remember, tuesday is soylent green day
There's a far greater boondoggle at work today - the Soylent Green boondoggle! Because it's made of people!
The great danger of confronting peak oil and global warming isn't that we will sit on our collective asses and do nothing while civilization collapses, but that we will plunge after "solutions" that will make our problems even worse. Like believing we can replace gasoline with ethanol, the much-hyped biofuel that we make from corn.
Ethanol, of course, is nothing new. American refiners will produce nearly 6 billion gallons of corn ethanol this year, mostly for use as a gasoline additive to make engines burn cleaner. But in June, the Senate all but announced that America's future is going to be powered by biofuels, mandating the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. According to ethanol boosters, this is the beginning of a much larger revolution that could entirely replace our 21-million-barrel-a-day oil addiction. Midwest farmers will get rich, the air will be cleaner, the planet will be cooler, and, best of all, we can tell those greedy sheiks to fuck off. As the king of ethanol hype, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, put it recently, "Everything about ethanol is good, good, good."
This is not just hype -- it's dangerous, delusional bullshit. Ethanol doesn't burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption -- yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World. And the increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for other staple crops, giving farmers in South America an incentive to carve fields out of tropical forests that help to cool the planet and stave off global warming.
So why bother? Because the whole point of corn ethanol is not to solve America's energy crisis, but to generate one of the great political boondoggles of our time. Corn is already the most subsidized crop in America, raking in a total of $51 billion in federal handouts between 1995 and 2005 -- twice as much as wheat subsidies and four times as much as soybeans. Ethanol itself is propped up by hefty subsidies, including a fifty-one-cent-per-gallon tax allowance for refiners. And a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that ethanol subsidies amount to as much as $1.38 per gallon -- about half of ethanol's wholesale market price.
The ethanol boondoggle is largely a tribute to the political muscle of a single company: agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. In the 1970s, looking for new ways to profit from corn, ADM began pushing ethanol as a fuel additive. By the early 1980s, ADM was producing 175 million gallons of ethanol a year. The company's then-chairman, Dwayne Andreas, struck up a close relationship with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a.k.a. "Senator Ethanol." During the 1992 election, ADM gave $1 million to Dole and his friends in the GOP (compared with $455,000 to the Democrats). In return, Dole helped the company secure billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks. In 1995, the conservative Cato Institute, estimating that nearly half of ADM's profits came from products either subsidized or protected by the federal government, called the company "the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent U.S. history."
Today, ADM is the leading producer of ethanol, supplying more than 1 billion gallons of the fuel additive last year. Ethanol is propped up by more than 200 tax breaks and subsidies worth at least $5.5 billion a year. And ADM continues to give back: Since 2000, the company has contributed $3.7 million to state and federal politicians.
The Iraq War has also been a boon for ADM and other ethanol producers. [emphasis Dex] The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was pushed by Corn Belt politicians, mandated the consumption of 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012. After Democrats took over Congress last year, they too vowed to "do something" about America's addiction to foreign oil. By the time Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, proposed new energy legislation this spring, the only real question was how big the ethanol mandate would be. According to one lobbyist, 36 billion gallons became "the Goldilocks number -- not too big to be impractical, not too small to satisfy corn growers."
Another misconception is that ethanol is green. In fact, corn production depends on huge amounts of fossil fuel -- not just the diesel needed to plow fields and transport crops, but also the vast quantities of natural gas used to produce fertilizers. Runoff from industrial-scale cornfields also silts up the Mississippi River and creates a vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. What's more, when corn ethanol is burned in vehicles, it is as dirty as conventional gasoline and does little to solve global warming: E85 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a modest fifteen percent at best, while fueling the destruction of tropical forests.
But the biggest problem with ethanol is that it steals vast swaths of land that might be better used for growing food. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor," University of Minnesota economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer point out that filling the gas tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn -- roughly enough calories to feed one person for a year.
Thanks in large part to the ethanol craze, the price of beef, poultry and pork in the United States rose more than three percent during the first five months of this year. In some parts of the country, hog farmers now find it cheaper to fatten their animals on trail mix, french fries and chocolate bars. And since America provides two-thirds of all global corn exports, the impact is being felt around the world. In Mexico, tortilla prices have jumped sixty percent, leading to food riots. In Europe, butter prices have spiked forty percent, and pork prices in China are up twenty percent. By 2025, according to Runge and Senauer, rising food prices caused by the demand for ethanol and other biofuels could cause as many as 600 million more people to go hungry worldwide.
Ethanol, as a "bioregionalized" energy resource, something characteristic or unique to a particular place as part of its "energy portfolio," could have some small-scale usefulness in a peak-oil future. But as some kind of civilization-sized silver bullet, not to mention as pork, it not only represents an old school that's fallen out of favor with enviros, scientists, and futurists, but also a tech-obssessed paradigm that's on the verge of failing, and profoundly so.