The Ethanol Sham, Farm Subsidies, and Environmental Flim Flam

(cross-posted @ Freedom Democrats and Daily Kos)

Matt Yglesias attended a speech by Gov. Bill Richardson this morning. He emphasized his agreement with Richardson on a basic tenet of any potentially successful environmental plan: Land Use Policy. That is, it’s one thing to talk about reducing emissions, and another to talk about renewable energy. But, it’s all bunk if we don’t talk seriously about reducing the amount people drive. And that isn’t possible unless we talk seriously about enabling people to reduce the amount that they drive by way of better mass-transportation infrastructure. Most Americans live in urban and suburban areas ripe for good transit. But, they don’t have it.

Matt said:

At any rate, if you’ve been following this blog you’ll know I’m not really much of an environmentalist in my gut. But when you look at it, whatever’s in your gut, it’d still be really nice for the world not to perish in cataclysmic climate change in the 2060s and that’s going to require dramatic policies.

Well, I am an environmentalist in my gut, and so have even more reason to be inspired by Gov. Richardson’s statements. And I am (not for the first time).

Matt also says that Gov. Richardson made it through the whole debate without mentioning Ethanol. Thank god. Ethanol, a corn derivative, is a sham. It’s a part of the larger problem of government farm subsidies in this country. Ethanol doesn’t burn much cleaner than oil, and it takes up ridiculous amounts of farm land that could be better spent growing worthwhile food products that are actually healthy for Americans.

[I’m convinced one of the reasons that organic food (read: grown the way humans had always grown food before modern industrial farming) is so expensive, is largely because of the farm subsidies that go mostly to commercial and Big farms. Organic farms can’t compete with a government-backed corporate farming industry that eats up all the land and saturates the market with low-quality produce. Our subsidies also have delirious effects on farmers of the third world, namely Africa and Latin America, where the ability to sell their products is the difference between life and starvation.]

Pushing the biofuel angle, without realizing the potential downsides of doing so is short-sighted at best. But, overemphasizing the upsides is just as stupid. Biofuels just aren’t a viable long-term answer. We need electric cars, and more importantly, less cars. Them’s just the facts. And I’m glad to hear that Gov. Bill Richardson understands them.

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3 responses to “The Ethanol Sham, Farm Subsidies, and Environmental Flim Flam

  1. Electric, hydrogen, natural gas cars would be great! I am all for it. What do we do until then? Answer; use alternative fuel sources together with oil and raise mileage standards (or raise the price which would then force Americans to purchase higher mileage automobiles).

    Subsidies: Yes there are subsidies but let’s be fair and balanced. What industry does not get subsidies and tax breaks? The oil industry still gets subsidies, tax breaks, etc., and has been for decades. If ethanol is still getting subsidies five years from now I would be surprised. Why does big oil still receive any money from the tax payer? What about the pharmaceutical industry. Congress, with the prescription drug bill made it impossible to negotiate price. What if congress allowed the ethanol industry to simply set its price with no negotiation? I think I would have an issue with that as I do with the pharmaceutical industry.

    Ethanol does not burn much cleaner than oil: I can tell much from that statement except that you are not a technical person so we will not drill to deep into this one. You will just have to trust me on this one, its burns cleaner.

    Large amounts of farm land: The major use of corn still today even with all the ethanol is as a cattle feed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture breaks Corn Usage into three major categories:

    * Feed/Residual (50.8% of total U.S. corn usage in 2006)
    * Food/Seed/Industrial (30.1%)
    * Export (19.1%)

    The important thing to note here is in the ethanol process after the components are removed to make the ethanol the remaining corn is then sold as, you guessed it, cattle feed.

    It appears quite obvious you are blogging about a subject that you have done little, if any, research to substantiate. That is short-sighted at best. To say that biofuels just aren’t a viable long-term answer is, to use your word, a stupid conclusion to reach armed with your limited knowledge of the subject.

  2. Thanks for the comment, you raise some good points.
    My trouble with ethanol stems from a few key points:
    1) the net energy value of ethanol is still very low. (it takes a lot of energy to extract the “energy” from it).
    2)while it burns cleaner than oil, it is still something we have to burn to use. And the production of ethanol has to be factored into the equation–fertilizer, distilleries, farm equipment.
    3) Ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline, meaning we have to burn more to get the same energy out of it.
    4) It is a distraction from forcing the car companies to switch over to electric cars.
    5)it’s heavily subsidised (yes, many other industries are also, but that doesn’t make it right.)
    6) If we really did live in a world that ran off of ethanol, it could have horrible consequences for the environment. The level of large scale farming required could be outstanding–nutrient runnoff, soil erosion, acquisition of currently protected land, etc.
    (The cattle feed point really just brings up the secondary problem of how we produce beef. A huge proportion of that beef goes into fast food. That is, the nations poor eating habits are contributing to the environmental problem.)
    I’m not totally against using biofuels as a way to bridge the gap. as I stated in the post, they’re not a viable “long term” answer. And that’s the point. If the only real praise we can give to Ethanol is that it isn’t gasoline, that’s rather sad.
    Electric cars are real. We have the technology for very powerful cars that can meet the needs of 95% of Americans. And the more we allow the Bush Administration and the Car/Oil industry to push fuel cells, Ethanol, etc on us as the only real alternatives to oil, the longer it will take us to make the switch to electric.
    (As a side note: I may or may not be a technical person. But, I am receiving my degree in Mathematics)

  3. Most of your comments about ethanol and biofuels seem to be based on corn-derived ethanol. Many, if not most, would not apply to sugarcane-derived ethanol, particularly that sourced from Brazil.

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