Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Drunk on ethanol

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Los Angeles Times

Basing energy policy on corn could fuel a potential disaster.
August 20, 2007

‘Gasoline is going — alcohol is coming. And it’s coming to stay, too, for it’s in unlimited supply. And we might as well get ready for it now.”

Those words might have come from President George W. Bush, or just about any member of the U.S. Congress, or every major presidential candidate from both parties. All are euphorically drunk on ethanol (a fancy name for grain alcohol), seen as the miracle fuel that will simultaneously solve our global warming problem and end our reliance on foreign oil. Actually, though, they were uttered by automotive pioneer Henry Ford nearly a century ago.

A very well argued piece of editorial. I came to BC to work on the province’s alternative transportation fuels policy over twelve years ago now. There were serious doubts about ethanol then. Since then ethanol has cropped up in the “West Wing” and more than one movie I have seen about presidential politics. The critical factor being the way that the states that grow corn tend to be crucial in the primaries. So candidates early on in the process have to take “the ethanol pledge” – just like Jimmy Smits did. And I doubt that they have long discussions about alternative transportation fuels policy on the campaign bus in real life.

If alternative fuels were so good, they would have been much more successful than they have been. And it is not just the malign influence of the big bad oil companies in league with the auto makers either (although that is almost certainly true too). A lot of people have been trying very hard to get the US less dependant on imported oil as a strategic objective for a very long time. And actually I think the oil companies like ethanol, it is a useful additive to gasoline to increase cleaning and raise octane, and they sell a heck of lot of diesel oil and petrochemical based fertilisers to corn farmers. Indeed I have seen some studies which suggested that more energy goes in to growing corn, processing and distributing ethanol than comes out as usable energy at the other end.

Anyway I won’t rehash the LA Times piece but do recommend you read all of it even if it is a bit long. Just don’t try bringing any of this up in casual conversation – especially anywhere in the mid west.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 20, 2007 at 2:34 pm

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