Energy Sprawl and The Importance of Fact


During a dinner several months ago, the former U.S. ambassador C. Boyden Gray pointed a gaunt finger at me and said: “You environmentalists dislike ethanol, therefore you must want people to die.

While rhetorically grand, the accusation made little sense in the content of our dinner discussion about the potential land-use impacts of large-scale ethanol production. I had already stated that I think ethanol can play an important role in America’s energy future — and in any event, the life-saving properties of ethanol that Ambassador Gray was referring to (principally, its blending at low concentrations with gasoline to reduce air pollution) are logically different than a discussion of potential land-use impacts of expanded ethanol productions.

Sadly, this disconnect between the complex facts of biomass production for energy and the simplistic slogans about those facts has become the norm in the political debate. The current line from some in the biofuels industry is that discussion of land-use impacts of their industry is off-limits because it is part of an “unproven theory.” Which is true as far as it goes…but it goes pretty far. Land-use impacts from biofuel production is just a theory in the sense that supply and demand is just a theory in economics.

Into this political hothouse comes a new paper I co-wrote that has just been published in the journal PLoS Online. In the manuscript (as well as in an accompanying white paper with some updated numbers) we try to calculate how much land will be needed for new energy development — a measure we call the “energy sprawl.” What did we find?

Under current law, there is likely to be 67 million acres used for new energy production by 2030, and most of that is for biofuel production mandated under the renewable future standard. A cap-and-trade system is likely to increase this total somewhat, due to increase use of wind and biomass for electric power. The environmental impact of this coming energy sprawl can be limited by energy efficiency (saving energy saves land) and by proper siting of production facilities (Energy by Design).

The Nature Conservancy’s views on biomass for energy are thus pretty nuanced:

  • We strongly feel humanity must act to limit greenhouse gas emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • As policymakers try to chart a course to a low carbon economy, we recognize they must consider other issues such as energy security, cost effectiveness and protection of American industries and farmers from economic harm.
  • We simply feel that the facts of energy sprawl should be part of that discussion by policymakers. To the extent that dealing with climate change increases energy sprawl, incentives need to be in place to limit its impact on America’s wildlife and wild places.

It may be hard to communicate such a nuanced message, but we at the Conservancy feel it reflects the complex reality. Contrast this with the simplistic argument by some in industry that land-use effects are just a theory and not worthy of discussion, or the simplistic argument by some environmentalists that biofuels are just evil and not worthy of discussion.

Nothing that I have said is meant to malign the many good folks from industry and environmental groups who have been engaged (far more than I) in the hard work of really scientifically analyzing these impacts and coming up with policy solutions. Let us hope that at least this time discussions in Washington can be informed by fact, rather than purely rhetoric. There is a tendency in the environmental community, I think, to bemoan the decline of fact, when actually over time good policymaking tends to reflect good science. With apologies to Martin Luther King Jr., we might say that the arc of policymaking may be long, but it bends towards good science.

(Image: Gas pump in Iowa. Credit: sroemerm/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Is there a link to the white paper?

  2. If you’re REALLY interested in conserving the world’s biological diversity, please join me in bringing down the industrial economy. There is no greater threat to biodiversity. All the papers in the world won’t slow economic growth and therefore the rate of extinctions. But one thing will: a return to the stone age.

  3. Creating ethanol for biofuel use from corn is going to detract from food use of this same water-intensive product.

    Biofuels are fine, but we need sources that are not so energy-dependent themselves. At least in the forseeable future, biofuels will remain a niche market, and can only be useful if we use sources other than corn and the like.

  4. Rob,
    Thanks for calling in for the Studio 12/KDBI show tonight… I particularly appreciated your comment that it was so shocking that 2 of 5 people they had on were climate deniers.

    I wish we’d had some time to talk about your study, instead of wasting time rehashing the climate “debate.”

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