Sunday, April 06, 2008

Inside the biofuels craze

I've been meaning to blog on this topic for a while. Reading the apparently opposing conclusions of Cinnamon Stillwell's blog and Robert Zubrin's book on biofuels, Energy Victory, pushed me over the edge.

The first thing to say is, human-induced global climate change isn't happening, at least not at a level significant enough to distinguish it from anything happening in climate anyway. The facts that biofuels, when burned, produce more carbon dioxide is not important from that angle. OTOH plants currently alive will love it - at least, until they're harvested to feed our fuel hunger.

Ah, the circle of life :)

Anyway, the corn-based ethanol industry does seem to be an unequivocal subsidized boondoggle. It's breathed new life into those ridiculous agricultural supports that Congress actually tried to phase out a decade ago,* but failed to. You pay twice for them: once through your taxes, and then again the grocery store - they indirectly drive up the cost of other commodities, as Cinnamon explains in her post. The craze for ethanol is also causing a lot of environmental damage, much of it government-subsidized: accelerated chopping down of rainforests and other trees, pollution run-off, pressure on water supplies, and so on.

The real argument for biofuels is geopolitical. It's a way for hydrocarbon-burning countries to get alternatives to the monopoly of petroleum. Moderating petroleum demand worldwide is the key, not the obsolete ideal of energy independence. Zubrin argues more in favor of biodiesel and methanol (which can be made from any biomass, and the latter from coal and natural gas as well). But his recent statements have increasingly gone over the cliff in promoting biofuels, and he's thrown away any earlier caution he had about ethanol. He does effectively demolish the claims for hydrogen as a fuel source, something that thankfully you no longer hear much about. He also smartly promotes nuclear power for fixed-site power generation. Virtually every other advanced country in the world has been moving rapidly forward with nuclear power; the US is stuck in the 1970s on this.

But there's still a significant role for conservation. Scandalously, the US vehicle fleet's fuel efficiency, which rose from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, has been falling for more than a decade, thanks to all those SUVs and monster "light" trucks out there. There's been something of a turn-around recently, but not enough. It has to be larger and sustained for a decade-plus to make a real impact. Since this is a geopolitical problem, it's perfectly reasonable for the Feds to impose a much higher gasoline tax, say enough to pay for a quarter or a third of our military budget, that part tied up with the Middle East. The tax rate should be set up to rise or fall as the price of petroleum falls or rises, so as to maintain a roughly constant and high pump price for gas. The gas price doesn't have to be at European levels, but it does need to remain at a reasonably high, sustained level. A few years of oil price collapse would probably erase whatever progress is made, by removing the pressure to conserve.

There is a good case for methanol and biodiesel. They're derived from partially or completely transformed biowaste, not from plants grown for food, and their negatives are far less than ethanol. Methanol is also economically competitive at the $1.00 to $1.50 per gallon level. It's just then a matter of getting a vehicle fleet that can burn methanol pure or mixed with gas (so-called M-85 fuel and variants). That's what Zubrin's book is about. Unfortunately, there's no big payoff for politicians. Methanol is easier to produce than ethanol and can't be rewarded with targeted subsidies the same way. But selling cars with the right engines is complicated by pollution and fuel efficiency rules. Like many of our problems these days, this is more political than anything else.

POSTSCRIPT: Here are some basic science about ethanol and methanol, both alcohols, and some basics about alcohols as fuels.
* Back when Congress still had a significant number of conservatives.

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