Sunday, August 19, 2007

Forget Big Oil - What About "Big Corn"?

Here is more evidence (via Instapundit) that the drive to increase the use of biofuels, particularly corn-derived ethanol, may be counter productive. In fact, the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) in producing a gallon of ethanol may be as low as 59% or, turning that around, the energy required to produce the gallon of ethanol is 170% of the energy yielded. That doesn't seem like a particularly sound investment.
"The reason is that producing biofuel is not a "green process". It requires tractors and fertilisers and land, all of which means burning fossil fuels to make "green" fuel. In the case of bioethanol produced from corn – an alternative to oil – "it's essentially a zero-sums game," says Ghislaine Kieffer, programme manager for Latin America at the International Energy Agency in Paris, France."

The push towards producing more energy from renewable sources is really just more rent seeking behavior on the part of the big agricultural conglomerates.

"It is difficult to discuss rent seeking without mentioning the ethanol lobby, in particular the agricultural powerhouse Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). As documented in a Cato Institute Policy Analysis by James Bovard, ADM has perfected the art of rent seeking as well as, if not better than, any other company in America. The agricultural conglomerate has benefited from a range of subsidies, agricultural and otherwise. ADM is "totally immersed" in government programs, according to Archer Daniels Midland’s CEO Dwayne Andreas.

A key component of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments was a set of provisions governing the content of automotive fuels. The amendments required that oxygenates be added to gasoline in cities with high carbon monoxide (CO) levels and that reformulated gasoline be used in cities with high ground-level ozone (smog) levels. Both provisions created opportunities for the use of ethanol, a corn-based alcohol fuel. Ethanol is an oxygenate that can be added to gasoline to reduce CO emissions.

The ethanol lobby, politically supported by midwestern agricultural interests, swung into action. The lobby wanted both provisions to require the maximum amount of oxygenates possible, in order to increase the demand for ethanol. In particular, ethanol interests lobbied for a minimum oxygen content that could not be met by non-ethanol oxygenates. Reducing air pollution quickly became a secondary concern. As one Senate committee report noted, "In the absence of other avenues through which to encourage domestically produced ethanol to enter the fuel stream, this [requirement] is

It has been a long time since I took any classes in physics but I seem to recall that the energy required to accelerate a mass X from zero to velocity Y and move it over the distance from A to B is going to be the same, regardless of which fuel you use to provide the energy. If ethanol contains less energy per gallon than straight gasoline, wouldn't you need to burn more of it to provide the necessary energy? If so, where is the energy savings and where is the reduction in carbon emissions? It seems to me that a zero-sum game may be the optimistic case and the authors of the study quoted in the article linked at the top are correct. We would do better to increase the efficiency of fossil fuel use than the false economy of promoting more bio-fuels use.

Related reading here.
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