Robert Bryce's articles have appeared in dozens of publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Counterpunch and Atlantic Monthly to Oklahoma Stripper. His third book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence," was published in 2008. Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book, Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy, and the Real Fuels of the Future, was published in 2010 by PublicAffairs. He lives in Austin.
On December 16, Stephen Power of the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama’s transition team has been talking to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) -- the trade group funded by the corn ethanol producers -- about a bailout for the ethanol industry. Two days later, Obama announced that the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, would be the next Secretary of Agriculture and that Colorado Senator Ken Salazar would be the next Secretary of Interior. Announcing the selection, Obama said Vilsack and Salazar would be part of the “team we need” to strengthen rural America, create “green jobs” and “to free our nation from its dependence on oil.”
The fact that Obama continues to repeat this line about “dependence on oil” shows a near-complete ignorance of the scale of America’s energy needs. The U.S. currently has about 251 million registered motor vehicles, 8,200 commercial aircraft, 224,000 general aviation aircraft, and 12.7 million recreational boats. And nearly every one of those machines runs on oil.
Nevertheless, Obama appears ready to feed more money to the ethanol industry in the mistaken belief that doing so will have a significant effect on US oil needs. According to Power, the RFA provided Obama’s team “with some ideas on how to craft the language” on an economic recovery package. Those suggestions include the creation of up to $1 billion in short-term credit facilities that could allow ethanol producers to finance their operations” and “a $50 billion federal loan guarantee program to finance investment in new renewable fuel production capacity and supporting infrastructure.” The RFA also wants the feds to require that any automaker getting federal bailout money must begin producing fleets that are “flex-fuel” – thus, able burn fuels containing up to 85 percent ethanol – no later than 2010.
The idea of a bailout for the ethanol industry goes beyond the absurd. As energy blogger Robert Rapier pointed out in a recent post, “Here is an industry that can't survive even with a combination of mandates and subsidies - and our government couldn't see any of this coming. So the industry asks for more subsidies, and our kids get the bill.”
Vilsack and Salazar are long-time biofuels boosters. While governor of Iowa -- America’s biggest corn and corn ethanol, producing state – Vilsack promoted corn ethanol production and “cellulosic” ethanol which can be made from various plant sources. During his run for the White House, which ended in early 2007 when his campaign ran out of money, Vilsack said he wanted to have the US producing 60 billion gallons of renewable fuel per year by 2030. (Current US production, nearly all of it from corn ethanol, is about 10 billion gallons.)
In 2005, Salazar joined forces with Set America Free, a group founded by a group of pro-Iraq War neoconservatives who continue to promote the delusional concept of “energy independence.” That year, Salazar and several other members of the Senate decided to endorse Set America Free’s pet project: federal legislation that will require automakers to manufacture "flex-fuel" cars that can burn motor fuel containing 85 percent ethanol or methanol. Their rationale is simple: Using more ethanol from corn or other biomass, as well as methanol from coal or other sources, will create competition in the motor-fuel market and depose oil as the main transportation fuel. Oil prices will fall, the petrostates will suffer, and a newly energy-independent United States will zoom back to its position as the world's undisputed superpower.
Salazar (along with Obama) and eight other senators sponsored a bill called the “Fuel Choices for American Security Act” which included a requirement that automakers produce flex fuel cars. Salazar endorsed the measure, saying that “Energy independence for America can no longer be just a goal; it is a necessity. America deserves better and this bill will deliver.”
Both Vilsack and Salazar have been strong proponents of cellulosic ethanol. And they continue to support cellulosic ethanol even though the commercial viability of the fuel continues to be doubtful. Rapier points out that in February 2007, the federal government handed out $385 million in grants to six cellulosic ethanol projects. But today, only one commercial plant is actually under construction, and that project, owned by Georgia-based Range Fuels, has been delayed.
Several recent studies have shown that land-based biofuels produce more carbon emissions than gasoline. There are myriad other problems with biofuels including serious deforestation and pollution impacts. But the key problem is their effect on food prices. And that effect is particularly apparent in the corn ethanol scam. This year, about 4.1 billion bushels -- fully one-third of the entire US corn crop – has been diverted into ethanol distilleries. That 4.1 billion bushels of corn is more than two times as much corn as that produced by the entire European Union and more than 5 times as much as that produced by Mexico.
An April 8, 2008 internal report by the World Bank found that grain prices increased by 140 percent between January 2002 and February 2008. “This increase was caused by a confluence of factors but the most important was the large increase in biofuels production in the US and EU. Without the increase in biofuels, global wheat and maize [corn] stocks would not have declined appreciably and price increases due to other factors would have been moderate.”
In May, Mark W. Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank whose vision is “a world free of hunger and malnutrition,” testified before the US Senate on biofuels and grain prices. Rosegrant said that the ethanol mandates caused the price of corn to increase by 29 percent, rice to increase by 21 percent and wheat by 22 percent. And he estimated that if the global biofuels mandates were eliminated altogether, corn prices would drop by 20 percent. Rosegrant added that “If the current biofuel expansion continues, calorie availability in developing countries is expected to grow more slowly; and the number of malnourished children is projected to increase.”
Yet another telling report comes from the US Department of Agriculture. In July, the department released a report called “Food Security Assessment, 2007.” The first page of the report says, “The use of food crops for producing biofuels, growing demand for food in emerging Asian and Latin American countries, and unfavorable weather in some of the largest food-exporting countries in 2006-07 all contributed to growth in food prices in recent years.”
Despite these many reports, the ethanol scammers continue to claim that they are not to blame for any increases in food prices. For instance, the RFA, the same industry now hoping for an Obama bailout, recently claimed on its website that “corn demand for ethanol has no noticeable impact on retail food prices.” And the RFA continues to claim that corn ethanol is an essential element in the move toward cellulosic ethanol.
Fine. Let’s look at the numbers for cellulosic ethanol.
Let’s assume that the U.S. wants to replace 10 percent of its oil use (by volume) with cellulosic ethanol. The US consumes about 320 billion gallons of oil per year. New ethanol companies like Coskata and Syntec are claiming that they can produce about 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of biomass, which is also about the same yield that can be garnered by using grain as a feedstock.
The math is straightforward: to produce 32 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol would require the annual harvest and transport of 320 million tons of biomass. Assuming each trailer holds 15 tons of biomass, that volume of biomass would fill 21.44 million semi-trailer loads. If we further assume that each trailer is 48 feet long, the column of trailers holding that quantity of feedstock would stretch almost 195,000 miles – that’s nearly the distance from the earth to the moon.
The corn ethanol industry is a scam. Cellulosic ethanol is a sham. And yet Obama and his appointees continue to promote the false notion that these fuels are the answer to America’s energy challenge.
Obama’s right. We do need change, particularly in our energy discussion. Alas, it won’t be coming from him.
Original text here: http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm?aid=1150