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General Wes Clark Hearts Ethanol - But I Don't

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Feb 04, 2009 at 18:44:13 PM PST


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Ethanol's making headlines this week, so it's time to talk about it. The latest is that Wes Clark will co-chair a pro-ethanol group called Growth Energy. Normally I see agribusiness as monolithic - me against them - but in this case they are split into two very stubborn camps, pro and anti ethanol. It bothers me that my anti-ethanol stance puts me in bed with the likes of factory farms and soda companies. Where we differ is that I am not against ethanol because I'm addicted to cheap corn - factory farmers and the Grocery Manufacturers Association are. Here's what George Naylor and Irene Lin had to say about the politics of corn ethanol:

In Washington, a major schism has arisen in the big Ag community, with the National Corn Growers Association, American Farm Bureau and pro-ethanol interests battling against their normal partners-in-crime, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and livestock interests like the National Cattlemen Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

The Bush Administration so far has sided with the pro-ethanol camp, with USDA attributing only 4 percent of food price increases to the increase in corn prices. Meanwhile, food processors and livestock corporations blame high corn prices and ethanol for shrinking their profits and cite a World Bank economist's estimates that 75 percent of the food price increase can be blamed on ethanol.

More below...

Jill Richardson :: General Wes Clark Hearts Ethanol - But I Don't
This isn't a Democrat vs. Republican thing in any sort of way. As you see above, both Bush and Clark are pro-ethanol... so are Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, and Tom Vilsack (Grist calls Vilsack Secretary of Biofuels). Yuck! Can't anyone in Washington grow a brain about this?

Two headlines came out this week that highlight ethanol's less than perfect qualities. First, Biofuels More Harmful to Humans Than Petrol and Diesel, Warn Scientists. The study's results are specifically about corn ethanol, as the article says that next generation biofuels show some promise. But the corn ethanol we've got now? It's bad news:

Using computer models developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the researchers found the total environmental and health costs of gasoline are about 71 cents (50p) per gallon, while an equivalent amount of corn-ethanol fuel has associated costs of 72 cents to $1.45, depending on how it is produced.

The scientists quoted in the article said that most research comparing ethanol to gasoline or diesel only compared the carbon footprint. They wanted to take into consideration other factors, specifically health effects on humans, to see which fuel really came out ahead.

"Corn requires nitrogen fertilisers and some of that comes on as ammonia, which is volatilised into the air," said Tilman. "The ammonia particles are charged and they attract fine dust particles. They stick together and form particles of the size of 2.5 micron and that has significant health impacts. Some of this gets blown by prevailing winds into areas of higher population density - that's where you have the large number of people having the health impact which raises the cost."

Health problems from biofuels and gasoline include increased cases of heart disease, respiratory symptoms, asthma, chronic bronchitis or premature death. The team has calculated the economic costs associated with these. "For the economy, it's the loss of good, productive workers who might otherwise have been able to contribute," said team member Jason Hill, an economist at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

They acknowledge that greenhouse gas and health effects are not the only factors, and we should also look into impacts on water quality and biodiversity, etc, to really understand which, if any, biofuels are worth pursuing.

The second headline says Study Finds that Biofuels Require Increased Fossil Fuel Usage and Take Food off Peoples' Tables. That's pretty damning. The article covers the work of David Pimentel, a Cornell scientist who has done some of the best work in analyzing how many calories it takes in fossil fuels per calorie of food we produce. Here's what he found:

The research finds a negative energy return of 46 percent for corn ethanol, 50 percent for switchgrass, 63 percent for soybean biodiesel and 58 percent for rapeseed. Even the most promising palm oil production results in a minus 8 percent net energy return. There are also a number of environmental problems linked to converting crops for biofuels, including water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, global warming, soil erosion and air pollution.

In the researchers' opinion, there is simply not enough land, water and energy to produce biofuels. They also argue that ironically, the US is becoming more oil-dependent, not less, as was intended through the production of biofuels. In most cases, more fossil energy is required to produce a unit of biofuel compared with the energy that it provides. As a result, the US is importing more oil and natural gas in order to make the biofuels.

And yet - which direction is our country going in? Well, we're deregulating genetically modified corn that had its genes fiddled with to make it easier to convert into ethanol, for one thing. And then there's Obama's words about Tom Vilsack, his new Ag Secretary:

But biofuels are certain to be at the top of Vilsack's agenda. President-elect Barack Obama, introducing Vilsack at a Chicago news conference, touted the former Iowa governor's support for ethanol.

He "understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home," Obama said.

Maslyn [a policy director for the American Farm Bureau Federation] said Vilsack "has been a very, very influential advocate" for ethanol. "This country really does need to embrace a long-term vision and strategy and stick to it in terms of energy independence. Renewable fuels are central to that."

Ugh. All this happy talk about ethanol in the face of these very clear studies showing why we SHOULDN'T produce the stuff frustrates me. Wouldn't we get a LOT more bang for our buck in terms of oil dependence AND global warming AND the well-being of our nation's farmers if we followed the recommendations of the Rodale Institute by compensating farmers for carbon sequestration (using farming techniques that can use 2/3 less oil while simultaneously achieving higher yields)?

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