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What is the Energy Independence of Ethanol? – Or, is that Even the Right Question?

Bob Stapler, Intellectual Conservative
The debate over ethanol is far from over and has been clouded, in some cases deliberately, to favor a pro-ethanol policy.

Barack Obama made renewable energy (with ethanol its centerpiece) a plank of his campaign. McCain(and a good many Republicans) also touts renewable-energy, including ethanol, though emphasizing the need to drill first. Both men operate from information that is highly disputed and subject to revision.

Politicians love the idea of ethanol because it a) taps resources directly available to us (i.e., independence), b) has the blessing of government’s scientific establishment (EPA, USDA & DOE), c) satisfies a constituency demand for a quick fix to a seemingly alarming situation (gasoline price volatility), d) has the endorsement of the Luddite anti-oil faction (delighted to drive a stake through Big-Oil’s heart), e) has powerful agri-business backers (grateful for government underwriting) and is f) theoretically inexhaustible. There are some things we know about the behind the scenes debate and center-stage hyperbole, however, that discount ethanol as a viable replacement fuel for gasoline any time soon.

… Ethanol is, without question, an excellent fuel; yet, too often, we mistake solutions for needs where none yet exists; invariably resorting to government to take “necessary steps.” Government is at its absolute worst when stampeded into action by our demands to pull our fat out of a fire by the only means of which government is capable. Government can only declare a direction, to which the rest of us are, then, irreversibly committed. Without government intervention, we may start down wrong paths, but, because we are uncommitted by law, can reverse course or find some other path to the optimal solution. Not so with government interventions. Government is incapable of just letting events take their course, even when imbued with free-market sentiments.

… The USDA presentation is fairly compelling, and I was close to accepting it when I came upon an Oil Drum article directing my attention to another by Robert Rapier. Rapier is a long-time critic of grain-based ethanol, arguing a limited energy return for ethanol before the Montana Legislature (Rapier led me to Pimentel & Patzek). Rapier’s position on bio-fuels is, “I don’t believe all biofuels are bad, but we need to carefully consider the tradeoffs.”

… Possibly the most intriguing rebuttal to ethanol comes from JD of the “Peak Oil Debunked” website. JD argues the ethanol v. gasoline net-energy-balance question is moot because people will continue to extract and refine oil long after oil has declined and we’re scraping the barrel. This same argument is applicable to ethanol, making the NEV controversy equally moot. People will do what they have to get energy in whatever form available. JD argues that to maintain an advantaged lifestyle, the strong will exploit the weak as happened in past.

Bob Stapler is a mechanical engineer sneaking reports out of the Socialist Republic of Columbia, Maryland with the aid of conservative friends.
(8 November 2008)
Skepticism about ethanol extends across the political spectrum from Bob Stapler on the right, to Fidel Castro on the left, with many more in the middle. Kevin Phillips made a similar point in talking about the financial bailout last night on a talk show. He maintained that the Republicans and Democrats are two sides of the same party, and that grassroots conservatives and progressives may find they may have more in common than they think they do. -BA

Obama and Biofuels – summary

Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive!

A summary of recent stories on Obama’s links with the biofuel industry.

About author:
I’m an Israeli activist and writer. I spent five years in the UK, working with local initiatives in Oxford and larger networks like PGA and Dissent!, and passing off my reflections on activism as a PhD thesis, on which my first book, Anarchy Alive!, is based.

Far from the frontlines for now, I live with my partner on a kibbutz in Israel’s southern desert, and make my living teaching Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian students at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
(6 November 2008)

Ethanol: When in doubt, propagandize

David Roberts, Gristmill

The ethanol industry is in trouble because the market is rejecting its products, which turn out to have been wildly over-hyped. So it’s taking a cue from the coal industry and improving its product launching a massive advertising campaign. Fresh from my inbox:

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, November 11th, leading ethanol producers from around the country will announce the launch of a new organization at a press conference in Washington, D.C. The organization will be dedicated to promoting ethanol as America’s best renewable fuel that is reliable and affordable now. In addition, they will announce a new ad campaign focused on one of the most important issues regarding ethanol and public policy.

How hard is it to make your product affordable when you receive billions in subsidies from taxpayers? And if taxpayers are paying to keep the price low, does that really count as affordable?

(7 November 2008)

The slippery business of palm oil

Fred Pearce, The Guardian
The plutocrats of palm oil are in trouble. The makers of Wall’s ice cream and Dove soap and Flora margarine are worried you’ll get the idea that these products are being produced at the expense of the rainforests of southeast Asia. Because they are. And, so far, efforts to rebrand palm-oil plantations as oases of sustainability have proved about as convincing as those old ads that insisted you couldn’t tell the difference between butter and margarine.

In late November, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) will hold its sixth annual meeting in on the Indonesian island of Bali. Food manufacturers, commodity traders and plantation owners will applaud the “first trickle” of palm oil certified as wildlife and climate-friendly and definitely not grown on recently deforested land.

Sadly, this will underline how, after six years of trying to identify sustainable sources of palm oil, the RSPO has to admit that 99% of the ubiquitous edible oil – found in a third of all the products on supermarket shelves – cannot be shown to have been produced sustainability…
(6 November 2008)