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South American Ethanol Debate Highlights Alt Fuel Insanity

Robert Farago, The Truth About Cars
wfbfcom.jpgYesterday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez did something unusual: backpedal. The South American Bush basher “clarified” his opposition to an agreement between the U.S. and Brazil to promote ethanol production. Chavez claimed he objected to the development of corn-based ethanol– not Brazilian sugar cane-based ethanol. Echoing last month’s interminable diatribe by Fidel Castro, Chavez condemned America’s energy policy, declaring that “taking corn away from people and the food chain to feed automobiles is a terrible thing.”

According to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, it doesn’t matter which organic source you use for ethanol production. Speaking at a two-day South American energy summit, da Silva rejected any notion of a food–fuel conflict. “The problem of food in the world now is not [a] lack of production of food. It’s a lack of income for people to buy food… No one is going to stop planting rice to plant biofuels.”

Perhaps. But one thing is for sure: America’s newfound love for ethanol is creating some major political and economic side effects.

…In fact, the whole alternative fuels policy is full of such bizarre contradictions. Environmentalists who embraced biologically-derived ethanol as a “clean” alternative to carbon-based energy would do well to consider the enormous rainforest destruction caused by Brazil’s ethanol industry. The current rate of deforestation will have a more profound effect on greenhouse gasses than the planet’s vehicular emissions.

The contradictions inherent in America’s ethanol production highlight the need for a comprehensive U.S. energy policy. If the U.S. is going to find a way to manage the political, environmental and economic implications of our energy production, delivery and consumption, we need to take a rational and independent look at ALL the alternatives– from Alaskan drilling to nuclear power to corn-based ethanol production. Otherwise, greed and hypocrisy will stymie any effort– however noble– to create any genuine change.
(18 April 2007)

Contributor Extra O writes:
This is pretty straight shootin’, especially considering the source: a website by and for self-confessed “pistonheads”.

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the whole energy question and Farago’s editorial is just one more sign of that. Can the end be far away when even card carrying car fanatics make statements like the first sentence of his last paragraph??

Study: Ethanol may cause more smog, deaths

Seth Borenstein, Associate Press
Switching from gasoline to ethanol – touted as a green alternative at the pump – may create dirtier air, causing slightly more smog-related deaths, a new study says.

Nearly 200 more people would die yearly from respiratory problems if all vehicles in the United States ran on a mostly ethanol fuel blend by 2020, the research concludes. Of course, the study author acknowledges that such a quick and monumental shift to plant-based fuels is next to impossible.

Each year, about 4,700 people, according to the study’s author, die from respiratory problems from ozone, the unseen component of smog along with small particles. Ethanol would raise ozone levels, particularly in certain regions of the country, including the Northeast and Los Angeles.

“It’s not green in terms of air pollution,” said study author Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor. “If you want to use ethanol, fine, but don’t do it based on health grounds. It’s no better than gasoline, apparently slightly worse.”
(18 Apr 2007)
Related from BBC and from PhysOrg.

World now faces competition between food and fuel, expert warns

Ethan McNern, Scotsman
GLOBAL grain yields must rise sharply over the next 50 years to avoid food shortages as an increasingly rich population competes with biofuels for scarce resources, the head of the Scottish Agricultural College has said.

Despite growth in organic farming in some parts of Europe, Professor Bill McKelvey said that while such niche output had a role in the food supply, there was a need to intensify aspects of agriculture to avoid shortages in the future. He said growing affluence in countries like China and India as well as desertification due to climate change would increase strain on the world’s ability to feed itself, but the most pressing threat came from the biofuel revolution.
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“We are going to see increasing competition between food and fuel,” Prof McKelvey told a news conference.

He said rising corn usage in US ethanol production was already helping to tighten world grain stocks, which have dropped from 100 to 40 days’ worth of supply in the past six years.

And as the biofuel sector took up an increasing portion of arable production elsewhere, yield increases would be needed as the amount of unused suitable land was limited.
(18 Apr 2007)

U.S. pursues ethanol technology as key to reducing oil dependence

Matthew L. Wald and Alexei Barrionuevo, International Herald Tribune
…No company has yet been able to produce ethanol from cellulose in mass quantities that are priced competitively with corn-based ethanol. And without the cellulosic ethanol, the national goal for ethanol production will be impossible to reach.

“Producing cellulosic ethanol is clearly more difficult than we thought in the 1990s,” said Dan Reicher, who was assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy at the time of the first ceremony and who spoke in Jennings then.

To be sure, a swarm of innovators, venture capitalists and government officials is optimistic. Over the past year, money has begun to pour in from all corners – government, private foundations, venture capitalists and Wall Street – to sort out the myriad production problems preventing cellulosic ethanol from becoming a reality. And recent advances in gene sequencing have raised hopes for a breakthrough in mass producing the enzymes needed to do the work.

If making the technology work to produce ethanol from cellulose was important in the 1990s, it is even more critical now. Because of growing concerns about oil imports and climate change, Reicher said, “it is essential that we figure this out, and fast.”

Mounting concerns about excessive demands for corn as both food and fuel only add to the urgency. In January, President Bush set a goal of producing 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels, probably a majority of it ethanol, by 2017.

But the more than six billion gallons of ethanol that will be produced this year have already helped push corn to its highest price in years, raising the cost of everything from tortillas to chicken feed. Poor people in Mexico have protested against the higher prices, and now China and India are starting to suffer from food inflation.

So why has no one figured out a way to make ethanol from materials like the sugar cane wastes engineers are working with in Jennings?
(17 April 2007)