April 22, 2012
The search for an alternative energy source to replace fossil fuels has been well underway for many years now. However, no alternative resource has been able to provide the energy efficiency, comfort, and availability of oil. Nevertheless, the search still continues due to the environmental and economic concerns associated with fossil fuels. One such alternative that has gained much popularity in recent years has been the production of biofuels. This ideal suggests that we derive energy, either indirectly or directly, from organic material including agricultural crops and animal waste. “Biofuels can be solid, gaseous or liquid, even though the term is often used in a narrow sense to refer only to liquid biofuels for transport[ion]” (Liquid Biofuels for Transport Prospects, Risks and Opportunities). Even though this option sounds extremely intriguing, biofuels are just another pipedream because they conflict with food sources, release potent amounts of greenhouse gas, and cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.
The first reason why biofuels should not be considered a feasible energy source in the future is because they raise the price of food. “In 2008, about 33.3 million hectartes were used to produce foodbased biofuels and their coproducts.” Furthermore, biofuel production from food crops is expected to increase 170% in the next decade (Going Hungry: Why Biofuels Are for People, Prosperity, and the Planet). Diverting such a large number of crops for energy purposes increases the demand for land, which as a result increases the price. From 2007-2008, the price of corn rose 50%, wheat 75%, and rice nearly 200%. This was projected to push nearly 100 million people into poverty according to the World Bank (Going Hungry: Why Biofuels Are for People, Prosperity, and the Planet). As the human population increases in the upcoming decades, this number will only increase. The sacrifice of millions of lives is simply not worth the acquisition of a slightly cleaner fuel source.
In addition, biofuels generate the same or even worse greenhouse gas (GHG) issues as conventional fuels do. Unlike renewable energy sources such as hydro, geothermal or solar energy, biofuels emit a large amount of greenhouse gasses during production. According to studies conducted in 2008, the most common biodiesel source, corn ethanol, generates around 50% more GHG than conventional fuels. Although the EPA later reported that this figure may be reduced in the long term, after the land use change no longer contribute to GHG release, corn ethanol can still generate 13% more GHG in 100 years period. For other renewable sources of energy, hydroelectricity, nuclear power and solar power generate almost no direct emissions of GHG and geothermal energy can reduce GHG release by nearly 97%. In comparison, biofuels have a large effect on global warming.
The biofuel industry not only highly depends on government subsidies but also creates an inefficient government spending as well as a heavy burden to taxpayers. Economically speaking, biofuels have no efficiency advantage over conventional fuels. The energy content per gallon of biodiesel is 11% lower than petroleum diesel whereas the ethanol content is increasing the mechanical complexity for vehicle motors. Therefore, biofuels are not competitive in the market and to maintain the price advantage, they demand enormous government funding.
In conclusion, the risks and costs of biofuels make them an unfeasible option at the moment. We need an energy source that is both economically and environmentally beneficial. Presently, biofuels are not and therefore should not be considered as a viable alternative energy source that should be implemented on a large-scale.
Anthony Radich, “Biodiesel Performance, Cost and Use”, Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/analysispaper/biodiesel/.
Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change”, Science.
EPA Lifecycle Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Renewable Fuels”, US Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/otaq/renewablefuels/420f09024.htm
“Going Hungry: Why Biofuels Are for People, Prosperity, and the Planet.” Le Québécois Libre. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.quebecoislibre.org/08/080515-11.htm>.
“Liquid Biofuels for Transport Prospects, Risks and Opportunities.” Biofuels: 1. What Are Biofuels? Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.greenfacts.org/en/biofuels/l-2/1-definition.htm>.
Hongxi Zhao and Jay Bahayani are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Agriculture is one of the largest and most important industries in California, supplying half of all the produce for the nation. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, agriculture generates almost $100 billion for the state’s economy. The strength of the agricultural industry was built on the diversity of crops from almonds and broccoli to grapes and squash that can be grown in the mild climate and fertile soil available in California.
The nitrogen cycle is key to making sure that crops continue to grow so that the agricultural industry can maintain the same level of crop yields and keep on feeding the country. Nitrogen is used by plants not only in nucleic acids and proteins, but also specifically with chlorophyll, which is key to photosynthesis, the process that provides plants with food to continue growing. However, plants cannot access atmospheric nitrogen in the form of N2—the nitrogen gas needs to be converted or fixed into a different form that is accessible to plants.
Therefore, the current problem that farms are facing is that not enough nitrogen is being naturally fixed to promote plant growth and fulfill the demand for produce. Farms in California are beginning to rely more and more heavily on nitrogen fertilizers to boost plant productivity. However, this input of manufactured nitrogen has many effects on the nitrogen cycle. Many plants do not absorb all of the nitrogen from the fertilizer, leaving excess nitrogen in the soil, which causes an imbalance to the ecosystem. This nitrogen can also be deposited in bodies of water through runoff, causing eutrophication due to its role as a limiting nutrient. As agriculture in California has risen to be major industry, more synthetic fertilizers are being used to grow crops, and the excess nitrogen is becoming an important problem.
Fortunately, this issue has been recognized by organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. In 2010, the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis sponsored the California Nitrogen Assessment, an attempt to assess California’s current agricultural needs in regards to nitrogen and to discuss possible solutions. In the information and progress report, they stated, “Our researchers are working to establish a baseline of credible knowledge about nitrogen, which includes comprehensive accounting of nitrogen flows, agricultural practices, and the policies that shape these practices. They will also assess the quality of information and knowledge about these issues.”
Some solutions to be considered are utilizing a crop-rotation system with nitrogen-fixing crops, or developing crops that use endosymbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria to reduce the amount of synthetic, nitrogen-rich fertilizers used. Another option would be genetically modifying crops to be more nitrogen efficient, but there are many controversies surrounding such practices.
In terms of recent developments, the CDFA posted a press release stating “The California State Board of Food and Agriculture will discuss a variety of topics related to the nitrogen cycle and the proactive work by California farmers and ranchers on the issue at its upcoming meeting on March 6th  in Sacramento.” While they have yet to release a summary of the meeting, the conference shows that there is still state interest in regulating the nitrogen cycle in regards to agriculture. As the agriculture industry continues to grow, it is important to be aware of the nitrogen cycle and the impact humans have on it.
Harriet Arnold and Divya Rao are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
The United Nations has declared water a basic human right, saying that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” Many hold similar views as the UN, while others differ in opinion and think water is a privilege not a right. As the human population increases alongside the demand for clean, safe sources of water, this issue will only escalate in significance and severity. Humanity as a whole must answer the question: Is water a privilege or a right?
Currently access to safe drinking water is not universal. With almost 900 million people lacking access and more than 1.5 million children annually dying due to this reason, the United Nations has recognized clean water and sanitation as “integral to the realization of all human rights.” Providing access to drinking water does not have a simple solution; when dealing with the right of humans to access water: political, social, economic, and industrial changes are needed. At the 2011 United College London (UCL) Annual Conference, the issue of water security was brought up and concluded that the global North cannot simply expect the South to generate access to clean drinking water. For the most part water abuse comes from the North and the South is the region in need of more clean drinking water. Many believe the global North should treat water as a commodity since they tend to overuse water and are not penalized for doing so. With this implementation, water may be better conserved in the North which may help the South receive economic deductions to increase clean water access.
Many take the opposite view on this issue, arguing that water is a privilege and treating water as such does not violate basic human rights. Specifically, some take the stance that water is a simple human need, not a right we all hold. One argument that supports this stance is water privatization. Some believe that the government should not hold the responsibility for providing adequate water to its civilians. Because the privatization of water has been successful before, where companies control the supply and accessibility to water, people cannot assume they are entitled to clean water without paying a price. Also, it is arguable that the number of people living in the world today without access to clean drinking water is proof enough that water is a privilege not a right. History has shown that many people do not have access to safe drinking water, and this issue will only become more severe as human population increases alongside demand. In fact, the number of people currently without access to clean drinking water totals the number of people living in the US, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, England, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia and Norway. Thus, critics argue that water is a privilege, because it is not sustainable to treat water as a right where it will become more difficult to supply as we progress into the future.
For those who see water as a privilege, their idea generally revolves around keeping sustainability of the resource. We see water being abused daily through agriculture and private consumption. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, water is a basic physiological right that is essential for survival. Allowing people access to clean drinking water would not set up a system of abuse, but would rather create a need for stricter guidelines. Fracking for example could become a safer practice after the creation of more regulation, because the risk of water source contamination would decrease as water quality and technology improve. If water is granted to everyone, we would see a growing need for protection. Consequently, the enforcement of stricter guidelines and policies would be needed to ensure the well-being of mankind.
Connor Schroeder and Albert Perez are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
The carbon cycle is currently out of balance. Humans have introduced too much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, causing climate change and changing weather patterns. We have the technology to do work with nature to sequester more carbon. Agricultural land accounts for 455 million acres of the total land area in the US of 1.9 billion acres. Unfortunately, since the time that we have settled the land, the soil organic content has dropped to about less than one-fourth of what it once was.
Humans could sequester organic carbon into soil if we operated farms and ranches with practices that increase and maintain the organic material in the soil. For example, conventional farm practices that include improper tillage and overuse of chemical fertilizers result in about 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. We can help control the CO2 released by adding organic material to the soil. Practices in which soil is mulched and rarely tilled result in a dramatic decrease in the loss of carbon dioxide from the soil. Tilling the soil upsets soil life and exposes it to sunlight and oxidation, releasing large amounts of CO2. In the natural environment, the carbon-based roots and other soil life are rarely exposed or destroyed. Such oxidation naturally takes place, but the natural process is much slower, so plants can capture the CO2 and reprocess it instead of letting it into the atmosphere.
California is a huge venue for carbon storage potential, as much of California’s agriculture is perennial. Perennial crop residue is more readily decomposed than annual residues, and perennials store carbon within the woody biomass of trees and vines. Further, with the increase in agricultural yields, the biomass returned to the soils has increased, promoting sequestration. Rice farmers have also contributed to sequestration efforts. Instead of burning the fields after harvest, most of the crop residue is now returned to the soil. Through similar small efforts, California agriculture can greatly increase its agricultural carbon sequestration.
Although there has not been significant research into vineyards as carbon sequestration resources, they hold high potential. Permanent cover cropping has been shown to increase soil organic matter when used instead of bare fallow rotations. Growing cover crops, however, can be negatively impacted by one light tillage annually. Further research is needed to understand the ability of different cover crops to increase soil carbon in vineyards. Still, there have not been many studies of vineyards and carbon sequestration. Vineyard specific studies are needed to understand the effects of vineyard management practices on carbon storage.
California could almost double carbon sequestration by adapting conservation tillage practices and returning prunings to the soil. This assumes that area for perennial agriculture continues to expand, and that the biomass of crops continues to grow. As of 2002, California’s agriculture was not sequestering through conservation tillage although the practice is commonly cited as sequestering carbon by reducing soil respiration. Due to the low erosion potential of the land and the high intensity multicropping, California agriculture has not widely adopted conservation tillage. If further research were done on adapting conservation tillage to California agriculture, we could help restore balance to the carbon cycle.
Christopher Miranda is an undergraduate in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
One of the most passionately discussed issues in the media is TransCanada’s KeystoneXLPipeline proposal, which would allow the Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada to build a pipeline tar sand products from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, where they would then be refined and exported. The Keystone XL Pipeline is an extension to the already existing Keystone Pipeline that currently reaches from Alberta to Oklahoma and Illinois. While many Republicans support the expansion of the pipeline, others point to the risks of expansion.
Republicans would point to the economic benefits that development would provide. Construction of the pipeline would create many jobs and increase energy supplies. They believe that the benefits of Keystone XL outweigh the risks to the environment. Opponents to the pipeline are numerous. Many refute the Environmental Impact Statement on the project, and believe that the risk to American water resources is too high compared to the benefits.
On January 18, President Obama rejected the proposal to build the extension, saying that Congress hadn’t given him enough time to make a well-thought-out decision. It seems as if Republicans are using Obama’s decision as proof that he isn’t doing enough to increase the number of jobs for Americans. Democrats claim that Obama’s decision is proof that he wants to think through the benefits and risks associated with the project. In either case, Obama is taking the time to assess whether the project is in national interest. These legislative battles highlight the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, a political move by Republicans to damage Obama’s re-election campaign.
Although the project may result in the creation of construction jobs and economic benefits through oil exports, it could also end in environmental disaster. Most concerns are centered on the proposed route through the Sand Hills in Nebraska, and over the Ogallala Aquifer. Alternative routes have been proposed, but risk assessments for the new routes may take up to a year. If the pipeline were to leak, the Ogallala Aquifer would be vulnerable to extensive contamination, which would be costly to remediate.
Natural Resources Defense Council staffer, attorney Anthony Swift said, “TransCanada has admitted that Keystone XL’s real time leak detection system… can’t be relied upon to detect leaks smaller than 700,000 gallons a day.” 700,000 gallons a day is a significant amount, as Swift also estimates that an undiscovered spill from Keystone XL could contaminate a large chunk of the Ogallala, “nearly half a mile long.” Such a spill would be a disaster, as remediation would be extremely difficult. Farmers in the Midwest rely on the Ogallala Aquifer’s water to grow their crops, and a spill would greatly affect the farming and food economy.
The Keystone XL Pipeline remains a hot topic, as Congress continues to send bills with addons to the President. As Congress does so, real bills are being rejected because of Keystone addons. This undermines the legislative branch’s power, and wastes time and taxpayer money. The risks posed by the pipeline certainly seem to outweigh the short-term reward.
Christopher Miranda is an undergraduate in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.