Wednesday, January 24, 2007

For Amber Waves of Grain

It’s not a popular question to ask, but…

How renewable is ethanol?

Because basically, if Bush is selling, I ain’t buying.

I have to wonder, if Bush is pushing it, what’s the real agenda? It’s difficult for me to believe that George W. Bush truly has the interests of the planet or society at heart.

A quick scan through documents and sources on the Internet for guidance and the “truth” about ethanol is like leafing through the Bible for approval regarding one’s actions. One can find arguments to support both sides of the issue.

According to an April 2005 article in “Science Daily,” and a UC Berkely geo-engineering professor named Tad W. Patzek: "In terms of renewable fuels, ethanol is the worst solution. It has the highest energy cost with the least benefit." When one adjusts for “the amount of fuel used to produce fertilizers and corn seeds to the transportation and wastewater disposal costs”, it is his conclusion that “the cumulative energy consumed in corn farming and ethanol production is six times greater than what the end product provides your car engine in terms of power.”

Patzek is again quoted here: “People tend to think of ethanol and see an endless cycle: corn is used to produce ethanol, ethanol is burned and gives off carbon dioxide, and corn uses the carbon dioxide as it grows,” he said. “But that isn’t the case. Fossil fuel actually drives the whole cycle.”

Patzek’s calculations have been disputed by a number of other experts, including Hosein Shapouri, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who says that while "it's true that the original ethanol plants in the 1970s went bankrupt…Patzek doesn't consider the impact new, more efficient production technologies have had on the ethanol industry."

Not surprisingly, Shapouri’s 2004 analysis from the USDA “comes to the exact opposite conclusion…Ethanol, he said, has a positive energy balance, containing 67 percent more energy than is used to manufacture it.”

But wait a minute!

Cornell University ecology Professor David Pimentel calls ethanol production "subsidized food burning” adding that "The bottom line is that we're using far more energy in making ethanol than we're getting out."

The National Biodiesel Board disputes Pimentel’s claims.

Think you have it straightened out?
Think again.

A little booklet from the United States Department of Energy from 1999, citing mainly their own research and that of other government agencies, tells us that ethanol is just good, good, good, and it’s a fact.

Michael B. McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard wrote in the November-December 2006 issue of “Harvard Magazine”, writes that, even aside from ethanol’s dubious claims to energy superiority, the people who are really profiting from the subsidies and tax credits are the ethanol producers themselves, not the farmers. He also states that “an increase in the fuel efficiency of American vehicles by 10 percent would result in gasoline savings greater than could be achieved with even a sixfold increase in domestic ethanol production (and would yield an immediate large reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions).”

A new (January 2007) MIT study states that. “the energy balance is actually so close that several factors can easily change whether ethanol ends up a net energy winner or loser.” Her research was supported by BP America.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Climate Solutions put out a report in February of 2006 concluding that corn ethanol is saving emissions and oil but that cellulose would be preferable.

What do I think?
I am skeptical. I think that the government should fund research and development in sustainable and renewable energy such as solar and wind. I think that tax credits and subsidies should be given to farmers who plant organic and use sustainable practices for food production. I believe that oil companies should not be given tax breaks for using ethanol, but should be penalized for not using it, if it’s so great.

I think that ethanol is a placation for midwestern farmers who have been devastated by industrial farming practices, giving over land that was used for food production to ethanol production. I think this will lead to less biological diversity, more imported food, depleted soil, erosion, and increased use of irrigation and fertilizer.

I think it’s another case of Bush using words that sound good while avoiding making the choices that could effect real change in consumption and in energy production. What about more stringent CAFÉ standards? Tax gas guzzlers and increase rebates for hybrids. Reward conservation and penalize unnecessary consumption.

I think that this is another way to continue to reward oil and energy companies while sounding “green.” I think it’s another way to keep farmers quiet while the real people making the money are the refineries and the producers.