Ethanol Subsidy Needs to Go. Now.

Another black eye for the Environmental Protection Agency. The news out of Washington, D.C., is that our EPA has denied a request to waive ethanol mandates while the heartland recovers from a terrible drought, and consumers’ wallets seek relief from high food prices. Via the Detroit News (H/T Drudge Report):

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday rejected a request from eight governors and nearly 200 members of Congress to waive requirements for the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline, after last summer’s severe drought wilted much of the nation’s corn crop.

Later in the same article, Michal Rosenoer with Friends of the Earth offers his assessment of EPA’s decision:

“If the worst U.S. drought in more than 50 years and skyrocketing food prices are not enough to make EPA act, it falls to Congress to provide relief from our senseless federal support for corn ethanol,” [Rosenoer] said.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard is a broken policy — rather than giving us clean energy, it’s incentivizing biofuels like corn ethanol that are exacerbating our economic and environmental problems.

“Congress needs to cut corn ethanol from the RFS entirely to protect the economy and the environment from this destructive and dirty fuel.”

Michal Rosenoer is dead on. Washington does a lot of dumb things, but few things are as transparently stupid as the huge subsidy and fuel mandates for ethanol. If I may, I’d like to offer a few points of my own against ethanol:

(1) Ethanol is a waste of energy. Literally. Ethanol supporters can argue all they want, but the science is clear that ethanol is a net-energy loser, and therefore an environmental loser. This fantastic 2005 Slate article on ethanol highlights the relevant arguments (edited for length):

The stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there’s a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn.

But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser. According to their calculations, ethanol contains about 76,000 BTUs per gallon, but producing that ethanol from corn takes about 98,000 BTUs. For comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 116,000 BTUs per gallon. But making that gallon of gas—from drilling the well, to transportation, through refining—requires around 22,000 BTUs.

I can’t say it any clearer myself.

(2) Ethanol harms fuel economy. Because ethanol puts out less energy than gasoline, ethanol blends harm your vehicle’s fuel efficiency. What sense then is raising CAFE standards? Another environmental loss.

(3) It’s all political. If Iowa did not have 6 votes in the Electoral College, the ethanol subsidy would not exist. The farm lobby would either split on the subsidy (corn for/livestock against), or oppose it as it is so narrowly focused. Party politicians support the subsidy because you can’t win the presidency without Iowa. Hell, you can barely win your party’s nomination without Iowa.

(4) Ethanol is starving people. Not only are we converting an important food crop to fuel, the subsidy and artificial demand created by government ethanol requirements results in additional acreage being converted from food crops, like wheat and soybeans, to corn for ethanol.

I could go on. Really. But let’s end with this: Ethanol fails every environmental, agricultural, and geopolitical (it doesn’t make a dent in our reliance on foreign oil) test to which it is put. It is a $6 billion a year waste of good money. The only test ethanol passes is the political test. Well, maybe it’s time to start flunking the test-takers.

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Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse

I hate headlines like this: “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word, so let me explain.

The content of this Yahoo News! story is dead on. It explains how a team of marine biologists from the University of Queensland (down under) became curious about how long human activity had been altering the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. They determined that in addition to coral kills associated with snorkeling and climate change, agriculture activities that occurred over 50 years ago had fundamentally altered the coral reef community. They concluded that humans had been damaging coral reefs for far longer than previously believed.

But here’s the last two paragraphs of the Yahoo News! story:

While the findings suggest humans have been damaging reefs far longer than previously thought, the problem has a straightforward, local solution: Reduce polluted runoff into the ocean, Pandolfi said.

“Any kind of measures that are going to improve the water quality should help those reefs to recover.”

That’s the message we want. That’s the headline. “Any kind of measures…improve water quality…help those reefs to recover.” Compare that to “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” “Historic” and “collapse” used together in the headline = instant despair, doesn’t it?

You know, I started writing this post to explain how I hate the way they always write “humans caused” some environment mess, like the mess is due to the mere fact of human existence. I hate that tone – that environmental problems are hopeless as long as we humans are around. But that’s not the case, and never is. Most environmental problems are due to specific, identifiable, and thankfully correctable human activities. And just like the concluding paragraphs of this story – “any kind of measure … should help” – knowing that we are performing some environmentally destructive activity that is entirely correctable places back upon our broad and deep collective shoulders the emphasis and the responsibility and thank God the ability to fix these problems! That’s the right perspective, and is a far more positive message for those of us who care about the state of our environment. Let’s make that the headline.

The President’s Agenda: Legalize Industrial Hemp

Today’s subject for the next President of the United States is hemp. At Free the Commons! we have no fear that legalizing industrial hemp would turn our nation into a population of Doritos-munching slackers. On the contrary, we believe that industrial hemp is an eco-friendly agricultural product that could prove a boon to local agri-economies across the United States. Hemp should find a place on our next President’s agenda.

Hemp has been grown for thousands of years all around the globe for a variety of purposes, and was a popular cash crop in the United States until made illegal in the 1930’s. Hemp is most often used for its high quality fiber to produce paper, rope, and fabrics. Hemp can also produce food – the seeds are high in protein and good fatty acids. The seeds can also be used to produce oil. Hemp is of course most well-known for its medicinal and hallucinogenic properties.

Hemp is regarded as an eco-friendly crop because it’s very fast growing, uses little water, and generally does not require the application of pesticides or herbicides. The benefit of hemp is that it is a versatile, high yield crop; as a result, you get a productive, multiple-uses crop that doesn’t require harmful inputs and needs a comparatively small footprint of land to grow. This Slate article from 2011 provides a pretty good summary of how hemp stacks up against competitive crop substitutes, such as organic cotton, which is a good but very water-intensive crop.

I understand very well the politics of hemp, but I view most of the concerns as a smokescreen. There are some 2,000 varieties of hemp plant, and many of them are quite low in the THC compound from which marijuana is derived. The plant varieties grown as a crop are far different in appearance and potency than are those varieties cultivated for drug use. We need to get past the fear of agricultural hemp.

Currently, China is the world’s leading producer of industrial hemp, followed by Canada and Australia. America, as the world’s agricultural superpower, could easily overtake the world market in hemp production. From my point of view, we’d do ourselves and our planet a huge favor if we dumped the growing of corn for ethanol and legalized the growing hemp for fabric, paper, clothing, and food.