Stephen Rees's blog

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

Ethanol to get green light

with 15 comments

Sun

Conservatives, Liberals say they’re not concerned about food-based biofuel

“We have energy security and we have the environment and they’re both important priorities,” said Environment Minister John Baird in an interview. “We obviously cannot continue to depend on foreign oil (when) you look at the prices.”

But as Environment Minister you are not supposed to be concerned about those things – that falls to other departments. And this is the same government that was, in the last few days, beating its chest in Washington about the size of our oil reserves. “Second only to Saudi Arabia” said Mr Harper.

If we “depend on foreign oil” it is very silly to import it at higher costs than we can produce it ourselves – isn’t it? Or is it that the shameful environmental record of the tar sands has some resonance in your Ministry? No – that seems unlikely to me.

Note as well the reuse of the current buzz word “simplistic”. There is a shortage of food. Grain prices are at record highs. The US has an increasing requirement of corn for ethanol to the extent that corn for food use is declining in supply, and at the same time farmers are switching away from soy beans and other crops. Yes there are other factors – the greed of speculators being a large influence – but the driving force is the US appetite for motor fuel, and the increasing number of vehicle miles and the huge size of the vehicles they use to drive themselves around. And the way that ethanol is promoted by self interest groups as “green”.

I have no doubt at all that I will start seeing petition and letter writing requests in my inbox within hours.

UPDATE Friday May 2 – two more significant stories to day in the Sun – including this gem

Almost $3 billion in federal and provincial grants, subsidies and incentives is providing the fertilizer.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 1, 2008 at 10:24 am

Posted in energy

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15 Responses

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  1. I really think that historians will look back on this decision to promote biofuels as one of our biggest mistakes ever.

    And for what?

    Corey

    May 1, 2008 at 11:06 am

  2. Oh, and this is just more indirect proof that oil supplies have peaked and governments are well aware of the fact. If not, why bother with biofuels (or oilsands) at all, considering that both are political hot potatoes?

    Even more so now with the food shortages and death of 500 birds in Alberta yesterday.

    [moderator’s comment: link added]

    Corey

    May 1, 2008 at 11:08 am

  3. Some 70% of the United States corn and grain production is used to feed livestock. It takes from 16-21 pounds of grain for each pound of beef, and varying amounts for other meats.

    If people ate less meat, there would be enough food for everyone, and enough left over for biofuel production. The way things currently are it appears there’s a food shortage, but once food costs limit how much people are eating, you can bet there is less meat going to be eaten.

    It seems to me that balancing forces in the markets will correct these food shortage problems, at least for us in North America. Pity for those in the third world dependent on food imports though.

    Tim

    May 1, 2008 at 11:21 am

  4. I agree that in North America market forces will balance things out – it may even prompt some farms to be reborn. i.e. weren’t farmers having problems making ends meet just a few years ago due to soft grain prices / poor harvests – and therefore closing down farms ??

    Are people (in the North American context) just concerned about their own personal bottom lines and not the economy in general (i.e. farmers’ well-being) ?

    Ron C.

    May 1, 2008 at 12:39 pm

  5. It pains me to see ethanol discussed as purely a grain based fuel. This recently announced plant converting municipal solid waste to ethanol is emblematic of the promise of second-generation biofuels. Coskata has a similar process, and likewise can digest any sort of cellulostic biomass.

    And, as noted above, increased meat consumption in China, drought in Australia, the collapse of Zimbabwe’s commercial farms, all these have a lot to do with food prices. More so than ethanol production.

    Some Jerk

    May 1, 2008 at 1:47 pm

  6. link is broken

    Corey

    May 1, 2008 at 1:53 pm

  7. With the millions of people around the world on the verge of starvation, ethanol takes a huge quanitity of food and uses it, not for people to consume, but for fuel for cars and trucks. This has contributed to driving the cost of corn way up over the last year or two (there are other factors for the increase as well such as drought in Australia and booming demand among new middle classes in China and elsewhere but ethanol production is a big culprit).

    Ethanol is bad news.

    tornadoes28

    May 1, 2008 at 2:28 pm

  8. “Some Jerk” needs to take note that this second generation plant is not even under construction yet. It might be in operation by 2010, and will doubtless be supplying its local area. In the US. You may not have noticed but the food supply problem is immediate and real – and Canada has been announcing that it will spend more on food aid – though we like every other western country have a terribly bad record on living up to such promises.

    The ethanol pledge that presidential candidates have to make is essential to make it on to the ballot. Farmer’s votes are what counts. One proposed waste conversion plant is a good start but makes very little difference to my current opposition to Canada adopting a similarly myopic policy now.

    Stephen Rees

    May 1, 2008 at 2:31 pm

  9. Good comments all. As said before on this blog, using food crops in suburban gas tanks is plain stupid, and that fact is proven with every story about high grain prices and exacerbated by high oil prices.

    I think it’s better to jump over the current biofuel effort and go right to celluosic ethanol from bettle-killed trees and switchgrass on the prairies. But the key is to limit its use to emergency vehicles, transit buses, farm equipment and food transport trucks. Forget about stuffing suburban cars with E85 when public transit will best prepare our cities for a post-cheap oil and post-carbon existance.

    I would also suggest that hundreds of millions of new beetle-resistant trees should also be planted in BC and in the soon-to-be-impacted remaining boreal forest, and all effort should be made to use less highly-rated agricultural soils for switchgrass, and to ban biofuel production from prime farmland which will be required to feed our cities in about 10 years.

    Meredith

    May 1, 2008 at 2:51 pm

  10. I’ve written to the feds many times before on peak oil & climate change, specifically the need to rebuild our cities with transit, to re-establish a market-garden agricultural economy at the edges, and to legislate significant reductions in emissions soon, but to no avail. I received only one reply, a non-committal one-liner at that from a retiring MP. Obviously there are no tomorrows in the current House of Commons.

    I know where Harper et al stand, so that leaves the Liberals and NDP. But given Mr. McGuinty’s comments, and Mr. Layton’s central goal of opposing the Liberals as much if not more than the Conservatives, I wonder if the message will just bounce off the Opposition benches?

    The more I think about it, the Green Party needs to grow very fast into a serious national movement and challenge all other parties, or the Liberals and NDP need to change and perhaps strike a power-sharing agreement like they did when together they established our public health care system in the 60s. We need a similar far-reaching, visionary project with respect to readying Canada for a post-carbon world.

    Are both tasks impossible? Perhaps, but I know for sure that the people are way ahead of politicians on this and many other issues.

    Meredith

    May 1, 2008 at 3:16 pm

  11. One hears the distant drums of revolution: starving people revolt. In days gone past, starving people died and that was it, not today. In the 21st century somebody else’s problems, becomes everyone else’s problems.

    It is ludicrous to divert grains for fuel, when one doesn’t have the grains to feed its peoples. I see the future and it is very grim, dark and dangerous.

    Malcolm J>

    May 1, 2008 at 3:50 pm

  12. It’s not politicians Meredith, it’s the system. The transit-based, market-garden economy that you (and I) support doesn’t fit with the system, and that leaves politicians powerless to do anything about it. How can we change a system already solidly in place worldwide? One that funds the very politicians who we are asking to change things?

    The system needs growth, and that means more land more cars more oil more biofuels more houses more sales more people more pollution more congestion more money.

    The economy and arrangement you propose would only require the occasional train replacement and new housing development as old ones wore out – it would largely be a sustainable economy, or as close as we could make it. It would take away the need for new exploitation of the environment, new mutual fund sales, new green field developments, and it would take away people’s ‘need’ for a new car every few years.

    Most of all though, it would take away the ever-increasing wealth that constant expansion brings. Wealth now increasingly ending up in the hands of fewer and fewer elites.

    This is why biofuel is being pushed instead of transit. Biofuel allows the present system to continue – more new car models, more filling stations, more refineries, more drive-thrus, more, More, MORE! You get the idea.

    I don’t know what our best bet is, but I tend to think it involves creating our own sustainable system alongside the present one and try to convert people one by one. Of course how to avoid co-option by the present system (among a billion other obstacles) is a major problem (like they swooped in on the organics movement and virtually gutted it of meaning) but what other choice do we have? The politicians pretend these things don’t exist.

    Corey

    May 1, 2008 at 3:59 pm

  13. Stephen,

    I agree with you that what is essentially a proof-of-concept plant isn’t built yet sucks. The fermentation process is well understood, the hardware can be ordered out of a catalog, and the ‘software’ can be improved at the rate of bacterial evolution.

    I just think that rather than fulminating about how much blood is in each gallon of corn ethanol, people who don’t support simply feeding more subsidy fuel into agribusinesses’ maw should propose a positive alternative.

    Cellulostic ethanol is one of those sea changes that seems impossible until it becomes inevitable. The fact you mentioned that the new plant will be serving its local community is a feature, not a bug. The transportation problems posed by ethanol imply a relocalization of fuel production. In the extreme small scale, you have a micro-ethanol plantfor the home. In the large scale, every large metro area is swimming in both solid and liquid waste feedstock to feed sizable plants.

    With BC’s forest resources, an entirely sawdust-based feedstock cycle is possible. It would be symbolic of a new direction for BC to go from dumping Victoria’s sewage into the straight to brewing biodiesel with it as the Kiwis are doing. Wood, switchgrass, solid waste, all of these are essentially “free” from an input energy cost point of view, compared with corn or soybeans.

    In the long run, the economics of the situation dictate that using wood chips or garbage is cheaper, so corn is a passing fad as a fuel anyway, but it will go away faster if the green lobby would promote scaling up the technology instead of tarring all ethanol with the starving children brush.

    Some Jerk

    May 1, 2008 at 9:57 pm

  14. With present technology it takes as much energy to produce ethanol as what you get out of it, this I learned on a NOVA broadcast last night called the car of the future.
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/programs/

    Experts claim to get the process more efficient could take decades, several groups think its only a matter of years. If this turns out to be true then ethanol is not going to work and that would also be the same for celluose ethanol.

    I am convinced that the only solution is ( air) thats right air, the compressed air car ,no emission, except a little water vapour,( the air it expels out the exhaust is very cold 0 to 15 below zero) so it work as an air conditioner as well. http://www.gizmag.com/go/7000/

    This is the future as I see it ( of course many think I am deranged)—————————-signed………………….don`t tell exxon mobile you heard it from me

    grant g

    May 1, 2008 at 11:43 pm

  15. I agree with you Corey, but only to a point. The system IS screwed up, but in too many ways to count WE are the system, and we let it get that way. It is based profoundly on the assumption that energy in the form of grossly undervalued petroleum — which has saturated almost every facet of life over the last half-century — will remain cheap and abundant.

    The system can change with any number of large forces, like lower SUV sales due to modest price increases (for now) at the pump, or from mass change in consumer preferences. Higher fuel in cities designed for long commutes by personal transport, coupled with lower mean incomes and higher housing and food prices will all affect the system greatly when new demands occur, no matter which CEO has control over which politician. The only thing that can give in that likely scenario is the way we design and build our cities and feed ourselves. Right now it is founded on a false economy and exorbitant consumption of energy.

    I see great change coming, some of it wrenching, but I don’t believe for a minute the Apocalypse is around the corner in Canada. We, as full participants in the system, have the marvelous ability to adapt and to practice ingenuity and creativity, and in some rare cases support real leadership toward affecting appropriate changes before the shoe drops.

    Corporate donations to politicians tell a very interesting story, but that’s nothing new. Movies are shot and books are written about that kind of stuff. But in some quarters such donations are being affected by new limiting legislation.

    Some Jerk: Good points on cellulosic ethanol, which is a very apropriate way to utilize resources that are / will be otherwise wasted. But I would still have a huge problem with burning ethanol in Escalades motoring through sprawling burbs, i.e. propping up our currently unsustainable and horrendously inefficient urban paradigm.

    Meredith

    May 2, 2008 at 12:32 pm


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