Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Am I Crazy, or is the Ethanol ‘Solution’ Insane?

I stumbled on two more articles today about the absurdity of using ethanol to slow the rising cost of fuel and weaning the US off of foreign oil. At the Nation, “Why Milk Costs More Than Gas.” At ABC News, from a 20/20 report, “Sacrificing Our Children to the 'Corn God'.

I’m also reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” at the moment, so it’s becoming clear to me that we need to ratchet down our production of corn in this country, not pump it up.

Before I go into details here, I’d like to make a plea to anyone out there who can direct me to contradictory info. Aside from politicians trying to raise votes in corn country, could you point me to a credible, objective source that is SUPPORTING ethanol for reducing fuel prices and achieving a higher degree of energy independence?

At the nation, writer Nicholas von Hoffman observes that milk in one New England neighborhood sells for $4.79 per gallon while milk sells for $3.04. “One of the factors driving up the cost of milk is the ethanol stampede,” he explains. “American ethanol is made from corn, and the more corn we use to feed our cars, the more expensive is the corn left over for our livestock.” Not only that, milk basically comes from gas.

According to Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it takes a gallon of oil to grow three bushels of corn in this country. (You can read more, and I’m citing info from this Washington Post review of his book
here.) Oil is needed to make the fertilizer and pesticides that help grow corn. Once the corn is harvested, dairy farmers feed it to their livestock.

Look at the simple economics of this. Supply and demand. More demand for corn leads to more demand for oil. The price of both of these goes up, right? So not only does it cost more to produce a gallon of milk, it also costs more to buy a gallon of gas. Am I oversimplifying this? Or is this truly absurd?

If price were the issue, we could buy from ethanol from Brazil where it’s more efficient to produce it. “But Brazilian ethanol, thanks to the agribusiness lobby and a 54-cent-per-gallon import tariff, is kept out of the country,” according to the Nation’s von Hoffman.

So if it’s not price, this must be about energy independence, right? Um, okay. But remember it takes oil to make corn, which we then turn into ethanol to replace oil. Where does the oil originally come from? Overseas, I’d wager. Again, am I oversimplifying this? Or is ethanol a truly absurd solution?

How much oil does it really take to create a gallon of ethanol? About a gallon. According to ABC News, by way of a 20/20 report, “a number of recent studies show that it takes just about as much energy to produce ethanol as you get when you burn ethanol.”

“The idea that ethanol is the answer is a myth,” reads the 20/20 report. But it’s a myth yielding tremendous political capitol. “By pushing to subsidize ethanol, candidates are able to keep voters happy in critical Midwestern election states, and seem like friends of the environment. It also lets them convince voters that we're moving toward the hallowed state of "energy independence.”

What’s the answer? How do we achieve lower priced fuel, energy independence and a healthier environment? Simple. One word. Conservation.

“Instead of making windy speeches about our ‘oil addiction,’ our politicians should be at work making sure we use less of the stuff now,” urges von Hoffman.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.