Politicians around the world were up against the wall. The World Trade Organization (WTO) was slowly picking away at all their fancy ways of sidetracking public funds into hopelessly anachronistic and inefficient agricultural subsidies. And the agribusiness beats the mil/industrial complex when it comes to lobbying skills. Even French politicians, famous for ignoring the plight of their people, tremble at the thought of another tractor phalanx of mad farmers pulling up in front of the National Assembly and launching putrid brie at their doorstep. Enter Peak Oil.
The WTO rulings are in place to regulate reasonable and equal trading practices between nations. But they cannot proscribe internal actions designed to protect the national infrastructure against potential disruptions. Running out of oil is one such potential downer. Enter a substitute that "solved" two problems at once:
1) How to keep moving money to the agribusiness without the WTO getting pesky.
2) Providing a palliative against Peak Oil. "See, we'll be driving on corn on the cob instead. Nothing has to change."
Well, now maybe it will have to. Bioethanol is a wildly inefficient way of propelling anything, whether aqua, auto or aero. Even in the most benign scenarios, the energy efficiency is pretty much 1:1. Add the fact that you're converting land from growing crops for food to growing fuel for cars, and you have a potential problem on your hands. To wit: rising food prices.
Turns out ethanol is bad in so many ways you don't even want to BEGIN thinking about it. Fortunately, we have people who are willing to do both the thinking and the research for us. The journal Science has just published two papers indicating that clearing land for biofuels will aid global warming.
Wouldn't you know it, the very thing that is going to cure us will kill us faster? Researchers from Princeton University, Woods Hole Research Center and Iowa State University (smack dab in the heart of E85 country) have all concluded that over 30 years, the use of traditional corn-based ethanol will produce twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline.
In the words of the report’s lead author, “this is not good news.” Surprise! There are hidden environmental costs to producing biofuels. "The land we're likely to plow up is the land that we've had taking up carbon for decades," Tim Searchinger at Princeton pronounced. "We can't get to a result, no matter how heroically we make assumptions on behalf of corn ethanol, where it will actually generate greenhouse-gas benefits."
Meanwhile, the governementos of the world are sleeping soundly in the knowledge that they have done a good thing, keeping rotting agricultural produce off the Capitol steps and letting people motor as usual.
Over at the Casa Blanca, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality isn’t surrendering the federal tit without a fight. James L. Connaughton says biofuels' benefits remain tangible.
"Like any issue, there are ways to do it right and there are ways to do things wrong, and the same is the case to biofuels. We move as rapidly as we can to second-generation [biofuels] because those offer the best opportunity for a low environmental profile."
And the Executive VP of the Biotechnology Industry Organization couldn't agree more. "It is much more logical to produce biofuels that recycle carbon,” Brent Erickson insisted. “Even if a short-term carbon debt is created. Even if it's 167 years, you're still better off than burning oil that can never be paid off."
He could have added that biofuels also offers the best opportunity for an abysmal energy ROI. Kind of like buying Eli Manning out of the Giants because you need someone to throw warmups to your starting High-School quarterback.
Michael O'Hare, who really knows his biofuels, is glum. Yes, another academic, from Berkeley of all places. What does he know?
"The bottom line of these complicated chains of events is that using crops for biofuels anywhere induces land use changes somewhere, and while the effect isn't a simple acre-for-acre replacement, and we don't know exactly how big the land-clearing carbon hit should be for a generic gallon of biodiesel or bioethanol, betting now is that it is most unlikely to be small enough to view crop-based biofuels as green substitutes for petroleum."
Well, doesn't that throw a wrench in the spokes of politicos and car honchos alike? Not to mention members of the green mafia who have been seduced by the notion they were supporting agriculture over oil wars.
It's worth restating. All those of us now alive have enjoyed an extended period with ridiculously effective energy readily available at an unbelievably low price. There are no viable substitutes to the energy efficiency of petroleum, and demand is outstripping supply, and faster than we'd like to think. What next? Sorry, but there is no easy answer.