Letters to the Editor: Ethanol, Part II

IN PART I, we reprinted a number of thoughtful letters on the subject of ethanol by some of the readers. But we received many thoughtful letters, from our many above-average Whiskey & Gunpowder readers. So this is Part II of your letters, and toward the end it includes some comments from both you and me on the Brazilian program to produce ethanol from sugar cane. Let’s jump right in.

From Ethan, Location Unknown, about farmers growing more corn to meet demand for ethanol:“They will not use more fuel. All of the land that a farmer has is being used already to grow other crops. Farmers don’t just leave land sitting idle waiting to plant more corn. No farmer can afford to do that. Yes, corn prices will go up, but corn will be grown at the expense of other crops, not in addition to them. And I’m sorry, but if land is marginal and not currently being used, it’s not going to be used for corn, either. Marginal land grows marginal crops. It would hardly be worth the expense.”

Byron’s Comment: The individual U.S. farmer is quite a different thing than aggregate U.S. agricultural production. Large-scale agriculture in the U.S. is in many respects an industrial process that distinctly favors certain types of technology, terrain, and soil conditions. As a rule, the more crops that are grown, the more energy inputs are required. As no less an authority on the subject than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has noted:

“The rapid adoption of new technology, improved crop varieties, improved insect and disease control, and other changes have boosted agricultural productivity [in the U.S.] so that more production can be obtained from the same cropland base. Agricultural productivity has more than doubled over the past 50 years.

“Larger farm equipment and increased use of irrigation has favored regions with large, level fields.”

Also, according to the USDA, “at its peak in 1992-95, the Conservation Reserve Program took about 36 million acres of land out of crop production.” This was out of about 440 million acres available, or about 8% of arable U.S. land.” So while one farmer might be plowing right up to the property line, there are other tracts of U.S. farmland that are sitting idle.

From Sterling, Who Knows Where He Is, Even if We Don’t:“When you read Byron King’s article, it leaves you feeling like nothing should be done to extend our energy resources. That is akin to not taking the five hours available to you on Saturday morning [to do something useful]…It does not make any sense doing that. Growing corn on otherwise unused real estate would be a sure way to get something out of it. If you have either lived through it, or have a parent that did, they used to extend gasoline even then by adding alcohol. Back during World War II, when everyone used gas-rationing coupons, I can remember an old gas pump at a filling station in a nearby town that had the word ‘ethyl’ displayed on it. That is what it was for then. Of course, there are other variations of alcohol that are more efficient, but you get the idea…And with the old-style methanol, which is the one I insist on using still as also my grandfather had from the 1920s until he died in 1966, it does very nice things for octane. The local race car gangs use it in their gas to boost the octane even further. And it does melt an ice chunk in the fuel line in the winter. It would be absolutely asinine not to use it to make gasoline go further. As far as using it in diesel fuel and a building heating plant, I don’t know if you can or not. Phooey. Wouldn’t affect the food supply for squat. Might even make the small farm closer to being economically feasible once more. Don’t need anymore of that valuable soil paved over.”

Byron’s Comment: “It leaves you feeling like nothing should be done to extend our energy resources”? Sterling, I know that you are a frequent reader, so you know that I am always writing about ideas for what to do about the future of energy supply and energy policy in the U.S., and the world at large. Let’s see…What have I discussed in some of my Whiskey & Gunpowder articles over the past two years or so? Drilling for oil, maybe? Secondary and tertiary recovery methods? Of course. But drilling alone is just not enough. How about conservation and efficiency? That is the fastest, cheapest, most readily available source of “new energy” available to everyone, everywhere.

I have discussed coal and methanol, particularly the Chinese approach to developing a vast methanol industry based on their own domestic coal reserves. I have discussed windmills and solar. I have written at length on the very fundamental idea of “strategy,” because without it, every plan is destined to fail. But this is a letters column, not a soapbox. So onto other letters.

From Jim, Location Unknown:“I teach a continuing education class for teacher certification about geology and ore deposits. Environmental questions often arise…The cost in loss to arable farmland topsoil to the Mississippi Delta from corn cultivation is as follows: The annual yield of one bushel of corn is at the sacrifice of 1,800 pounds of topsoil down the wind and the river due to erosion.”

Byron’s Comment: Interesting point, Jim. Agriculture is just one aspect of the extremely complex dynamic of the hydrologic cycle. The topsoil that erodes away from the upper Midwest is, for the most part, an ancient relic of the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers. Yes, topsoil can renew itself, but only over a period of many centuries, if not thousands of years. So by accelerating erosion of topsoil anywhere, mankind is foreclosing its agricultural future. This modern phenomenon of soil erosion simply adds to the resonance of the old saying about the Mississippi River, that it is “too thin to plow, too thick to drink.”

Another aspect of modern agriculture is chemical runoff. Fertilizers and pesticides drain from the land into the river system, and eventually make their way to the sea. Just south of the Mississippi Delta is a vast dead zone of water, where agricultural chemicals have congregated due to limited circulation in that part of the Gulf of Mexico. (Not even Hurricane Katrina, back in 2005, could stir it up all that much.) The fertilizers in the water cause algae to bloom. These bugs use up almost all of the dissolved oxygen in the water, so the fish cannot survive. This has wreaked havoc with the Louisiana fishing industry. Things are all interconnected.

From Another Jim, Location Unknown:“Byron is right on the cob, with his corny comments, but one point he made requires qualification. He said that there is ‘no free lunch.’ [But] when a lobbyist takes a politician to lunch, it is usually free for both of them. When [someone] closes out a big deal that saw him make a lot of money for simply making a few bets, then you can more or less assume that his next lunch won’t cost him anything.”

Byron’s Comment: Jim, I understand what you are saying about the power of the lobbyist crowd to extract special favors from the politicians. But this is also part and parcel of the U.S. political system. Lobbying, arm-twisting, and other forms of political and economic persuasion have been going on since time immemorial. In a way, this is another angle on the “free market,” at least the market in ideas. That is, there is a system by which private entities use their influence to, as the saying goes, “educate” the policymakers. But not all education is created equal.

My view of how things get done in the U.S. is that the more important the decision, the more you can expect to see “rational actors” do the right thing. For example, if the stakes of any given decision are relatively small or low-level, then raw politics and backdoor intrigue takes over. For an example close to my home at least, just about anything having to do with the Pennsylvania State Legislature can be viewed in terms of backroom deals, political patronage, and what people call “grease.”

But in contrast, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the U.S. risked taking a nuclear strike from Soviet missiles in Cuba and delivering a nuclear response in kind on Russia. The stakes were, I think you will all agree, pretty high. So President Kennedy and his advisers managed to do most of the right and rational things, and worked out a deal with Soviet Premier Khrushchev and comrades to de-escalate the situation.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the right and rational thing in terms of a U.S. national energy policy absent some massive, 1970s-style energy crisis slamming home again? That is, quite frankly, one of our themes in Whiskey & Gunpowder . We are looking for the right answers, or at least the right investments that will lead to the right answers.

From Donald in Texas:“Brazil is reportedly an effective user of ethanol as a vehicle fuel, but it makes it from sugar cane especially grown for the purpose.”

From “Jungle Jim,” Location Unknown:“Brazil has proven that ethanol can be used economically; it’s broken its oil dependency. If we are to remain a nation of any account, we must break ours. Yet every time that the subject is raised, ‘experts’ come forward to denigrate the idea. They are glib and clever, but their answer is always, ‘No.’ They very seldom have any positive alternative to offer, but they sure know what won’t work. The result is that our country increasingly looks like a bad remake of Waiting for Godot. We stand around hoping against hope for something good to happen, but all we hear is, ‘Nothing to be done!’ The irony is that this nation used to be famed for never taking no for answer. Now it’s all we get.”

From Yet Another Guy Named Jim, Location Unknown:“I agree with Byron…If we planted more corn on acreage equal to several times the area of Illinois, it still would supply less than half of our liquid fuel consumption. It’s not a total loss: The byproduct of an ethanol plant can be fed to cattle and swine. But diverting corn to ethanol production will have an impact on food production. Those who say, ‘If Brazil can do it, why can’t we?’ should realize corn is mostly starch that has to be converted to sugar by a malt enzyme. Brazil starts out with cane juice ready for fermentation and produces several cane crops per year. Subsidized ethanol is just another way to buy the farm vote.”

Byron’s Comment: I received quite a few e-mails referring to the Brazilian program for producing ethanol from sugar cane. I did not discuss the Brazilian program in the recent Whiskey & Gunpowder article on ethanol because I was focusing on the construction of ethanol plants in the U.S. But let’s discuss Brazil, while we are on the subject.

Brazil really does have quite a robust ethanol program going on, the product of 30 years and more of consistent national policy and massive investment. That alone should offer a sobering contrast to the on-again, off-again approach to a national energy policy in the U.S. But pointing out the flaws of the U.S. approach to producing ethanol from corn is not the same thing as saying “no.” And there is no harm in making an honest assessment of the U.S. approach, to include pointing out the contrasts with the Brazilian program.

Brazil is located, for the most part, in a tropical climate and, as some of the letters note, cultivates up to several crops per year of sugar cane that is specially bred for the purpose. Sugar cane is cultivated on a six-seven-year cycle, and its growth and cultivation requires far fewer inputs of manufactured nutrients than corn. (For example, sugar cane fixes nitrogen from the air through Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, and hence does not require nitrate fertilizer.) Sugar cane cultivation uses up about 1% of Brazil’s arable land, and tends not to be a significant cause of soil erosion, because the soil remains covered most of the year, or all year round. Most sugar cane fields in Brazil are not irrigated, and the sugar cane is watered solely via rainfall. Almost all of the sugar cane waste from making ethanol is fed to animals, mulched, and/or otherwise returned to the soil.

Chemical inputs to sugar cane cultivation in Brazil are so low, in most instances, that most Brazilian sugar cane farms would meet or exceed the standard U.S. definitions for “organic” agriculture. Many Brazilian sugar cane farms have entire ecosystems of flora and fauna that have evolved, literally, in the shade of the cane crops. Numerous almost-extinct species have come to thrive in and around sugar cane plantations. Compare this with the so-called “monoculture” agriculture model that dominates in many parts of the U.S., or the almost sterile soil in many agricultural areas of the U.S. that can only support crop growth via liberal application of natural gas-derived or oil-based fertilizers.

But manufacturing ethanol to use as automotive fuel is more than just an agricultural process. There are demographic and cultural variables, as well. Brazil has a population of about 184 million, or about 61% of the U.S. population. Yet Brazil has a fleet of vehicles that is only 12% of the total American fleet (28 million vehicles in Brazil, versus over 230 million vehicles in the U.S.) There is almost nothing comparable to “suburban commuting” in Brazil. Urban development in Brazil never led to affluent classes of people living in distant suburbia and commuting to work and shop. Most affluent and middle-class people in Brazil live near their workplaces and schools, or commute by train, bus, or subway to their workplaces and other destinations. In fact, in Brazil, the suburbs are pretty much synonymous with squalor and poverty. (On that subject, as applied to the evolution of U.S. suburbia, see James Kunstler’s arresting and remarkable book The Long Emergency .)

The net energy result is that Brazil’s gasoline consumption is only 4 billion gallons per year, which is supplemented by ethanol consumption of an equal amount. So 50% of what would otherwise be total gasoline demand is replaced by ethanol in Brazil. Compare Brazilian gasoline consumption of 4 billion gallons per year with a total of over 140 billion gallons per year of gasoline consumption in the U.S. In other words, Brazil’s gasoline consumption is about 2.9% (yes, you are reading it right, less than 3%) of U.S. gasoline consumption. No wonder that Brazil can meet its needs with ethanol.

So when I point out all of these facts, I am not trying to be “Dr. No” to peoples’ illusions of the future energy supply for the U.S. My view is that the “sugar cane” ethanol model of Brazil is simply not a realistic comparison to the U.S. effort to pretend to obtain its transportation fuel needs from corn-derived ethanol. In many respects, the U.S. is fooling only itself.

It is not industrially, socially, or politically difficult for Brazil to replace 50% of its gasoline requirement when that nation consumes only 8 billion gallons of transportation fuel per year. And it is helpful that Brazil has a tropical climate, in which a unique plant thrives, growing in the rain and under tropical conditions, and utilizing less than 1% of Brazil’s arable land. Good for Brazil! It is just that you cannot extrapolate Brazil’s program and scale it up to the massive and voluminous U.S. requirement for transportation fuel, certainly not by using corn.

The U.S. can do no such thing that Brazil is accomplishing. Circumstances are just plain different. So the U.S. is wasting its resources and time in a boondoggle effort to make significant amounts of transportation fuel from corn that will eventually prove to be futile. The American political class needs to stop viewing Peak Oil, and the ominous future energy situation of the world, as just another political issue. It is long past time to get rational and serious about developing a long-term energy policy for the country.

I hope that these comments have provided you with some food for thought, if not a desire for a stiff shot of Old Overholt Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey. Thank you for reading Whiskey & Gunpowder .

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King

January 17, 2007