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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Back to dependence day

Gasoline is back over $3 a gallon at the local speedway station, with crude prices nearing their all-time high again--currently $73.81. Traffic is still as awful as ever--apparently Americans would prefer to drive a lot now than at all 15 years from now.

Meanwhile, there seems to be very little intelligent debate about biofuels. Arguments for ethanol and biodiesel come from Ford CEO Bill Ford and other automakers, as well as W and other politicians. They simply cite the fact that corn and soybeans are homegrown, suggesting that this frees us from dependence on foreign oil. Critics, led by Cornell professor David Pimentel, point out that it takes a lot of oil to grown corn and soybeans. This cartoon from right-winger Chuck Asay makes this point:

Many left-wingers criticize the idea of growing crops for fuel rather than food in a world where millions are starving, pointing out that it would take pretty much all of the farmland in the US to produce enough ethanol and biodiesel to keep our motoring society running, with nothing left over to eat.

I guess we should rejoice that we have an issue which seems to pretty much ignores the general political divide in this country. Perhaps we should take this opportunity to rationally discuss one issue which hasn't completely polarized America. Unfortunately, the arguments above seem intended to do just that--divide rather than inform people. I'll try to put my two cents worth in, hoping to shed more light than heat.

First: Ford and W and the farm-state proponents of biofuels are being deceptive. American agriculture uses oil by the millions of barrels, and in many cases more petrofuels go into producing biofuels than come out (as the cartoon shows).

Second: However, this absolutely need not be the case. Biofuel-producing plants CAN be grown and processed without using fossil fuels. Much of the energy needed to make ethanol from corn or biodiesel from soybeans is either simple mechanical energy, which could be generated by windmills or solar panels, or heat, which comes directly from the sun. There is plenty of solar and wind energy available to produce lots of biofuels. And farming has been done for centuries without fossil fuels--it just requires more labor, and that it be done on a local rather than national or global level.

Third: Any notion of maintaining our present insane level of motoring must be abandoned. Biofuels should be seen as a way to run the buses, trains and ships of the future, as well as a few ambulances and firetrucks. One-hundred-plus horsepower personal transportation is incompatible with survivability on a planet of seven billion people.

Fourth: Poverty, much more than an actual lack of food, is causing starvation in the poorest parts of the world. American agriculture, supported by subsidies, actually aggravates the poverty in third-world countries. Using our surplus crops to run our cars may seem selfish, but removing the crops from world markets might well enable farmers in Mexico, Africa and elsewhere to actually make a living again.

My conclusions: Liquid fuels are the most useful and easily transportable fuels available. Most liquid fuels in current use (petroleum products) are non-renewable. Liquid fuels can be produced renewably on a fairly large scale, although nowhere near the level of current production of petro-fuels. Within a decade or three, we will have to convert to an economy which is more local and sustainable. Liquid fuels, produced and used wisely, can make this a much more pleasant existence. The research being done on biofuels now shouldn't focus on how to make vehicles which run on them (which has already been done, anyway, and is just another boondoggle to send our future tax dollars, now being borrowed from China, to the Big Three). Research should focus on developing completely sustainable ways of producing biofuels, and drastically reducing our need for fuels in general through conservation and a complete redesign of our landscape.