Bring me another cup of coffee, Ethyl—I think we’re saved.

“There’s a straightforward way for Washington to end America’s addiction to foreign oil, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resolving the impasse on international trade: Turn farm subsides into fuel subsides” So says Lester B. Lave and W. Michael Griffin, both of Carnegie Mellon University.

LesterblaveWell, I like straightforward. God knows, we’ve had little enough of it. Fire away, Les.

“One bushel of corn yields about 2.8 gallons of ethanol. Converting all U.S. corn exports to ethanol would add 4–7 billion gallons of ethanol per year to current production volumes, increasing total corn ethanol production to as much as 11 billion gallons per year. That would easily meet Congress’ new mandate that America produce 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels each year by 2012. U.S. annual gasoline consumption is 140 billion gallons and growing. Ethanol could lower that gasoline consumption by 300,000 to 400,000 barrels per day—the equivalent to the daily production of an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-sized oil field. Home-grown ethanol would also help protect Americans against oil-supply shocks and could help reduce the overall U.S. trade deficit by cutting oil spending on the order of $7 to $10 billion per year.”

Unless of course, it’s all hype.

EthanolcornAnyone reading that prognostication by Professor Lave would think the Promised Land had been found in Iowa, behind a six-row picker. Meeting a congressional mandate is the smallest part of the misinformation—Congress has no idea what it has mandated or why or for what purpose, except that it sounded good in an election year when gas prices are driving politicians for cover.

If you’re confused about how corn, which costs about a dollar a bushel more to grow than farmers earn for it, and corn-derived ethanol which takes 29% more fossil energy to produce than it yields, are going to be a help, you haven’t listened to politicians. The hype is found in Congress, the White House and the corn-lobby.

The far more inconvenient facts are along the path less travelled at Cornell and UC Berkeley.

Good old King Corn has bestowed upon us industrial agriculture, which has in its turn allowed us to fatten the world’s sickest, most antibiotic-injected and steroid-loaded beef, just to keep supermarket prices low. Taxpayers, you and I, pick up the tab for that buck-a-bushel shortage, to the tune of $4.5 billion each and every year. That $4.5 billion falls directly, without passing Go or collecting $200, to the bottom line of Cargill, Frank Perdue and the rest of the boys.

SwitchgrassSwitchgrass is the latest switcheroo coming from Washington, if you won’t buy the King Corn premise. Grows anywhere, needs nothing, conserves the soil, makes gasoline faster than you can say freedom from Saudi oil.

Except that it doesn’t.

Switchgrass is a perennial—cut the top and cart it away, the soil gets poorer and poorer. It will grow without fertilizer. Once. It can do without much water, but doesn’t thrive and, to make the quantity necessary to be worth trucking, it needs the same things other crops need. Oh, have we talked about trucking? Switchgrass, like corn, has to be trucked from where it is to where they process it (all at a fuel cost). We pay that cost, so that we can make ethanol using 50% more fossil fuel than the fuel produced.

BiofuelpumpExcuse me? Takes half again as much energy as it delivers? Sounds like a business plan to lose a little on every transaction, but make it up on volume.

Wood chips and other wood derived biomass sports a 57% energy shortfall, biodeisel from soybeans, negative 27%, using sunflower, minus 118%. Also, vehicles don’t get anywhere near the same mileage on ethanol as gasoline. Also (as if you needed another also), there’s a small matter of the gasoline road tax that will go missing, requiring you and me to come up with an annual $100 billion or so in to keep the highway infrastructure reasonably pothole-free. Thus our Congress, in its mindless enthusiasm and rush to election, has mandated 7.5 billion gallons annually of further deficit nonsense.

BalerIn the face of this, good ol’ boy Lester Lave somehow concludes

“By offering farmers a subsidy of $61 per acre for growing switchgrass on farmland that now supports corn, the nation would have a substantial supply of a renewable fuel that starts to cure our addiction to oil. We have a remarkable opportunity to promote free trade, help farmers, preserve farmland, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make the United States less dependent on foreign oil. And the best part: It can be done without Washington spending a dime more than it already does.”

Which once again proves the age-old axiom that figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

More environmental issues muddying the waters on my personal web site.

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