Foreign Policy, March 7, 2006 features The Green Bullet by Lester B. Lave, W. Michael Griffin. The authors begin: "There's a straightforward way for Washington to end America’s addiction to foreign oil, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resolving the impasse on international trade: Turn farm subsides into fuel subsides." Then they offer up minor "economic" and "environmental" roadblocks, that they easily dismiss:
...So what’s the catch? Corn farming is rough on the environment. Soil erosion due to wind and water is rampant. Fertilizer and pesticide runoffs produce algae blooms that result in “dead zones,” including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is so polluted it cannot support aquatic life. Furthermore, building the ethanol processing plants will take 3–4 years, and gas stations would have to commit to providing ethanol. And, because ethanol uses only the starch in corn, not the oil, protein, or other components, converting corn into ethanol is attractive only if there is a market for the byproducts. Opinions differ, but some estimate that byproduct markets could saturate well short of 11 billion gallons of production.Others are not so sanguine. Robert Bryce's Corn Dog, Slate, July 19, 2005, is subtitled "The ethanol subsidy is worse than you can imagine." Bryce cuts quickly to the chase:
Fortunately, the surplus corn that isn’t economic to convert to ethanol doesn’t have to be grown, because it could easily be replaced with switchgrass. The prairie grass that President Bush mentioned in the 2006 State of the Union Address is naturally resistant to many pests and diseases, requiring far smaller amounts of chemicals and fertilizers. It’s also drought-tolerant and can grow in poor soil. Most important, it can be used to produce ethanol. If the current federal subsidy given to corn were extended to switchgrass, farmers would realize approximately the same income per acre as they do growing corn today. The new crop would use less fertilizer and pesticides, resulting in less erosion. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff would be dramatically reduced, and much of our motor fuel would be renewable.
To be sure, producing ethanol from switchgrass uses new technology that isn’t fully developed. There are pioneer plants in Canada and Brazil, but the costs of commercial production are unclear.
… And the best part: It can be done without Washington spending a dime more than it already does.
...The stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?See also Science Daily, April 1, 2005 , Study: Ethanol Production Consumes Six Units Of Energy To Produce Just One,
The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there's a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn. Other boosters, including Woolsey, claim there are huge energy gains (as much as 700 percent) to be had by making ethanol from grass.
But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.
And, especially, Ted Patzek's collection of Biofuel Literature.
Obviously my bias lies with the skeptics. Are we wrong?
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