Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Magic Bullet

Adapted from article first printed in Kansas City Star, 7/22/06, entitled "Corn No 'Magic Bullet' For Our Energy Crisis."

Henry Ford in 1925 said, "The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust--almost anything."

The father of the mass-produced automobile was 81 years too early in his prediction, but it's now likely that "weeds" will play some part in fueling our vehicles.

But we should be extremely skeptical of the assorted snake-oil salesmen with their cure-all patent medicine. In the Midwest, the syrupy elixir is ethanol made from corn.

Biofuels, of which ethanol is the best known, are byproducts of once-living organisms, which could include such things as wood, elephant dung or grass. Today biofuels are essentially alcohols that come from crops like sugar cane, soybeans and corn.

Biofuels are "carbon-neutral," in theory. They don't supply significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the main greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Corn as fuel is now being touted in the United States. From Wall Street investment firms to bloated agribusinesses, corn has become the latest energy traveling circus.

But like the wizard behind the curtain, much of the ethanol ballyhoo is smoke and mirrors. Some people, however, may become rich because of the public's gullibility and its apparent unwillingness to even consider a national energy and environmental policy.

We've got a lot of corn in America. In fact, corn-based fast foods and the numerous products that contain high fructose corn syrup have helped make America possibly the most obese nation in history. The problem is that corn may be one of the worst plants we could consider as a biofuel.

Although corn is heavily subsidized, courtesy of the American taxpayer, it also uses more synthetic fertilizer than any other crop. The fertilizer comes primarily from natural gas, and nitrogen runoffs cause immense damage to water supplies and aquatic life. Corn also uses a lot of pesticides, which are made from petroleum.

Atrazine, a highly poisonous herbicide--banned by the European Union--is applied in large amounts on American cornfields. The Environmental Protection Agency states it is the second-most-common pesticide in drinking wells.

And even before the corn gets near a distillation plant, it has already used one-third to one-half gallon of gasoline for every bushel of corn grown. More fossil fuel is used when the corn is actually distilled. Cheap, readily available fossil fuel is a rapidly vanishing delusion.

Of course, global corporations like Archer Daniels Midland are salivating at the prospect of turning all that corn into gold. ADM is the largest producer of ethanol (from corn) in the United States. Over the years this particular company has been found guilty of price fixing, charged with numerous violations of the Clean Air Act, and has had to pay out millions of dollars in fines and settlements. Perhaps most ironic of all is that ADM proposes to produce much of the ethanol in its coal-fired plants, one of the dirtiest forms of energy around.

Reducing our fossil fuel consumption is urgent and long overdue. The obvious first step is an authentic national conservation plan.

Biofuels will become just one of many possible energy alternatives. In the not-too-distant future we may be making ethanol from vegetable cellulose such as switchgrass, which would be far more efficient, less costly and less harmful to the environment than any corn ethanol.

A country with no conservation policy, anxious to find a quick fix for rural America, and guided by some obsolete cartoon capitalism will believe almost anything, even some fairy tale about a new "energy bullet."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bigger Body Count

This year the United States will have a population of 300,000,000. We have a net gain of 1 person every 11 seconds. The U.S. is now the fastest growing "developed" country in the world.

James Howard Kunstler's book The Long Emergency is worth reading. Kunstler's thesis is that cheap fossil fuel has made the modern world possible; it is the "platform" from which our rapid technological advances have occurred, including everything from democratic institutions to improved health care to discussions about what our existence means. And it all may be coming to an end. Cheap, readily available fossil fuel is an anomaly in human history.

In the end, according to Kunstler, we may get optimistically 200 years or so out of cheap fuel--and we've already used up about 150 years. We're running out of it because it's a finite resource, although we sometimes act as though it's not. Most important, there is nothing we know of today that's going to remotely replace it or make it possible to enjoy continued growth or increasing levels of prosperity. It's going to get pretty bleak, what Kunstler calls the "long emergency." Some will find Kunstler's thesis implausible and others on target. But most people will nevertheless find it disturbing....

We have more than 6 billion humans living on the planet right now, and our rapid population increase began at the start of the industrial revolution around 1800 and really took off in the early twentieth century. In the late eighteenth century we had approximately one billion inhabitants on Earth. This could once again become the upper limit of our sustainable population.

America is now the third most populous country in the world. We are by far the worst polluter on the planet, emitting nearly twice the carbon dioxide emissions as our closest competitor, China. We average some 1,300 gallons of water per day, per citizen, the highest rate in the world. We Americans individually generate hundreds of pounds of trash each year, with paper, plastics, and metals leading the way.

One in three teenage girls in the U.S. become pregnant, and more than 50% of Americans now live within 10 miles of polluted water. The current American government has essentially restricted international family planning funds to sexual abstinence policies because of the dysfunctional influence of Christian fundamentalism. And we haven't even talked about the growing environmental disaster that's occurring in China and to a lesser degree in India. These two countries have a combined population of more than two billion inhabitants.

Even with cheap, readily available fossil fuels, we've got a planet in acute trouble. What are we willing and able to do? What are we willing to give up--because those of us in the developed world will have to part with a great deal? How fast are we willing to do it? The options are vanishing fast.