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Monday, May 05, 2008

Ethanol not a real solution

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

When no one was looking, the "world food crisis" elbowed out "global climate change" as our planet's Numero Uno calamity.

As if that weren't bad enough, we now discover that the two are connected; with this attempt to fix the climate by shifting away from fossil fuels to more "eco-friendly" renewable fuels, we have ended up starving people in Africa and Asia.

Seems like we can hardly settle on one cataclysm before another one demands our attention.

Food riots have broken out around the world; grain-producing countries have banned exports to feed their own people; food prices in the U.S. and around the world have gone through the roof. The UN—its usual bold self—created a task force to study the matter.

What shall we do, what shall we do? We can start by yanking the idiotic and elephantine government aid given to ethanol production, today's biofuel of choice. Farmland previously planted with corn for food and feedstock for cattle now is planted with corn for ethanol. The 15 percent of total corn acreage that in 2005 went into ethanol production has rocketed to an expected 33 percent this year as farmers abandon wheat and other grains to cash in. Naturally, the increasing scarcity of wheat—the staff of life—has driven up its price. And because the U.S. is the world's breadbasket, those higher prices and shortages rebound throughout the world. Just how much ethanol is at fault is an unsettled point of contention, with farmers and ethanol producers whining to Congress, "don't blame us." But a study by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that biofuels—principally ethanol—have accounted for a quarter to a third of the recent food price increases.



Some experts saw this coming several years ago, but their warnings were drowned out by the simple-minded bleating of Greens. Just say "oil alternative" to a Green, and salivating follows, whether it is solar, thermal, wind or biomass power. And because it isn't the hated oil, some Greens blithely toss in other alleged benefits, such as reducing pollution and solving global warming. Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota ecologist, disagrees. "If we convert every corn kernel grown today in the U.S. to ethanol," he said, "we offset just 12 percent of our gasoline use."

Still, the duty, nay the moral obligation, to toss big money into ethanol research and production somehow has fallen to the government (read taxpayers). In subsidies, more than $8 billion annually.

Perhaps more important, the government has created a market—a false market—for ethanol by ordering that huge quantities be produced and added to our gasoline. Pay higher taxes, so that you can pay higher gas prices, chump. Greens have been remarkably quiescent about this debate, finding themselves in a fix. Do they favor costly, renewable energy at the expense of hungry Third World nations? Or do they abandon their knee-jerk advocacy of a popular but jejune energy solution?

The two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, stand on the side of the knee-jerk and big agribusiness solution: continue to pour more subsidies into ethanol production and oppose with high tariffs Brazilian imports of cheaper ethanol made from sugar. President Bush also is sticking by his support of big favors for the ethanol industry.

The pending $286 billion farm bill, which under usual circumstances is an unconscionable giveaway to agribusiness, makes only an infinitesimal, token cut in ethanol subsidies. Only the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, has the guts to stand against the powerful farm and ethanol lobbies.

"I oppose subsidies," he said. "Not just ethanol subsidies. Subsidies."

If only our politicians in Illinois, one of the largest corn-growing and ethanol-producing states, had the same courage to stand up against the big business special interests. Instead of selling us out to them.

4 comments:

Lorna Paisley said...

You need to differentiate your greens. There are greens and there are informed greens. I am quite informed, though I'm sure there is much I don't know.
Informed greens are not in favor of ethanol. You need to quit condemning all of us.
And I'd like to add that big business such not be subsidized. I have to agree with McCain on that one.
If I'm not mistaken big business receives more subsidies than the poor. Darn those powerful lobbyists.

Taxpayer said...

Dennis,
I thought you might want to ask our Liberal Senator Durbin some questions about the Ethanol boondoggle.
Dear Mr.
Thank you for contacting me about domestic ethanol production. I appreciate hearing your views on this matter and understand your concerns.

Demand for corn has risen with increased investment in ethanol production. High grain and corn prices have a significant impact on livestock and poultry producers as well as consumers.

I have supported the use of domestically produced renewable energy sources like biodiesel and ethanol, and I believe they can play a significant role in our energy policy.

Ethanol can reduce air pollution, buttress our national security by replacing imported crude oil, strengthen the rural economy,Make the farmers richer and create jobs as ethanol production facilities are built and operated. In a nearly pure form, ethanol can also be an alternative to gasoline for use in specially designed E-85 vehicles.

Since ethanol will play an important role in our fuel supply for the foreseeable future, we need to look for ways to address the environmental and cost concerns that have been raised.

Some critics argue that the production of ethanol is not energy efficient. An accurate calculation of any fuel's net energy balance must take into account all inputs and processes involved in the fuel cycle, including the development, delivery and final use of the fuel. Current corn-based ethanol production does yield a net energy gain (of how much Senator?) and ethanol has significant benefits when compared to conventional gasoline.
Researchers are currently working to develop biofuels made from low-input native perennial plants and plant waste. As we continue to see technological advancements in biofuel production, we are likely to witness a move toward less energy-intensive biofuel feedstocks like corn stover, wheat straw, switchgrass, and forest biomass. I will continue to support increases in funding for renewable energy research and development, which may help mitigate some of the concerns you raised.

You have raised some important concerns about these issues. I will keep your thoughts in mind as I continue to work for sensible energy policies.



Again, thank you for your message. Please feel free to keep in touch.


Sincerely,

Richard J. Durbin

United States Senator

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

First of all, gasoline is so expensive that corn ethanol can compete without the subsidy. So removing the tax break will have no effect.

Secondly, to answer Taxpayer's question, corn ethanol yields 1.33 units of energy for each unit of input. So there is a net gain.

Finally, as you yourself have stated, corn ethanol has only caused a small part of the food shortage. Once production of cellulosic ethanol (see Durbin's letter) begins, that problem will go away entirely. In the meantime, we should work to solve the other causes. This would include providing high-yield seeds to farmers in developing countries and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which cause droughts that have reduced harvests in Europe and Australia recently.

Anonymous said...

The taxpayers get it in the neck three ways; subsidies to agribusiness, higher fuel costs, and more aid to the starving poor in foreign countries. The perfect trifecta to destroy our hard-won prosperity. No wonder the Greens and the Left love this boondoggle.

Margaret