Democrats & Liberals Archives

A Non-Corn-Based Politics

We have farm states and non-farm states, and of course they fight each other in Congress. Among the farm states are many, especially Iowa, specializing in corn. As soon as they found out that corn may be converted into ethanol to fill auto gas tanks, the farm states decided to push every Congressional lever to increase the use of ethanol made from corn. This corn-based politics is destroying America’s ability to reduce greenhouse gases on Earth. It’s time for a non-corn-based politics.

A new energy bill is now in Congress and ethanol is the major source of controversy:

But a plan to dramatically increase ethanol production has become a major sticking point in congressional negotiations to complete work on the bill.

Pro-ethanol Democrats and farm groups want the bill to require a nearly fivefold increase by 2022 in the amount of home-grown alternative fuels that must be blended into gasoline. They say the mandate would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and help America's farmers.

Democrats on the other side, joined by environmental and food-industry groups, think the mandate could raise the price of corn used for food; harm the environment by using more land to produce biofuels; and gouge taxpayers by expanding ethanol subsidies.

Republicans are divided on the issue too, with some lawmakers from oil-producing states opposing the mandate, and others from corn-growing states supporting it.

This is the way the media has presented important political issues of the day: a conflict between two or more self-interest groups. This is wrong. Today, when we - the entire Earth - are confronted with possible catastrophic climate change, we need to follow a more problem-solving approach when discussing anything related to energy.

Sure, corn growers can make more money if they sell more ethanol. Environmentalists are not against farmers; they do not begrudge them the money. By the way, in this context, we are all environmentalists because not one of us wants to be confronted with the wild changes coming because of increased emission of CO2 and other pollution.

The food industry works together with farmers. But this time the industry is upset that the price of food is skyrocketing. The price of a bushel of corn has exploded from $2 a bushel two years ago to $3.50 today. Is fuel energy more important than food energy?

Oil states are fighting the farm states because they want more money for oil and not for corn. Purely selfish reason.

It's time to look at politics a little differently. Squabbles between one interest group and another must take second place when considering legislation affecting energy and therefore climate change. The common good should be the criterion. By this I mean the common good of all people on Earth, not merely Americans. Climate change is not an American problem. It is a global problem.

Let's stop this stupid stampede to producing ethanol from corn. Maybe burning ethanol emits less CO2. But lots of CO2 is emitted when planting, fertilizing, transporting, maintaining and harvesting the corn and processing the ethanol.

Let's substitute so-called cellulosic ethanol, that is made from non-food grasses. We should fund some research for this because it has been shown to require less energy to grow and emits less CO2 when burned.

While we are waiting for the cellulosic ethanol field to develop, let's use sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil. This is truly CO2 free. Of course, this will benefit Brazil. But more important, it will benefit the entire Earth.

One reason ethanol producers will probably win this fight is that the number-one corn-producting state, Iowa, is the first state where candidates for president must win, or at least do well, in order to be nominated for president by their party. Can you imagine a candidate telling Iowans he or she is against corn-produced ethanol?

Our political system needs revamping. We need a new non-corn-based, non-oil-based, non-coal-based, non-gas-based - non-any-resource-based - politics. We need a politics of the common good for all people on Earth.

Posted by Paul Siegel at November 28, 2007 6:14 PM
Comment #239541

Celulosic technology is extant. It is being done.You are right about just corn production. Efficiency should improve with total plant conversion. Still there is something wrong with making food into gas in a hungry world. Celulosic allows for conversion of grasses,woodchips,ag waste and even yard waste and has the potential to pencil out even on a municple level.
The hope of replaceing fossil fuel with alternates is a pipe dream until price stabilization of the oil supply occurs. OPEC and the oil oiligarchs can,will and have lowered prices to systematically destroy alternate fuel capitalization.The most direct and effective way to do that is a flexible tariff on imported oil. Until that is ,or some other mechanism,is in place alternates will never come into the market in the quantities needed.

Posted by: BillS at November 28, 2007 6:40 PM
Comment #239587


We agree that corn based ethanol is a failed experiment. If it were just a free market activity, it would be gone the way of the Edsel and New Coke. But government subsidies and protection keep it going. Corn ethanol doesn’t make money unless the government helps it. It is a problem of government.

It is another and a recent example of why you cannot let government manage too much of the energy solution.

It is the mere triumph of hope over experience to think they will do better next time.

Posted by: Jack at November 29, 2007 6:02 AM
Comment #239601

Paul, you shouldn’t assume that everyone on this blog is convinced that man-made global warming is a reality. Some of us, including me, are not convinced. I am most concerned with our immediate security needs and that requires a stable and plentiful supply of energy not dependent upon others. I advocate drilling in areas of proven reserves, twenty to thirty new nuclear power plants, five more oil refineries, more money to develope cleaner coal technology, more wind powered generators and more research to bring down the cost of solar energy. Becomming energy independent will allow the U.S. the freedom to base international policies on what is best for us and the world, not on where will our next barrel of oil come from.

Posted by: Jim at November 29, 2007 11:42 AM
Comment #239605

Excellent article, Paul. You mention some energy producing processes which are not common knowledge. If you get a chance to add some links to educate us on some of those, such as cellulosic ethanol or sugarcane-based ethanol and why it is CO2 free, that would be helpful.

Your main point that the long-term common good needs to trump local, temporary, and sectoral concerns is what really can’t be stressed enough. Until we get more people to take off their blinders and realize that “we’re all in this together” is more than just a cute adage, we will continue to allow petty disputes to distract us from the impending catastrophe.

Jim, your concerns are no doubt earnestly felt, but those of us who accept the prevailing science feel no obligation to allow ourselves to be distracted by a vocal minority who deny the reality that we are quite certain of. We are not making assumptions that you don’t exist, only that you are incorrect. The consequences of not acting if we are right are far too dire for us not to assume that the prevailing science is correct. If I’m in the upstairs bedroom and smell smoke, I’m going to look to put out the fire, not stop and argue with the person in the room who argues that there might be an alternative explanation for that awful smell. Thankfully I see that there are some things we can agree on - wind, solar, and I will even join you on properly managed expansion of nuclear power sources. Extractive and CO2 producing technologies are not the place to put major new investments.

Posted by: Walker Willingham at November 29, 2007 12:34 PM
Comment #239622


Cellulosic ethanol emits less CO2. See
(the above 5 lines are one link)

Brazil uses sugarcane for producing ethanol. This emits less CO2 than corn ethanol.

Brazil uses bagasse, a relative of sugarcane, to provide the energy for all the work necessary to plant, etc. the sugarcane. Bagasse emits very little CO2.

The burnt ethanol is immediately replaced with newly planted sugarcane for more ethanol. The CO2 emitted by removing the sugarcan is restored by the newly planted sugarcane.

Posted by: Paul Siegel at November 29, 2007 3:27 PM
Comment #239623

It is not unusual or conterproductive for government to subsidize start up industries. We do it all the time.Certainly these subsidies should encourage greater efficencies and should taper off in time. Corn production will be improved by conversion of the whole plant or even just the stock,leaving the grain for food production. The heating needed should be supplied by something other than natural gas. Gee,what? Ethynol maybe?
Until such time as oil prices are stabilized about the only way large alternative industries will be capitalized is through government subsidies and protections.That stinks. Another arguement for a flexible tariff and carbon tax.
PS I hear the left over goo after celulosic conversion makes great fertilizer.

Posted by: bills at November 29, 2007 3:55 PM
Comment #239654

There are other costs and disadvantages associated with any of these alternatives.

Paul mentions the Brazilian experience with ethanol derived from sugarcane. But hasn’t the destruction of the Brazilian rainforests for agricultural use long been a major environmental problem? These cane fields exist in the first place because of the deforestation of areas which are home to all kinds of endangered plant and animal life. And this is a point to be made before you even start to think about the conditions that laborers in the Brazilian sugar cane industry live under. Brazil’s ethanol project is only economically possible because it basically depends on what amounts to slave labor.

Similar problems arise for virtually every single energy alternative I’ve ever heard, and the only reason we tend to think of them as actual “alternatives” is because we haven’t had to think about the results of actually using them on the scale that would make a dent in our energy needs.

Wind mills? To have enough of them to make any difference, we’d have to basically cover huge areas of our landscapes with them, especially in environmentally-sensitive coastal areas where there is enough wind to make it feasible. We’re talking about the potential extinction of many threatened bird species especially, considering how many birds are killed by those contraptions.

Harness the tides? Even worse. Coastal tide areas covered with huge turbines in the numbers we’d need would destroy these sensitive habitats.

Geothermal energy? The same problems we now have with oil excavation. Drilling, and the necessary for creating extensive road and service infrastructure in natural areas. Solar energy? A good idea and more should be done in this area, but it’s never going to be enough to become a real alternative to other means in industrialized societies.

I’ve long said that we need to get over our 1950s-style fear of nuclear energy and put serious resources into making it safer and more efficient. This would offer us the best chance at getting all the energy we could ever need with the least number of drawbacks. The biggest objection has always been what to do with nuclear waste—but this is a problem that modernized technology could solve MUCH more easily than developing other alternatives would be. We should be able to reprocess nuclear waste to the extent that the problems we now have with transporting and storing it would vanish. Scientists say that it’s definitely within our grasp, but unfortunately very little research is done in this area because so many people run for the hills any time they hear the word “nuclear.”

Posted by: Loyal Opposition at November 30, 2007 12:05 AM
Comment #239682


Great article! As a conservative who does believe in man’s influence on global warming this is just the sort of “government mandate” I’ve come to expect from the “best and the brightest” in government. Government is just as prone to corruption as industry and the use of corn to produce ethanol is just plain corruption run amok.

Switchgrass is five times as efficient at removing CO2 from the atmosphere when it is converted into ethanol as corn. That’s because its own lignin can be used as fuel for the portions of the process requiring distillation. In corn-based ethanol production that fuel must be provided by FOSSIL FUELS. If that fuel is natural gas corn ethanol does a few percentage points better than break even. If the fuel is petroleum it has been shown that ethanol production itself can actually ADD CO2 to the atmosphere.
What could be more stupid than that?

The fact of the matter is that, once equipment has been bought and production begun, cellulosic ethanol will be more efficient (and ultimately more profitable) than corn ethanol. That will provide it with a commercial constituency that can attract the swarming masses of government representation. Till then we want statesmanship.

Obviously that means we have to elect some statesmen, no matter what party they hail from.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at November 30, 2007 11:28 AM
Comment #239685

Wind generated energy technology is not standing still. A new generation of wind mills is now hitting the market. This new technology uses turbin type blades rather than propeller blades. The advantages are that the turbin generators work effectively in a 10mph wind and they work no matter in which direction the wind is blowing. The same space that is needed for the huge fixed blade wind farms can accomodate perhaps ten times as many turbin bladed generators. The new turbins will also be more easily spotted by migratory birds.

Wind, solar, hydrological, and geothermal are carbon free energy sources that when combined with clean, carbon sequestered coal power plants can and will supply all of our energy needs if our governments energy policies encourage them.

Although I favor electric cars, I realize that Americans are going to be relunctant to give up their 300 to 400 hundred horse powered suv’s and sports cars. Therefor, I would gladly accept hydrogen as a fuel for vehicles. Keep in mind that hydrogen can be used as a direct fuel source much the same way that gasoline is used. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is not a requirement.

Posted by: jlw at November 30, 2007 12:41 PM
Comment #239687

Yeah,pretty much but the single most difficult obsticle to overcome is price instability. How can one build a manufacturing business when you have no idea what the competitor will sell the competeing product for?

There are problems with every energy producing method as you point out. No free lunch. Some have more problems than others. Many of these problems can and have been overcome. Have a little faith in human ingenuity. There was a problem of windmills killing birds. New windmills have slower blades,problem solved. Another extant approach to placeing windmills along the coeast is placing them on large barges out to sea. This has the added advantage of eliminating the need to purchase expensive land and they can even be p[laced far enough out as to be out of sight.
Geothermal. Funny you should mention it. Where I live it is already supplieing MOST of the electricity.
An area you did not mention is conservation and conservation methods. A 20% reduction is not out of the question without signicicant life style changes by adopting conservation technologies. CFLs for example are already saving the need for more power plants. Passive geothermal heating and cooling systems are already being built. Our town swimming pool is being heated with solar panels. For the first time ever it is running out of the red.We are Americans. We can do this.
The dangers of nuclear power still exist and are even greater as terrorist targets. The spent fuel problem still exist even if some research has been done to solve it. Until Murphy’s law is reapealed the risk are not worth it when other sources are available to address the problem.
The biggest advantage to nuclear power and the reason so much money is being put into its promotion is because the amount of capitalization it requires is so huge the same players that now supply most of our energy needs are the only ones capable of producing it. Most alternates pencil out well on much smaller scales.Celulosic pencils well on a municiple level with yard waste that have to be handled anyway for example. Solar panels on your roof means that you do not have to pay as much every month to your local energy monopoly. In other words,more freedom. Government is not the only force out there that likes to have us under their thumb.

Posted by: BillS at November 30, 2007 12:50 PM
Comment #239689

In a hungry world, why should we use food for fuel and raise food prices even more?

Posted by: Rachel at November 30, 2007 1:05 PM
Comment #239695

Are you wanting to feed the world or save the world from the great gore flood that is right around the corner?

Using corn works now and is in use now. Politics is holding other methods back, but not forever.
Especially with people like Paul making reasonable requests such as this.

Nice article Paul and thanks for the links Walker asked for. Interesting reading there.

Posted by: kctim at November 30, 2007 2:04 PM
Comment #239697


Yes, there are disadvantages to every alternative energy source - including nuclear. This does not mean we do nothing. Nor does it mean that we pick the toughest, most expensive and hazardous approach: nuclear.

We must try them all. I happen to believe that solar energy is the best to follow. I am not alone. Al Gore has joined John Doerr to invest in cleantech, of which solar is foremost. As a matter of fact, Doerr, the famous venture capitalist of Silicon Valley has suggested that they should Silicon Valley sould be called Solar Valley.

Posted by: Paul Siegel at November 30, 2007 2:12 PM
Comment #239698

Bill, I have no problem with developing and using any of those sources in ways that minimize their harm and maximize their efficiency. That’s what we should be doing.

But the dangers of nuclear power, though real, are wildly overstated. If we were to develop nuclear power on a wider scale, it would be very easy to implement multiple layers of technological safeguards well beyond what we have now to bring the potential for accidents down to near zero, and nobody’s saying that we should place nuclear reactors anywhere near populated areas.

I honestly think that most Americans get their ideas about nuclear power from episodes of the Simpsons and the “Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.” Terrorist acts against nuclear facilities? If these facilities are secured with the same vigilance we already use to secure our nuclear arsenal, we’ll be fine.

And in any case, beyond the security hurdles, a successful attack on a modernized nuclear power plant would have to involve a massive amount of technological knowledge to defeat the technical safeguards to get any bang-for-the-buck out of the attack whatsoever. Even if we completely handed over a nuclear plant to a bunch of terrorists today and let them run wild there, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d be able to hurt or injure anybody but themselves. They could create an expensive mess to clean up, but when it comes to actually hurting people, they’d have a lot better luck in launching more conventional attacks.

Posted by: Loyal Opposition at November 30, 2007 2:13 PM
Comment #239715
Are you wanting to feed the world

Yes…ever seen a hungry child? Know the physical and mental problems that hunger causes? There’s plenty food grown…we need to distribute it fairly…and we don’t need to feed it to animals (did you know cattle can’t eat corn without major modifications to their body chemistry??) or use it for fuel…

Posted by: Rachel at November 30, 2007 5:39 PM
Comment #239721

Yes. Yes. And I have lived and worked on a farm, so Yes.

Corn based ethanol is in use and working now. So, we should use it until something better is put in place.
Or, should we quit using corn, use it all to feed “the world” and just use more oil until the things Paul mentions come into the mainstream? Doing that wouldn’t be helping to prevent gores flood now would it?

Posted by: kctim at November 30, 2007 5:58 PM
Comment #239733


It all comes down to whether money or people are more important…

Posted by: Rachel at November 30, 2007 9:06 PM
Comment #239817

If we build more nucs the most likely way we will do it is with mostly private funding unless we move to a system similar to the French system. Their system is entirely socialized. It works well(so far) but my point is that we cannot count on private firms to consistently provide the high level of security the military uses to gard our nuclear arsenal.Security is a fundementally non-productive and expensive factor and sooner or later becomes the target of beancounters. The alternative is for the already pressed military to take over the responsibility. The Feds have already assumed insurance liability.If we are providing the security and liability coverage not to mention a great deal of research investment and subsidies.Why on earth should we not get more out of it than a montly electric bill?One of the reasons the French system works safely is the absense of the profit motive. They will run that expensive test again etc.

As I mentioned previously many alternatives already offer personal savings (read: freedom).The improvments in the tech involved and new alternates comming online promise more. One would think such personal independance would be music to your ears.

An example of tech improvment comming to a Home Depot near you;Current solar cells only use one solar light band. There is extant tech already to use three by layering other substances allowing for a 200% efficiency increase. That is the reason the Mars Rovers are still roving. We already know how. The next trick is to get the cost down. Economies of scale could work to do this,lets say with the capitalization that would be needed to build two or three nuclear plants.Whats the better investment?Hint;solar cells never ever will blow up taking half a state,have the potential to produce more power longer,and once you own them no one will stick a bill in your face every month.

Posted by: BillS at December 2, 2007 3:02 AM
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