Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chavez calls US ethanol production a "crime"

Yes, it’s another self-serving statement by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, but there's also a nugget of truth in there.

I wouldn't call ethanol production a crime exactly, but it is shortsighted to use food crops to produce fuel. I was thinking about this last week, as "Earth Day" seemed to morph into "Earth Week". I don't think there's a serious argument out there against global warming being real - that man is negatively affecting the climate at least to some degree. So the efforts to conserve more and pollute less are both good and necessary.

But it seems like now that society at-large has decided that global warming is such a problem that there's a rush to do something, now! And in that rush to take action some poor decisions are being made. Corn-based ethanol is one.

It takes a gallon of petroleum to produce one to one and a quarter gallons of corn-based ethanol. Ethanol is less energetic than gasoline, so your car will get lower mileage running on it. So, in the long run, corn-based ethanol doesn't actually reduce the use of gasoline. Brazil has a thriving ethanol industry using the more-efficient sugar cane as the source material. In this system at least food crops are not being diverted into fuel production, but virgin rain forest land is being plowed under so Brazil can "grow more fuel" as one TV commercial says.

Deforestation is happening in other parts of the world, places like Indonesia. In another unintended consequence it turns out that farmland is far less efficient than forests are in absorbing greenhouse gases.

This isn't to say that biofuels are a dead-end. There are some interesting possibilities - cellulose-based ethanol that uses what are now considered agricultural wastes, as a source for ethanol is a promising idea, as is bio-diesel that takes used cooking oil and refines it into diesel fuel. Imagine every McDonalds being a tiny Saudi Arabia.

The point is that going green is a good idea so long as the steps taken are well thought out. Otherwise it’s just trading one problem for another.
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