Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Evils of Big Corn

A couple months back The Wall Street Journal had a fawning write up on Brazil's ethanol industry. As usual I knew the story was a crock, but the paper just sat around since I didn't feel like making time to do hours worth of research to refute it. Fortunately, someone has gone and done just that! From The Wall Street Journal opinion page:
Ah, but what about the other alleged virtues of ethanol? One favorite is that every gallon of ethanol will supplant a gallon of gasoline imported from tyrannical Mideast oil regimes. Thus, a la Brazil, ethanol can help the U.S. achieve the miracle of "energy independence."

Sorry. The most widely cited research on this subject comes from Cornell's David Pimental and Berkeley's Ted Patzek. They've found that it takes more than a gallon of fossil fuel to make one gallon of ethanol--29% more. That's because it takes enormous amounts of fossil-fuel energy to grow corn (using fertilizer and irrigation), to transport the crops and then to turn that corn into ethanol. The Saudis ought to love the stuff.
Here's an issue that would seem to be made to order for the Democrats. A farm belt lobbying group (that's at least nominally a GOP leaning group) is exploiting the American people for corporate subsidies to pump up the obscene profits of big business. Add to that fact that ethanol is bad for the environment and it's expanded usage means more heavily fertilized corn farms and it would seem the environmentalists would be making noise about it instead of imaginary B.S. like global warming and the ozone layer.*

Except...they aren't. Even more disappointing is the fact that this issue has such a direct impact on the liberal urban voters that are such a solid base for the Democrats. Part of the Ethanol subsidy program is little more than a scheme to steal money from Democrat voters (urban areas use the most convoluted gas 'cocktails') and give it to (again, nominally**) GOP voters. This shows what a leash old school socialism is to the Democrats. The dinosaurs (and idiots) who still believe in that crap keep the view of the state as an end unto itself; thus if its not controlling people it is not serving its purpose.

*(The same can be said for the overly generous sugar subsidies to sugar growers. Governnment subsidized growers trashed the Florida Everglades and I never saw anything about it outside of conservative opinion pieces. Of course, if you think the sugar growers had to pay for the cleanup, you've got another thing coming).

**(Recent history says that such interests get their largess from the government and then give a slice back to whoever is in power in Washington. The growers, at least, have no ideological interest apart from their welfare check. )


thismarty said...

I think that the WSJ refutation that you quote misses a key point. That point being that today, the nascent ethanol fuel industry is in the process of building its own infrastructure. One unhappy, and ironic, but necessary consequence of this is that for the moment, the ethanol industry is dependant on the existing, petrofuel infrastructure. So, while today we must reap ethanol-corn using gas-gussling-fossil-fuel-driven tractors and such, eventually if all goes well, those tractors will be replaced by ethanol-powered tractors. And, since the tractors in that brave new world will be powered by 85% ethanol, the total percentage of petrofuel they'll consume in doing so would presumably go down to less than 20% (if my math is right), from the roughly 129% quoted in the piece.

Evil Sandmich said...

Believe me, I want something besides Arab oil to work for energy, but I don't think ethanol will be it. Long term, it might work into being part of the equation, but the corporate interests are playing on people's hopes in a successful bid to part them from their cash.

Here's a couple slices from the skeptic pie, first from here:

David Pimental, a leading Cornell University agricultural expert, has calculated that powering the average U.S. automobile for one year on ethanol (blended with gasoline) derived from corn would require 11 acres of farmland, the same space needed to grow a year's supply of food for seven people. Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion into ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make one gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTUS. Thus, 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in it. Every time you make one gallon of ethanol, there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTUs.

And from here:

In 2005, United States gasoline consumption was about 150 billion gallons per year. An acre of corn can produce approximately 200 gallons (gasoline equivalent) per year. The United States would have to place roughly 750 million acres of corn into production to fully meet this demand. For comparison, this is nearly double the total area currently used for all crops in the US (430 million acres) and about one third of the total land area of the United States (2.3 billion acres). There are currently about 80 million acres of corn planted in the United States.

Now it might get more efficient in the future, but I doubt if it could get more efficient than Brazil's which uses a far better crop (sugar) from which to get alcohol; but even they have to use subsidies and they can only pull off what they can because of the significantly smaller car market compared to the U.S.

For me, ethanol ranks right up there with fusion as a possible power source (and embryonic stem cells for medicinal use). It seems like the proponents are saying that they're always just 'one breakthrough away' from making it worthwhile. The fact that private cash wouldn't touch this crap without the government robbing Peter to pay Paul speaks volumes about its future prospects. What's worse is that this stuff is stealing capital from the marketplace that might go to a product that actually works while the subsidies provide inverse encouragement to ever make ethanol work (i.e., right now ADM is paid a bucket of money for a product that doesn’t work. Whether ethanol ever will work or not is irrelevant since ADM is already getting paid to not work. This is no different than the government subsidizing people to not work with the idea that they’re paying them until they can work; but if ‘until’ is actually ‘never’ then logically the checks will never stop coming in. Everyone from the laziest, dumbest hillbilly to the smartest CEO has that figured out, but for some reason the logic always escapes the politicians, which I guess isn’t that unusual).

(As an FYI, the Sandmich himself is a direct beneficiary of Ethanol. The business I work for makes a piece of the fuel pump motor. With gasoline, auto manufacturers could use an easy to make part that cost between 10 and 30 cents. What parts of those are still made are now made in China; but my workplace makes a newer part that has to stand up to the caustic nature of the alcohol blends and it costs between one and two dollars. These parts are mainly made in Europe and the U.S. If the U.S. stopped subsidizing ethanol, I would be unemployed within days. So ethanol it up baby! Daddy needs a new raise!)

thismarty said...

Watch what you say about stem cell research there, boy!

Evil Sandmich said...

One of the great con jobs that's been done by lazy, pork loving scientists has been duping America into thinking that 'cloned embryonic stem cell research' = 'stem cell research'. The former is actually a specialized, controversial, and ineffective version of the latter. I'll not get into now (I've written about it before), but this is a classic example of private money going to where the real promise for the research lies and the government flushing money down the john in the name of giving money to their buddies.

Anyway, more Alt-Fuel goodness to be found here. I thought a bit more about this and figured that only the U.S., Canada, (possibly) Russia, and (to a limited extent) Brazil have the ability to even dream about ethanol since only they have the land, low population density and resources available to even take a shot at pulling off a failed attempt.

Anonymous said...

I llove that Op-Ed in the Journal and the stooges who cite it. First it brings up Brazul and then talks about corn, skirting the issue that Brazilian ethanol is made from sugar cane and those UC forumals don't apply. What bull to cite this nonsense. What oil company are you shilling for Sir Sandwich? And who beleives this baloney?

Evil Sandmich said...

I think it's abundantly clear that ethanol is a non-starter for the U.S. and the only reason ethanol does as well as it does in Brazil is because of the extra taxes heaped on petro imports. That being said, Brazil might, might be able to make it work, for themselves in their particular situation (as I say above, it may part of some solution); however, this does not make ethanol a viable alternative for the other countries of the world because either A) they use WAY too much energy B) they don't have enough land C) they don't have enough expertise, or even more likely D) All the above. It will always be a boutique fuel used for prudish reasons because it doesn't scale well at all.