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The Big Green Fuel Lie

Daniel Howden, The Independent
George Bush says that ethanol will save the world. But there is evidence that biofuels may bring new problems for the planet
The ethanol boom is coming. The twin threats of climate change and energy security are creating an unprecedented thirst for alternative energy with ethanol leading the way.

That process is set to reach a landmark on Thursday when the US President, George Bush, arrives in Brazil to kick-start the creation of an international market for ethanol that could one day rival oil as a global commodity. The expected creation of an “Opec for ethanol” replicating the cartel of major oil producers has spurred frenzied investment in biofuels across the Americas.

But a growing number of economists, scientists and environmentalists are calling for a “time out” and warning that the headlong rush into massive ethanol production is creating more problems than it is solving.
(5 March 2007)
Also at Common Dreams.

Brazil Accused of Getting Biofuel with Slave Labor

Brazzil Mag
…In a letter issued after a seminar of the international peasant movement Via Campesina on the growth of the sugarcane industry in Latin America that was held in São Paulo last month, representatives of social organizations and movements from Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic challenged the discourse according to which biofuel is a clean energy that can generate income for rural populations in Brazil.

“The current bioenergy production model is based on the same elements that have always brought oppression to indigenous people: appropriation of territories, of natural goods, of the labor force,” said Via Campesina in the letter, which is called “Full Tanks at the expense of Empty Stomachs.”

“The Brazilian government is now encouraging the production of biodiesel also, mainly to ensure the survival and expansion of soybean monoculture in large areas. With the aim of legitimizing this policy and disguising its devastating effects, the government has been encouraging the diversified production of biodiesel by small farmers for the purpose of creating the so-called “social seal.” Monoculture is increasing in indigenous areas and other territories of original indigenous people,” he added.

One of the main concerns is with working conditions in farms. And this includes the use of indigenous labor which, particularly in sugarcane plantations, often faces conditions similar to slavery: low pay, no safety, long months away from their villages and homes.
(5 March 2007)

Gasification may be key to U.S. ethanol

Dirk Lammers, Associated Press
The government awarded $385 million in grants last week aimed at jumpstarting ethanol production from nontraditional sources like wood chips, switchgrass and citrus peels. What’s surprising is that half of the six projects chosen will use a process first discovered almost a century ago to turn coal into a gas.

…the Energy Department is placing a big bet on a process called gasification. Long hailed as a more environmentally friendly way to turn coal into electricity, the process might also provide a faster and eventually cheaper way to produce ethanol from a variety of renewable sources collectively known as biomass, some scientists say.

For corn-based ethanol plants, the process of producing ethanol is as simple as brewing beer: sugars are extracted from the corn kernels and then enzymes are added to ferment it into alcohol. But biomass feedstocks don’t easily give up their starches, so more expensive steps are needed to ferment cellulose in high-pressure chambers that have limited amounts of oxygen, according to Lanny Schmidt, a University of Minnesota chemical engineer.
(4 March 2007)

In search of a moral solution to our energy problem

Thad Box, Salt Lake Tribune
There should be a cool place in hell for those who burn nutritious food to push around a sports utility vehicle. And a warmer place for politicians who treat our energy crisis as an economic or geo-political problem. Energy policy, with its resulting climate change, is a moral issue.

President Bush, speaking on the state of the union, hinted at morality when he said we have to cure our addiction to oil. Congress cheered when he mentioned ethanol. Those from corn-raising states almost broke their arms applauding.

Then the price of tortillas increased. Futures prices for corn fuel stock drove up food costs for millions of people. Supplies of corn for distribution to famine areas such as Darfur became raw material for alcohol production.

…Ethanol from cellulose, using everything from grass trimmings to pond scum to household waste, is possible. Technology has not fully developed in that area. Research and development grants might lead to a feasible bridge energy supply to give us time to develop reasonable alternatives to fossil fuels. But, additional research and subsidies to known energy sources – geothermal, wind, low-head hydopower, etc. – appear superior to ethanol.

Human suffering related to fossil fuels has not been accurately calculated. Deaths from mining, drilling and processing fuels are among the highest of all industries. Casualties of wars and famines related to oil are staggering. Present and future deaths from fossil fuel-related pollution and climate change loom in nightmarish numbers. Yet, the morality of energy policy is largely ignored.

A moral solution will require major changes, like replacing the internal combustion engine with fusion or something we have not yet imagined. We marshaled our intellectual resources to do impossible tasks like putting a man on the moon and developing an atomic bomb. Another impossible task awaits, unleashing American ingenuity to develop a moral energy system.

Thad Box is a former dean of the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.
(3 March 2007)

‘We’ve got to have more corn,’ expert says

Aaraon T. Ancel, Rebecca Townsend, Hsin-Tin Lee and Cham Yu, Columbia Missourian
New vehicles seen as pushing demand for ethanol even higher
With the expanded use of ethanol, cars and sows are now competing for the same corn crop. The increased demand is profitable for Missouri corn farmers, but other sectors of the economy are feeling the burden of higher prices.

“We’ve got to have more corn,” said Peter Zimmel of the MU Department of Agricultural Economics.

Livestock remains the single largest consumer of corn in Missouri, eating 70 to 75 percent of the total production. Ethanol production, which dates to the mid-1990s in Missouri, now consumes more than 14 percent of the state’s corn crop.

When Missouri’s four proposed ethanol plants begin production and after the expansion of Mid-Missouri Energy, Missouri will produce an estimated 431 million gallons of ethanol. At that rate, ethanol production would require more than 45 percent of what the state’s farmers harvested in 2006.

Missouri Ethanol, a midsized plant in Audrain County, consumes as much corn as 1.3 million hogs can eat in a year.

In response to the shifting demand, corn prices have risen to $4 a bushel from last fall’s harvest price of around $2.40.

“That’s a drastic change, and we’ve never seen anything like it,” said Bill Kessler, who raises hogs, cattle, corn and soybeans northeast of Auxvasse.

The higher prices have increased the cost of getting meat from the farm to the fork.
(4 March 2007)