Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Biofuels and habitat conservation at odds?

Biofuel production is threatening wildlife habitat, according to a new New York Times story. Wait... Biofuels are supposed to be GOOD for the planet, aren't they? Well, that's complicated.

Biofuels represent one potential strategy to reduce fossil energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As they are currently produced, however, corn ethanol and (to a lesser extent) soy biodiesel have issues. First, since production of a BTU of biofuel typically requires nearly a BTU of fossil energy input, the greenhouse gas savings are small at best.

In addition, biofuel production results in some unfortunate unintended consequences. Biofuel production has increased demand for crops, sending some food prices skyrocketing. That may be good news for some farmers, but it's definitely bad for many more people around the world that are hungry and poor.

The same market forces that are driving up prices are also reducing wildlife habitat. How? Well, it involves the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in which the Federal government pays farmers to keep land out of production. Whatever your political views about such subsidies, one result has been protection of more 35 million acres of wildlife habitat in the US over the past quarter century, an area 2/3 greater than Maine's. With crop prices on the increase, farmers can make more money by returning CRP land to production, so that's what they are doing. Two million acres have dropped out of the program in the last year.

CRP land represents the bulk of remaining grasslands and wetlands in North America, both of which have experienced dramatic losses since European settlement. Many game species (e.g. ducks, pheasants, quail) and threatened or endangered species (e.g. Bobolinks, Dickcissels, Meadowlarks) depend on CRP land. Natural resource managers and conservation biologists are very concerned about the prospects of these species if their habitat shrinks further.

For more about biofuel issues, see the Food Chain series at the New York Times.

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