Is ethanol the panacea for our energy independence?

While sitting in a dentist chair this past Tuesday I read the February 12th Special Report in US News & World Report entitled “Overselling Ethanol.” The cover page goes on to add “for all the hype is it really the answer?” Hmm. After the President’s State of the Union address last month I drafted my own report with a different slant and post it now to get your feedback.

Sadly, a rebuttal on ethanol fuel, appearing in Sunday’s Register, contained false data. While the writer says that mileage of both fuels is the same I have checked multiple sources confirming that E-85 ethanol fuel is 20 to 30 percent less efficient than traditional fossil fuel gasoline. There is more to this story than which type of fuel we will be buying at the pump. Beyond the fuel cost is the need to create infrastructure for transporting the ethanol. At the end of the trail is a domino effect which I call a “zero-sum-gain.”
Honey, can we afford to go out for dinner tonight? Do we have enough fuel in our gas tank and will there be enough food to feed our family when we get to the restaurant?

During his State of the Union presentation President Bush stated his goals to reduce our dependence on imported oil by 20 percent in 10 years by making a major commitment to corn based ethanol fuels. In his Energy Initiative he wants “the U.S. to be using 35 billion gallons of alternate fuels by 2017” Nice goal.On the Ford Motor Company’s web site it states that their Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFV) cars “get about 20-30 percent fewer miles per gallon when fueled with E-85.” Therefore a 20 percent reduction in demand becomes a wash at best.

This is not a new challenge. The Oct 1973 Yom Kippur war between Egypt, Syria and Israel resulted in an oil embargo. I can still recall sitting in line for two to three hours at gas stations where motorists were only permitted to fill up on alternate days based on their license plate numbers. Some stations eventually ran out of fuel. As such we have been aware of our dependence on imported oil for “over thirty three years” going all the way back to the administration of Jimmy Carter. That’s five different presidents, none of whom accomplished US energy independence.

There is an expression that really applies in this self reliance objective. It’s called “zero-sum gain.” Wikipedia encyclopedia “describes a situation in which a participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s).”

Prior to president George W Bush’s State of the Union address last month we had the honor of interviewing Dr. Evaggelos Vallianatos on his latest book entitled “This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World.” You can see that interview at
Evaggelos, son of a Greek farmer, spent 25 years as an analyst with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) where he was involved in domestic and international agriculture and environmental policies. Dr. Vallianatos, who retired from the EPA in 2004, has traveled around the globe and closely monitors agricultural activities.

It is too early to discuss DuPont’s research and development with “cellulosic ethanol” that is derived from switchgrass plants. Current technology is simply not there yet.

During our hour interview of Mr. Vallianatos I asked him several questions based on facts in his book that are relevant to this discussion. i.e. there are “86 nations in the world do not grow enough food to feed themselves.” In his book he reports that there are “800 million chronically undernourished people in the world.” When I asked him to comment on that data Evaggelos stated that that number is probably higher today.
I also asked him to comment on the use of genetically engineered (or genetically modified) GE corn for food Vs fuel.
Without getting into a discussion of the pro’s and con’s of GE foods let me simply state that the recent focus on ethanol fuel is having a major impact on our food chain.
Farmers need to decide what seeds to plant to meet the Energy Initiative. I have read that 30 percent of this years US corn crop will be dedicated for ethanol. Setting aside this much acreage for ethanol corn will reduce the planting for soybeans and wheat.

The tripling in cost of tortilla’s in Mexico, a major staple of the Chiapas peasants of that nation, is approaching a crisis. In the US the cost of a bushel of corn used to feed our livestock has doubled from two to four dollars which will translate into higher prices at the supermarket when we purchase chicken, pork and beef.

Food for thought. As the world population is expected to increase from 6.5 to 8.25 billion and the US population projected to increase from 300 million today to 400 million by 2019 we will be faced with a major zero-sum challenge. Food or fuel? Let me add that the wealthy will always be able to purchase food while those less fortunate will have tough choices to make.
Juice readers. What’s your thoughts on this topic?

About Larry Gilbert