Keeping the Navy Honest" incorrectly states that 150 whales died after crowding into Hawaii's Hanalei Bay on July 3, 2004. Only one of the 150 whales that were stranded in the bay that day died. The article above is a corrected version.

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Photos: top left - Design Pics Images; lower right - Jim Wark/Lonely Planet

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council