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Of ethanol and other boondoggles

By Erik Wilkins-McKee

Posted February 16, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of columns on foreign policy, energy, and climate change.

Here’s some good news: U.S. politicians are realizing there is a connection between energy security and environmental preservation, and joining hands across political divides to move toward more rational energy policies.

California and the northeastern states, with others following, have either imposed or begun looking at limiting emissions of greenhouse gases in an effort to curb climate change. Meanwhile, a consortium of environmental groups and some of the country’s leading corporations have called for mandatory caps on carbon emissions, and there is talk in Congress of a cap-and-trade system that would utilize the markets to accomplish a reduction in the gases. Finally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has somewhat lessened its forecasts for average global temperature increases and sea level rise over the next century.

Here’s some bad news: Pres. George W. Bush is pushing for increased production of ethanol and “other biofuels” as a means of cutting gasoline consumption, and increasing national security, over the next 10 years. Many in Congress are enthusiastic about this proposal. Shifting to alternative fuels might accomplish these goals, of course, but that is somewhat uncertain. As I noted in a previous column, a shift to ethanol and biofuels would reduce production of greenhouse gases from the transportation fleet, but not halt their growth, since the number of miles driven in this country each year has been on the increase for 30 years and the number of cars on the road continues to go up. In fact, the feeling of “doing something” by driving a more efficient car could reinforce the tendency of people to drive more, whereas more expensive gasoline or lower-mileage vehicles might push them to conserve.

Meanwhile, the production of ethanol from corn, which is the main U.S. source for the fuel, has its own problems. Besides leading to higher corn prices and reducing its use as a food crop, increasing the amount of ethanol produced domestically might actually lead to more pollution. Since ethanol cannot be transported through conventional pipelines, trucking would increase. So would the use of diesel fuel in farming, the production of pesticides and fertilizers from petroleum distillates, and the use of energy in ethanol production itself. One estimate suggests that the net effect would be to consume more energy to produce each gallon of ethanol than the ethanol itself produces. Even an optimistic study predicts only a 10 percent net gain in energy with corn ethanol. A transition in the transportation fleet to cars and trucks that use ethanol would also take time, so over the next 10 to 15 years we would see small effects at best, and probably a net setback. Three cheers for Archer Daniels Midland and its allies in government.

Politics and energy efficiency aside, though, it seems like there is another problem with corn-based ethanol that people haven’t been talking about. The unknown in all this is the effect that climate change might have on rainfall patterns. Let’s say that we develop a fleet of vehicles that run on corn-based ethanol — and then a severe, years-long drought strikes the corn belt, and wipes out an important fuel source.

A related example is instructive. The New York Times reported recently that the European Union is re-examining its mandate for a shift to biofuels in light of new information on the effects of using palm oil as a substitute for fossil fuels. It turns out that the production of this low-polluting, renewable, “miracle fuel” has made Indonesia the third-leading source of greenhouse gases worldwide, as rainforests are cut down to clear land for palm tree plantations and oil production methods that are inefficient are increasing pollution rates and energy use.

Perhaps this sounds gloomy, but only the ignorant believe that realism should be referred to as pessimism. So if there are problems with a shift to biofuels, consider the other possibilities that will retard that shift in the United States and other countries. As everyone knows by now, the Arctic is melting, with projections now saying that the Arctic Ocean should be free of annual summer ice by 2040. Three years ago, models held that this would happen by late in the century. The problem is that the melting opens new areas to oil and gas exploration, and makes it easier to ship oil from that region. In one sense that’s just as well, since melting permafrost has greatly reduced the length of the season when trucks can transport fuel from Alaska each year, and caused damage to the pipelines through buckling. But taken together, is open water so good?

“To whom much is given much is required,” Bush noted in his State of the Union speech. How about meaningful changes? Think the challenges are too big? To that I say, quoting Bush, “Bring ’em on.”

More to come.

Erik Wilkins-McKee is a political theorist living, writing, and editing in Putney.