Stephen Rees's blog

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

Ethanol “bust”

with 3 comments

I have expressed my doubts about ethanol as a transportation fuel here several times.

But now Bloomberg reports that recent sudden increase in capacity to make the stuff has resulted in oversupply. If you can’t make money with an alt fuel when oil is around $100 a barrel, then the writing is most definitely on the wall. As also noted here, the environmental benefits of corn based ethanol have been greatly overestimated. It has always been a way to win votes in the farm belt – a classic “pork barrel” program for rural areas – just like prisons and highways.

It will take a while, and I expect that Bush will stick to the program, but I anticipate that this will send distillers looking for cheaper feed stocks, and hopefully non-food sources. It would also be nice if Ottawa decided on the basis of this report that it’s decision to mandate ethanol blended fuel now looks rather silly, since it is obvious that emissions of greenhouse gases are not necessarily reduced by biofuels: there has to be a careful lifecycle analysis. Which, as usual, the ethanol lobbyists have never been all that keen on – for obvious reasons.

Alternative fuels of all kinds are simply ways for us to keep driving our cars the way we do now.  Politicians like them as they look like easier options, especially fuels that can be delivered through existing gas stations. But we have to face up to a new reality that requires significant changes in both our transport infrastructure and our land use. We have known about this need for many years, just from looking at the health impact on society of car use, as well as its many environmental impacts. But we have been in a collective state of denial about transit and urban density. There are still lots of votes in suburbia – and they want to keep their “comfortable” lifestyle – no matter that it is killing us and our planet. But our politicians must stop catering to this obsession. We must stop supporting and promoting car culture, and look for ways to make our society more sustainable – because suburbia isn’t.

That means making places where walking is the most obvious option for short trips. Where cycling is safe and fun for everyone – not just a strange aberration for the greenies in spandex. Where transit use is actually practical and attractive – not an  obstacle course – slow, uncomfortable and inconvenient. There is no place for a bigger freeway in this future.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 19, 2007 at 11:31 am

3 Responses

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  1. And even if you like to make bio-diesel from fryer grease, it seems like this isn’t feasible either:

    Andrew E

    November 19, 2007 at 6:22 pm

  2. Ethanol and biodiesel are different – though similar – issues. The Sightline article you refer to simply casts doubt on the amount of used vegetable oil from domestic frying in Oregon. However, there is a much larger, more readily accessible resource – commercial frying, especially fast food restaurants who have largely switched to vegetable oils. Biodiesel can also be made from other fats and this region exports “yellow grease” (classified in Canada as “inedible”) to third world countries who may be less particular about its use. Commercial estimates are that this source alone could meet Greater Vancouver’s vehicular diesel needs.

    Fossil fuels will be around for some time to come, so we need to find ways to lessen their impact. We have a lot of diesel engines for all kinds of needs that will not be replaced overnight. So while there is no magic bullet, biodiesel will probably be part of the solution

    Stephen Rees

    November 19, 2007 at 6:48 pm

  3. […] my blog shows I have posted about ethanol 21 times – none of them favourably. Perhaps these two will give the flavour to new readers. Now Business Week turns up the heat a bit. Not only is […]

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