biofuels

UN admits that growing crops to produce biofuel is bad for environment

The London Telegraph claims to be in possession of a leaked UN IPCC report which says in effect that growing crops to make “green” biofuel [ethanol and biodiesel] harms the environment and drives up food prices.” See Telegraph story here. The UN will publish the report on March 31. It will be interesting to see if the final version is the same as the “leaked” version. If so, then the story will represent a reversal of UN “scientific consensus” on biofuels.

The Telegraph story says “that biofuels, rather than combating the effects of global warming, could make them worse.”

As I noted in an ADI story last November, “…the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today…As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies…Five million acres set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks combined — have vanished on Obama’s watch.” The biofuels industry is heavily subsidized and about 40 percent of U.S. corn crop goes to produce ethanol rather than being used as food.

In a Telegraph story published last December, The Great Biofuels Scandal, Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, wrote, “The biofuel story is a perfect example of good intentions leading to terrible outcomes. Moreover, it is a lesson on how powerful, pseudo-green vested interests can sustain a bad policy. Hopefully, it will also be a story of how reason can prevail in the divisive climate debate.”

The Telegraph notes, “Studies show that as land is dedicated to energy crops, land for food is simply taken from other areas – often forests – leading to substantial CO2 emissions. And processing biofuels emits CO2, drastically reducing benefits.”

For more on ethanol in ADI, see: Ethanol mandate fails economically and environmentally

In my Wryheat blog, see : Biofuels program destroying grasslands in American Midwest

EPA, ethanol, and catch 22

Ethanol fuel not as green as you think

Ethanol from Sugarcane, not so green

Biofuels program destroying grasslands in American Midwest

Biofuels destroying grasslandA new study by researchers at South Dakota State University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (see full paper here), shows that more than 1.3 million acres of grasslands in the western corn belt (WCB) of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, have been converted to agricultural use since 2006 to grow corn and soybeans for biofuel production.

The researchers introduce their paper by writing:

“In the US Corn Belt, a recent doubling in commodity prices has created incentives for landowners to convert grassland to corn and soybean cropping. Here, we use land cover data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service Cropland Data Layer to assess grassland conversion from 2006 to 2011 in the Western Corn Belt (WCB)…”

They go on to write:

“Our analysis identifies areas with elevated rates of grass-to-corn/soy conversion (1.0–5.4% annually). Across the WCB, we found a net decline in grass-dominated land cover totaling nearly 530,000 ha.[hectares]. With respect to agronomic attributes of lands undergoing grassland conversion, corn/soy production is expanding onto marginal lands characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought. Grassland conversion is also concentrated in close proximity to wetlands, posing a threat to waterfowl breeding in the Prairie Pothole Region. Longer-term land cover trends from North Dakota and Iowa indicate that recent grassland conversion represents a persistent shift in land use rather than short-term variability in crop rotation patterns.”

“The concentration of grassland conversion on lands vulnerable to erosion implies negative impacts on soil quality and a subsequent cascade of negative impacts on, e.g., crop yields, primary productivity, and carbon sequestration. Tillage of adjacent uplands increases sediment inputs to wetlands by several orders of magnitude, limiting the productivity of duck food sources, including aquatic plants and invertebrates, and reducing food water storage.”

In the conclusion, the researchers note:

“Our results show that rates of grassland conversion to corn/soy (1.0–5.4% annually) across a significant portion of the US Western Corn Belt are comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia, countries in which tropical forests were the principal sources of new agricultural land, globally, during the 1980s and 1990s. Historically, comparable grassland conversion rates have not been seen in the Corn Belt since the 1920s and 1930s, the era of rapid mechanization of US agriculture. Across the WCB, more than 99% of presettlement tallgrass prairie has been converted to other land covers, mostly agricultural, with losses in Iowa approaching 99.9% of an original 12-million ha. of tallgrass prairie. Potential expansion of corn and soybean cultivation into remaining fragments of tallgrass prairie in the WCB presents a critical ecosystem conservation issue.”

This is another example of so-called “green energy” being not so green. As the authors note, ” A number of studies have now shown that a biofuel strategy based on corn ethanol and soy biodiesel may indeed be suboptimal in terms of net energy and carbon balances.”

See also:

Ethanol fuel not as green as you think

Ethanol from Sugarcane, not so green

Death Toll from Biofuels

The EPA is destroying America

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), defying a court order, mandated that petroleum companies must add 14 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol to gasoline, in spite of the fact that commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol do not exist. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided in favor of the American Petroleum Institute, which sued the EPA, deciding that the EPA “exceeded its authority by requiring refiners to purchase cellulosic biofuel despite the fact the next-generation fuel is not commercially available.”

 The Environmental Protection Agency, the home of junk science, environmental radicals, and political zealots, is active on many fronts promulgating regulations that will close down American industries, our electricity supply, and our economy. The EPA is not required by law to consider the economic consequences of its regulations. That oversight should be changed.

 Let’s take a look at some of EPA’s recent actions and proposals.

 The war on coal

 New regulations regarding emissions of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and ozone may greatly increase the cost of electricity, cause some power plants to close, and endanger our ability to produce adequate power.

 In Arizona, EPA is using alleged haze in the Grand Canyon as an excuse to target coal-fired electric plants and is particularly targeting the Navajo Generating station, near Page, AZ. EPA rejected Arizona’s proposal for modifying the plant and instead wants the plant to install “selective catalytic reduction” to control nitrogen oxides, at an added cost of $48 million per year. In spite of the additional cost, the EPA proposal will have no noticeable effect on haze as shown in my post: EPA versus Arizona on regional haze issue. This one plant supplies the electricity to run the pumps bringing water from the Colorado River to Tucson along the Central Arizona Project canal. If the plant survives and installs the mandated catalytic devices, the cost will raise our water rates (See Arizona Daily Star).

 The EPA is also harassing other coal-fired plants in Arizona. The State of Arizona is suing the EPA over this issue (see here). Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said of the EPA, “”This is an absurd action that would significantly raise utility rates for most Arizonans without providing any benefit to anyone.”

 In Georgia, the Georgia Power company said it will close 15 fossil-fuel-fired electric units, impacting nearly 500 jobs in the state, due to the high cost of complying with EPA regulations. In Texas, because of the EPA, Chase Power cancelled plans for a $3 billion coal-fired plant near Corpus Christi which would have employed 3,900 workers.

 Biofuels and invasive species

 The EPA protection of the environment apparently doesn’t apply in the realm of biofuels. The Heartland Institute reports that the EPA is proposing the introduction of two invasive grass species Arundo donax (giant reed) and Pennisetum purpureum (elephant grass), as advanced biofuel feedstock under the federal renewable fuel standard. Pennisetum purpureum is an African grass that thrives in warm climates, multiplies rapidly, and crowds out other vegetation. Arundo donax, native to India, is already a feared invasive plant well beyond the subcontinent. California, Colorado, Nevada, and Texas, classify Arundo donax as a noxious weed.

 “These two species are already harmful invaders in parts of the United States and should not be incentivized for biofuel use,” said Doria Gordon, director of conservation for Nature Conservancy Florida. “Both species can become so dominant that they crowd out native species and alter habitats.” A group of more than 200 scientists have sent a letter to EPA warning them of the danger and unintended consequences of this proposed action.

 Maybe the EPA wants the invasive species because its mandate for use of non-corn, cellulosic (plant waste) ethanol has not been realistic. Use of cellulosic ethanol, made with crop residue, grasses or wood chips, is a provision of the 2007 Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) enacted by Congress. In 2012, EPA mandated that 8.7 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol be blended into gasoline. However, the ethanol industry was able to produce only about 20,000 gallons in 2012. Even though is was impossible to comply with the EPA mandate, the EPA none-the-less fined gasoline producers for compliance failure and will require they use 14 million gallons in 2013.

 Ethanol and your automobile

 There is more trouble with ethanol. Currently, gasoline is blended with 10% ethanol to supposedly curb air pollution. Now the EPA wants to increase that to 15%. However, the American Automobile Association (AAA) warns that use of E15 as the new blend is called, will damage the engines of most vehicles on the road.

 “The number of vehicles approved to use E15 – only about 12 million out of the more than 240 million light-duty vehicles – is limited, while the use of the fuel blend in non-approved vehicles can compromise a vehicle’s warranty:

 “Less than 5 percent of cars on the road are approved by automakers to use E15. Approved vehicles include flex-fuel models, 2001 model-year and newer Porsches, 2012 model-year and newer GM vehicles and 2013 model-year Ford vehicles.

 “Five manufacturers (BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen) say their warranties will not cover fuel-related claims caused by the use of E15.

 “Seven additional automakers (Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo) have stated that the use of E15 does not comply with the fuel requirements specified in their owner’s manuals and may void warranty coverage.”

 “AAA automotive engineering experts believe that sustained use of E15 in both newer and older vehicles could result in significant problems such as accelerated engine wear and failure, fuel-system damage and false ‘check engine’ lights for any vehicle not approved by its manufacturer to use E15.”

 Burning food for fuel

 Ethanol mandates are essentially burning food for fuel. Even the New York Times has noticed some unintended consequences:

 “Recent laws in the United States and Europe that mandate the increasing use of biofuel in cars have had far-flung ripple effects, economists say, as land once devoted to growing food for humans is now sometimes more profitably used for churning out vehicle fuel.”

 “With its corn-based diet and proximity to the United States, Central America has long been vulnerable to economic riptides related to the United States’ corn policy. Now that the United States is using 40 percent of its crop to make biofuel, it is not surprising that tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which imports nearly half of its corn.”

 “In a country where most families must spend about two thirds of their income on food, ‘the average Guatemalan is now hungrier because of biofuel development,’ said Katja Winkler, a researcher at Idear, a Guatemalan nonprofit organization that studies rural issues. Roughly 50 percent of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished, the fourth-highest rate in the world, according to the United Nations.”

Soot and Dust and illegal human testing

 Another EPA campaign is about fine particulate matter in the air, soot and dust, the so-called PM2.5 standard, which the EPA sets at 35 millionths of a gram (micrograms) in a 24-hour period. Most air in the U.S. averages about 10 micrograms.

 According to a story by Steve Milloy in the Washington Times, Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson testified about PM2.5 before Congress in September 2011: “Particulate matter causes premature death. It doesn’t make you sick. It is directly causal to you dying sooner than you should.” “In scientific documents, the EPA has repeatedly concluded that any exposure to PM2.5 can kill, and it can kill people within hours or days of inhalation.” How does the EPA know? It conducted illegal human testing.

 But, Milloy asks, if the particulate matter is so dangerous, where are the bodies? He was referring to recent air pollution in China: “Beijing’s PM2.5 levels peaked at 886 micrograms per cubic meter — an incredible 89 times greater than the U.S. daily average. Based on EPA risk estimates, we should expect the daily death toll in Beijing to have skyrocketed by 89 percent on a same-day and next-day basis.” Yet there have been no reports of a spike in deaths caused by breathing the heavily polluted air. Has the EPA has been exaggerating the danger?

Tucson doctor Jane Orient, in a Wall Street Journal article, “EPA Science Is the ‘New Homeopathy,’ Doctors State,” says:

The “evidence” for the harm is very weak correlations seen in epidemiologic studies done in 1993 and 1995. Findings are contradicted by other studies. The EPA is now apparently trying to prove harm by subjecting human subjects to diesel exhaust in an apparatus some say resembles a gas chamber.

“Either the EPA is lying to Congress about the lethality of PM2.5, or it is engaged in illegal and unethical human experiments, subjecting vulnerable patients to a substance it believes could kill them instantly,” states Jane Orient, M.D., president of Physicians for Civil Defense.

 EPA colluding with radical greens

 On another front, we see that the EPA (and other government agencies) are colluding with radical environmental groups.

 From SPPI:

 U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is warning of more secret “sue and settle” deals with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups. In a letter today, Vitter encourages Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to join the 13 states’ AGs who recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with EPA asking for any and all correspondence between EPA and a list of 80 environmental, labor union and public interest organizations that had been party to litigation since the start of the Obama Administration.

 “The collusion between federal bureaucrats and far-left environmental organizations entering legal agreements under a shroud of secrecy is the opposite of a transparent government,” Vitter said. “This is a problem across the country, but could quickly become a threat to Louisianans if we see the full weight of the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service come crashing down on private landowners.”

EPA regulations are costly:

 A recent study commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers critically assessed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s cost- benefit analysis with respect to six key regulations: Utility MACT, Boiler MACT, Coal Combustion Residuals, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, Cooling Water Intake Structures, and Ground-Level Ozone. The NAM study details the significant differences between EPA’s cost estimates and those of industry sources, while highlighting problems and inconsistencies with EPA’s methodology. Most importantly for manufacturers, the study estimates the impact of EPA rules on the manufacturing industry, directly and through indirect macroeconomic effects.

A key finding of the report is that “the annual compliance costs for all six regulations range from $36 billion to $111.2 billion (by EPA estimates) and from $63.2 billion to $138.2 billion (by industry estimates).” Notably, the study was picked up in the trade press and recognized by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which reiterated the study’s finding that “major new EPA rules could cost manufacturers hundreds of billions of dollars and eliminate millions of American jobs.” (MasterResource)

 Pretending that carbon dioxide is a pollutant

 Of course, the biggest EPA stick is its “endangerment finding” contending that carbon dioxide emissions pose some danger in spite of there being no physical evidence to support that contention. The EPA violated both the scientific method and the Scientific Advisory Board statute intended to enforce the scientific method when it made its highly influential scientific assessment in the Endangerment Finding. That the endangerment finding is purely political is shown by the fact that the EPA is getting all worked up about carbon dioxide levels of around 400ppm. But submarine crews work efficiently in carbon dioxide levels over10,000ppm. A group of scientists is challenging the EPA’s endangerment finding.

 The EPA has long been a rogue, radical agency, and a very expensive one at that. They seem incapable of exercising common-sense and are now merely an unscientific political tool.  Proper environmental protection is important and desirable, but we are not getting it from the EPA. It is time to defund the EPA.

 See also: The EPA’s Lisa Jackson: The Worst Head of the Worst Regulatory Agency, Ever

The Cost of Green Energy

The price of being green is about to come home to ratepayers in California and Germany.

In California:

The California Manufacturers and Technology Association released a new report that suggests costs associated with California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) may be a lot higher than previously estimated.

The new study estimates “that the average California family will pay an additional $2,500 annually by 2020 when AB 32 is fully implemented. In addition, the state is expected to lose an additional 262,000 jobs, 5.6 percent of the gross state product, and a whopping $7.4 billion through decreased annual state and local tax revenues as a result.” See more here.

In Germany:

From Spiegal Online: “Solar subsidies cost German consumers billions of dollars a year and are widely regarded as inefficient. Even environmentalists are concerned that Berlin’s focus on solar comes at the detriment of other renewables. But the solar industry has a powerful lobby, and politicians have proven powerless to resist.”

“Next year, a three-person family will likely have to pay up to an additional €175 ($220) to finance the construction of renewable energy infrastructure.”

“A new study by Georg Erdmann, professor of energy systems at Berlin’s Technical University…[estimates that] subsidies for renewable energy, including an expansion of the power grid, will saddle energy consumers with costs well over €300 billion ($377 billion)” between now and 2030.

“Photovoltaics are threatening to become the costliest mistake in the history of German energy policy. Photovoltaic power plant operators and homeowners with solar panels on their rooftops are expected to pocket around €9 billion ($11.3 billion) this year, yet they contribute barely 4 percent of the country’s power supply, and only erratically at that.” See more of the story here.

As Kermit once said, “It isn’t easy being green.”

EPA, ethanol, and catch-22

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates that petroleum refiners blend 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol (not made from corn)  into gasoline this year. Last year the requirement was 6.6 million gallons. Oil refiners have not met the mandated requirements because commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol do not exist. Even the records of the EPA show that no commercial supply exists. The oil refiners were fined by the EPA for failure to meet the impossible mandate.

The American Petroleum Institute and others petitioned the EPA seeking relief from the mandate. The EPA dismissed the petition saying, “the objections raised in the petition [i.e., cellulosic ethanol does not exist] …are not of central relevance to the outcome of the rule because they do not provide substantial support for the argument that the Renewable Fuel Standard program should be revised as suggested by petitioners…”

The EPA says the mandate provides incentive for companies to begin producing cellulosic ethanol.

Production of cellulosic ethanol from wood chips has been around for a long time.

According to researcher Robert Rapier, “In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid. The technique was later used by the Germans to first commercialize cellulosic ethanol from wood in 1898. But believe it or not, commercialization also took place in the U.S. in 1910. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill. Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullerton, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years.” But they ultimately failed.

In spite of that history, there is no successful commercial production today in the U.S. The EPA wants us to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Current attempts at producing cellulosic ethanol are experimenting with the grass Miscanthus giganteus. The trouble with this approach is that the yearly production from1,000 acres would be equal to 55 seconds of U.S. oil consumption according to Rapier. So how much land would it take to meet the mandate?

The whole idea of using ethanol is to reduce our use of foreign petroleum. But growing the grass or corn takes petroleum to farm and process the source material. Also ethanol has less energy than gasoline so we wind up using more gasoline anyway.

The whole thing is just so much folly, but such is the state of energy policy in the Obama administration.

See also:

Ethanol fuel not as green as you think

Ethanol from Sugarcane, not so green

Ethanol mandate fails economically and environmentally

Ethanol from Sugarcane, not so green

Use of ethanol as a partial substitute for gasoline is mandated in the United States on the grounds that it will help mitigate our dependence on foreign petroleum sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in the U.S. most ethanol is produced from corn and that production has had detrimental effects on a food crop.

Another main way to produce ethanol is from sugarcane. This method has been promoted in other countries, especially Brazil. It is seen as a green solution to the pretended problem of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. But is it?

A new study finds, that when all productions steps are taken into account, the greenhouse gas emissions from sugarcane ethanol are higher than those from burning fossil fuels.

Reference:

Lisboa, C.C., Butterbach-Bahl, K., Mauder, M. and Kiese, R. 2011. Bioethanol production from sugarcane and emissions of greenhouse gases — known and unknowns. Global Change Biology Bioenergy 3: 277-292

Abstract:

Bioethanol production from sugarcane is discussed as an alternative energy source to reduce dependencies of regional economies on fossil fuels. Even though bioethanol production from sugarcane is considered to be a beneficial and cost-effective greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation strategy, it is still a matter of controversy due to insufficient information on the total GHG balance of this system. Aside from the necessity to account for the impact of land use change (LUC), soil N2O emissions during sugarcane production and emissions of GHG due to preharvest burning may significantly impact the GHG balance. Based on a thorough literature review, we show that direct N2O emissions from sugarcane fields due to nitrogen (N) fertilization result in an emission factor of 3.87±1.16% which is much higher than suggested by IPCC (1%). N2O emissions from N fertilization accounted for 40% of the total GHG emissions from ethanol–sugarcane production, with an additional 17% from trash burning. If LUC-related GHG emissions are considered, the total GHG balance turns negative mainly due to vegetation carbon losses. Our study also shows that major gaps in knowledge still exist about GHG sources related to agricultural management during sugarcane production, e.g. effects of irrigation, vinasse and filter cake application. Therefore, more studies are needed to assess if bioethanol from sugarcane is a viable option to reduce energy-related GHG emissions.

Another factor is that ethanol production, at least in the United States, is heavily subsidized and probably would not be viable without the subsidy. This is not an efficient use of our resources.

See also:

Death Toll from Biofuels

Ethanol fuel not as green as you think

 Also in the category of not as green as you think, see:

Which Vehicles Are Most Energy Efficient?

 

 

Book Review: Energy, Convenient Solutions by Howard Johnson

Howard Johnson, a chemical engineer, provides a comprehensive review of energy systems. He looks at the totality of energy sources, from animal dung to nuclear fusion, and examines the production, transmission, and use of energy, and the pros and cons of each.

The book is about ideas and solutions to our energy problems. “Any solution or group of solutions will be based on total energy systems. The systems involved include power-grid stations, transmission lines, fuel procurement and manufacture, waste disposal, local power generators, vehicles and vehicle power systems, transportation and distribution systems for fuels, and maintenance and repair facilities.”

Johnson laments that we don’t develop more of our own domestic resources. “America has a virtual sea of oil within its borders and around its shores. Thanks to what I believe to be misdirected effort to influence elected officials by some overzealous environmentalists, the most accessible of our known oil fields are off limits to American oil companies.” At the same time, he proposes to transition away from our use of fossil fuels for transportation and electrical power. This reduction in fossil fuel use is not because of any concern over carbon dioxide emissions, rather, Johnson resents our having to give our dollars to unfriendly or despotic foreign countries. He has a section devoted to the global warming issue.

To transition away from fossil fuels, Johnson advocates more use of biofuels, made from non-food sources, and use of geothermal energy. He explains each in detail.

Johnson has a chapter on politics and expresses some well-placed cynicism. “The reality of politics and political ideologies means that many politicians and bureaucrats, who know virtually nothing about energy, energy systems, and the economics of energy, will be making many of the decisions on what systems we use, the vehicles we drive, and how we create and pay for the new infrastructure.”

All in all, this book is a good primer for anyone wanting to learn about energy systems, their potentials and problems.

The book is published by Senesis Word Publishing and is available from Amazon.

Death Toll from Biofuels

It was just a short, filler article buried on page 13 of the Arizona Daily Star: “Rising demand for corn from ethanol producers is pushing U.S. reserves to the lowest point in 15 years, a trend that could lead to higher grain and food prices.”

In contrast, the media have been falling all over themselves speculating on the dangers of radiation from the leaking reactor at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility. Although the earthquake and tsunami there have been responsible for about 18,000 deaths, none, so far, have been attributed to radiation.

The consequences from our increasing use of ethanol have not received much press.   A report by Dr. Indur Goklany, writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (Volume 16 Number 1, Spring 2011), estimates that at least 192,000 excess deaths and 6.7 million additional Disability-Adjusted Life Years lost to disease have been caused by using food crops to make ethanol for fuel. These deaths have been mainly in third world countries where the rise in price of food staples or the loss of availability of food puts people over the edge. In these cases, being green is fatal.

Goklany’s report cited two studies using World Bank and World Health Organization data. Both studies covered 90% of the developing world’s population and “both indicate that higher biofuel production increases global poverty, even in the longer term.” See the full study here: http://www.jpands.org/vol16no1/goklany.pdf .

A rationale for using ethanol is to cut our dependence of foreign oil. But, so far, our increasing use of ethanol has not cut this dependence.

According to a report from the Manhattan Institute,

Between 1999 and 2009, U.S. ethanol production increased seven-fold, to more than 700,000 barrels per day (bbl/d). During that period, however, oil imports increased by more than 800,000 bbl/d. (In addition, U.S. oil exports—yes, exports—more than doubled, to about 2 million bbl/d.) Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that oil imports closely track domestic oil consumption. Over the past decade, as oil demand grew, so did imports. When consumption fell, imports did as well. Ethanol production levels had no apparent effect on the volume of oil imports or on consumption.

Why didn’t increasing use of ethanol affect oil imports? According to the Manhattan Institute:

The answer to that question requires an understanding of the refining process. When sent through a refinery, a barrel of crude yields different “cuts,” which range from light products such as propane and butane to heavy products such as asphalt. Even the best-quality barrel of crude (42 gallons) yields only about 20 gallons of gasoline. Furthermore, certain types of crude oil, such as light sweet, a high-quality, low-sulfur grade, are better suited than others to gasoline or diesel production. Even the most technologically advanced oil refineries cannot produce just one product from a barrel of crude; they must produce several, and the market value of those various cuts is constantly fluctuating.

The implication is obvious: Corn ethanol has not reduced the volume of oil imports, or overall oil use, and likely never will, because it can replace only one segment of the crude-oil barrel. Unless or until inventors come up with a substance (or substances) that can replace all of the products refined from a barrel of crude oil—from gasoline to naphtha and diesel to asphalt—this country, along with every other one, will have to continue to rely on the global oil market—the biggest, most global, most transparent, most liquid market in human history.

That brings us to some ethical questions. Should we use food crops to make fuel? One entity addressing those questions is the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. (See report)

First they note:

Recent research suggests that assumed GHG benefits from increased use of corn-based ethanol may have been overstated. Emissions from indirect land use change occur when biofuels production displaces agricultural production, leading to additional land use change elsewhere. Some studies suggest this land use change ultimately causes an increase in net greenhouse gas emissions. When such market-driven effects are included, the lifecycle GHG emissions for U.S. corn-ethanol may increase from 135 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule to 177 g CO2e/MJ, which is nearly double that of gasoline at 92 g CO2e/MJ.

The Calgary paper then asks and discusses four questions:

1. Should biofuel production be managed with regard to effects on food and agriculture critical to poor populations?

2. Biomass typically produces less energy per unit of land over short time scales when compared with other sources of energy. Should we be developing low intensity energy if it results in the destruction of more land and natural areas than high intensity energy?

3. Land use impacts of large scale biofuel production may be significant and are likely to be persistent. Should we only be focusing on the ecological after-effects of climate change rather than the land impacts created by potential changes in energy systems?

4. Should we consider potential effects on rural and urban economies?

The report concludes in part:

There is a missing link today between methods of energy policy development and ethical considerations associated with broader social decision- making. Because the ethical implications of the transitions to new energy systems are seldom considered, the choices we make may have negative moral consequences and corresponding social costs.

In a previous post, I noted that increased use of ethanol fuel, especially E85, significantly increases ozone, a prime ingredient of smog, which even at low levels can decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma and impair the body’s immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

Ethanol may be the darling of the politically correct, but it is not the darling of the environment.

Book Review: The Energy Gap by Doug Hoffman and Allen Simmons

The Energy Gap is a tour de force review of our energy resources, their potentials, pitfalls, environmental consequences, economics, and politics. The sub-title is “How to solve the world energy crisis, preserve the environment & save civilization.” Well not quite, but it is a start.

After three introductory chapters, the book devotes chapters, in turn, to coal, petroleum, natural gas, wind, solar, and green energy sources such as hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, and tidal wave power. There are three chapters on nuclear energy including an explanation of the various types of nuclear reactors and the problems of waste disposal. Additional chapters are devoted to transportation, the energy grid, conservation & efficiency, and the politics of energy.

For each form of energy the authors delve into the history of formation, discovery, development, use, and reserves. The book contains over 200 illustrations, and five appendices. It is written in layman’s terms.

The authors promote nuclear energy and suggest that it should gradually replace coal as the major fuel for electrical generation. Although the U.S. has the highest installed wind generating capacity of any nation, about 25,000 MW, the authors say that wind and solar are not likely to become a significant resource because of the very high cost relative to fossil fuels, and because both wind and solar are intermittent and cannot be counted on to provide a steady peak generation capacity. They do promote these alternative types of energy production in niche markets which might have special advantage.

The authors are somewhat naive about mineral economics and worry that we will run out of fossil fuels before we fully develop alternatives. But “the harsh reality is that, other than hydroelectric power, most renewable technologies are not able to compete economically with fossil fuels.”

They present an energy plan which includes:

Use of renewable energy only where it makes sense.

Shift automobile and light truck production to hybrids and electric. This would increase need for electricity by about 15%. (The only reason for this shift is the author’s unsupported belief that we should reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I think this is impractical and people will not buy electric cars until battery technology makes it possible to go 500 miles between charges.)

Accelerate construction of new nuclear generating stations and add reactors to existing plants.

Make buildings more energy efficient.

Expand exploration for oil and natural gas which “will be needed until new nuclear plants can come on-line and our vehicle fleet is switched to electricity.”

The authors specifically say we should avoid biofuels because they cause more environmental damage than fossil fuels. They warn against “clean coal” because the infrastructure costs are too high and the possible hazardous effects of storage are too uncertain. (See my article “Clean Coal”: Boon or Boondoggle for background.

They also warn against methane clathrates because they think frozen deposits of natural gas are too risky to exploit.

While I disagree with some of their proposals, I recommend the book just for its extensive review of energy resources. The book is very up to date on energy technology and even discusses the Gulf oil spill.

The book is available at Amazon.com. The authors also maintain a very interesting website: The Resilient Earth.

For another take on the energy problem see A Free Market Energy Vision from MasterResource.