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Tuesday, May 09, 2006 

The Ethanol Craze Begins

This Sunday there were two special news reports on Ethanol from two of the leading television news magazines, Dateline NBC and 60 Minutes. I watched anxiously to see exactly what would be said about this alternative fuel that has the White House buzzing and the oil industry worried. Dateline's story, "A Simple Solution to Pain at the Pump?" revolved around Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who immigrated from India in 1976 and was a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Khosla is an outspoken advocate of Ethanol who has invested millions of dollars into research and production of the corn-based fuel. Khosla, during most of the interview, acted like a love-smitten schoolboy who wants to sell the world on his infatuation. But mostly he's hoping that the U.S. will buy into his newest venture, making Ethanol THE fuel source of the future. Dateline also traveled to Brazil just weeks after they announced that after only a few years of hard work, the country is now able to cease all importation of foreign oil. In fact, Ethanol, made primarily from sugar cane (of which Brazil has more than enough), has taken over as the country's largest fuel commodity.

The 60 Minutes story, "The Ethanol Solution: Could Corn-Based Fuel Help End America's Dependence On Imported Oil?", also focused on Brazil's booming Ethanol frenzy, but also on American ingenuity. Their story featured a small town no one has every heard of (no one except maybe its 300 residents), Steamboat Rock, Iowa. About a year ago things got so desperate in this farming community that a few residents put their heads together and decided to invest in and build an Ethanol production plant. It converted the corn that they were unable to sell into Ethanol, a product that they believe is the future oil of America. The good folks of Steamboat Rock and many other farmers believe that Ethanol might be the answer they have been looking for to stabilize a declining agricultural economy.

Additionally, both reports looked at Flex-Fuel cars, produced mostly by American car companies GM and Ford, which are highly successful in Brazil. Both companies have pledged to up their production of the cars -- which run on gas, ethanol, or a mixture of the two called E-85 -- in the next year. Today these cars make up only 5 million of the approximate 130+ million cars on America's roads. But the American car companies hope that an Ethanol boom might mean that millions more of their cars find their way to the road in the next few years, healing an ailing American automotive market.

So, what does all this mean for America? Well, this could be a perfect storm for the American economy and the country in general. Were America to aggressively pursue this alternative fuel source, many predict that within 15 years America could be energy independent, even as Brazil has in that same amount of time. Though relatively few cars today are Flex-fuel, any car can be retrofitted to use both E-85 and Ethanol. Add to that Khosla startling revelation that with the advancing technology, prairie grass, leftover wood pulp, and orange peels could be potential producers of ethanol, leading him to predict fuel prices could drop as low as $0.70/gallon using these techniques. Fuel prices that low would inevitably open up travel, increase tourism dollars, and fuel an economy already hindered only by oil prices. And without a dependence on foreign oil, OPEC countries would no longer be in a position to make demands of the U.S., and we would no longer worry that we are indirectly supporting terrorist efforts.

What should the Christian take be on this? Well, I think we should be supportive of any effort that provides jobs for low income families, brings economic development back to rural areas and farming communities, and produces less greenhouse gases which will undoubtedly make our air and water quality better. But we must beware of any utopian fantasies and realize that no technological breakthroughs can suppress evil or bring salvation. Ethanol may indeed bring needed relief to America, but without repentance and revival nothing will save the soul of this country.

I'd really like to begin this conversation with you, too, as the personal-auto-as-norm is a big topic of concern for me as a Christian (and to me, much more central to biblical teaching than the gay thing), as is our addict-like dependence upon fossil fuels. But I better finish one topic before I jump in to another.

If you're interested in my position, you could see some of my old posts on the topic:

http://paynehollow.blogspot.com/2005/03/
parable-of-gus-and-ralph.html

http://paynehollow.blogspot.com/2005/03/
car-invention.html

http://paynehollow.blogspot.com/2005/05/
happy-bicycling-month.html

and one more:

http://paynehollow.blogspot.com/2005/01/
hitlers-bakery.html

Way to go D.R. I have to admit, my mouth started watering when i read .70 cents a gallon.

D.R. great topic today. I was actually planning on writing my own article about this sometime today to this weekend. I was was just gathering some facts.

I wish I had seen the reports last night on T.V. but I did read the articles. Interesting stuff.

I've always heard that it takes as much energy to make a gallon of Ethanol as it does a gallon of Gas. If you look at the chart on the Dateline site it even shows where gasoline is added.

Here are some facts I dug up.
http://zfacts.com/p/60.html

Also I'm pretty sure there were a couple of other pages, sponsored by the oil companies, that denounced Ethanol too.

I think it would be great if this country could get foreign oil and only now that things are getting tight with the cost of gas are we starting to really look for alternatives.

The facts are that we aren't Brazil, we are much bigger and we couldn't grow enough corn to completely free ourselves of foreign oil, or sugar, or orange peels or whatever else they can use to make ethanol.

I've gone on and on, the real reason that this won't work, noticed I didn't say couldn't work, is because of our own greed. Exxon is not going to lose a chance to make 300 Billion dollars again. They won't let that happen, as soon as Ethanol refineries start popping up all over America, they will start writing massive checks to get Greenpeace out there, to complain and yell. They'll lobby for more laws to restrict where refineries can be set up.

I personally think that they won't let things change that fast. I think that a better solution would be to start coming up with more fuel efficient engines. Instead of a plan like being off foreign oil in 5 years, how about saying lets have an engine that can get 50 or 100 miles to the gallon. I think Fuel Flex is a shell game.

D.R.,
I'd like to jump on the bandwagon and get excited about this, and as nice as it sounds to not be dependent upon foreign nations for our sources of energy, I'm afraid we're being snowed once again.
From what I've read, we are far, far away from being able to rely upon ethanol as a viable alternative to gasoline. To make it possible we would have to take the growing of corn to a whole 'nother playing field (as in fields of dreams). That's bad news for those of us who think we have a responsiblility to safeguard the environment in lieu of doing whatever seems best for our pocketbooks. We would have to destroy many forests (translation - animals, birds, and plants with no place to grow and live) to grow more corn, and we would be doing it a way that would not benefit small farmers, but big corporations (not that there's anything inherently wrong with this, but it's often thrown out there as a dream for the farm aid crowd).
- Sean

Jay,

Let me address a couple of your concerns. First, while I didn't mention cellulose ethanol, the Dateline report did and so did Vinod Khosla, who believes that ethanol can come from almost anything that you can get alcohol out of. He said that he wants to put refining plants next to orange juice factories, wood-pulp producing plants, and in the midwest to get it from corn and prairie grass. So while ZFacts is right that we can not produce enough ethanol from corn alone, it we can produce ethanol from all these other sources, then America's farmers do stand to benefit (and we do have enough land if we produce it through cellulose and those other means)

As to your comments about the oil execs, I agree that they are the biggest deterrent in the race toward alternative energy sources, but Khosla mentioned this as well. He noted that government intervention was necessary to quell this possible coup. And though this current administration might not be able to do so, I think the next one (whether Democratic or Republican) will be able to help the ethanol business forge ahead. As for your speculation on Greenpeace, the Dan Rather mentioned that the smoke like substance billowing forth from ethanol plants is actually steam and that there are no greenhouse gases released in ethanol production. I think that Greenpeace might take the oil execs money and give it to the ethanol researches rather than use it for protests.

Now, the oil companies have to realize that they will get a cut in some of this if they can take the ethanol and sell it. As they revealed in one of the programs, the vast majority of gas stations are independantly owned and thus open to having an ethanol pump. We have a station here in Louisville with an ethanol pump and I imagine it gets its fair share of income from the sale of ethanol. In reality if ethanol becomes cheaper to produce through cellulose production and more widespread through corn, wood, and fruit refuse production, then independant stations will be willing to take a chance on it, as American car companies who are looking to rebound from horrendously staggering sales woes. As I said before this might produce a perfect storm that no amount of lobbying dollars can stop. In the end if the oil companies don't jump on board they may be left in the dust, selling out to independant stations that are more able to compete in the emerging economy.

Having said all of that, I do agree that we need more fuel efficient cars and trucks though. And we have the technology to do it, but again the oil execs have suppressed it a bit. But with divided foci, and a need for American car companies to rebound, I think it is inevitable that we will see better fuel standards in coming years, even as today the White House is fighting to raise them without legislative support.

Thanks for contributing Jay and I look forward to reading your own article on this. Make sure to post a link over here when you write it.

Sean, if you read my previous comment I think a lot of it applies to what you said. But, I would add that the folks in Steamboat Rock demonstrate well what could happen when we just use the farm space that we have now, but is losing in relation to revenue. It is true that corn prices will climb, but equally true that those farms who have had to downgrade their production will now find that they don't have enough land to keep up with the demand. And in this emerging economy, gas stations are likely to buy from several different sources, hoping to get better prices. Those that produce even small amounts of ethanol will still be able to make more money than they would had they not sold their corn for such use.

Additionally, with those cellulose-producing methods, as well as through refuse production, land would not be as necessary as would if corn were the only ethanol producing product. Now, orange growers, wood-pulp plants, and land owners could profit from selling refuse they don't even use. If that occurs, it could be a win-win situation for all involved.

But I do agree that we though we should be optimistic, we should be cautiously so.

Were we able to switch to ethanol (a big IF) even partly and partially reduce our dependence upon fossil fuels, this would be a good thing.

But not a great thing.

The personal auto is still responsible for tons of pollution and devastation to God's good creation and to the people here - and disproportionately to the poor, young, elderly and sick.

We need a new paradigm, not merely a switch of fuels.

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Dan, let's stay with our current debate. I disagree with what you wrote about automobiles, but this is a subject that I care very little to debate with you. I see great good that has come through their use. And as someone that is now driving medicare patients to their appointments, let me say that without transportation like automobiles, these people could not get the healthcare they need. Cars didn't start out the problem they are now in many ways. And yes, we did bring it about, but we can't go back and change that, we must seek to deal with the problem at hand and do the best we can with it. Switching to riding our bikes won't solve the problem either.

"Dan, let's stay with our current debate."

Look! I can do both - with one hand tied behind my back!!

"I see great good that has come through their use."

Yes, and I can see great good that has come through the mafia - they give to organizations, help protect neighborhoods, serve as a men's club...

But the argument that "when you have something awful that provides some good, we therefore ought to keep doing the awful thing" is the argument of an addict. (Smoking helps calm my nerves, keeps the weight off, etc).

I'd be willing to bet you don't embrace the cause of the Mafia, just because they do some good, right? This is a similar situation.

Why would we not embrace the limited good where possible and yet still work to end the horrible bad?

I never said anything about banning all cars, merely pointed out the huge and unsustainable costs associated with cars. If you read any of my posts you may have seen the huge costs associated with the personal auto. Consider this:

According to the state police, the economic costs associated with car collisions just to Kentucky is between $2.1 billion and $6 billion EACH YEAR. Yikes! And that's just from associated medical costs/time lost kinds of figuring. That's not even beginning to factor in the awesome damage to God's creation, or medical expenses due to asthma or obesity which is exasperated by the personal auto...do you get a sense of the size of the problem? Do you understand that a large part of these costs are borne by the poor, children, the sick, the elderly?

This truly is a matter of justice and personal responsibility and we can't pardon it because "some good" is done by the car. Why not, for instance, encourage other modes of transport for most but still have the auto available for those who need it (ambulances, elder transport, etc)?

Justice, liberty, common sense, personal responsibility. Causes for citizens and Christians of all stripes.

PS: you said:

"Switching to riding our bikes won't solve the problem either."

And actually, it would solve a great number of our problems, realistically speaking.

Dan, again I am not going to debate this with you. To me it is just silly. You can feel free to think that owning an automobile is a justice issue that Christians should be concerned with, but I would rather spend my time thinking about more realistic ways to help the poor. Do you really think that Americans are going to be able to give up automobiles, especially after this country has built itself upon the convenience of transportation?

Ok, really that is enough. I don't want to get into it with you about this. It's just not worth it to me.

I'm not trying to debate anything, friend. Just pointing out the obvious fact that our oil is a limited supply, soon to be gone and the second fact that autos cause a great deal of damage that goes unpaid for. Any hope for another "solution" that merely repeats our mistakes from before is just not very wise to pursue.

I'd just think that a conservative person would be in favor of personal responsibility and that a Christian person would be concerned about something which so negatively impacts so many people.

it seems dan and i frequent the same blogs. how interesting.

i'm afraid that the days when conservative had anything to do with conservation are long gone. any one who listens to the gop line on drilling in ANWR can understand that fact.

but let's put our heads on and think about it. there is definitely a place for individual responsibility when it comes to conservation. here in the 'ville we have a great public transportation system. use it if and when you can. it may take you a little longer to get from point a. to point b. but take the chance to meet fellow travelers or bring a book or newspaper and avoid road rage by letting someone else drive or car pool or as dan does, you can hop on a bike (and you can use it in conjunction with the TARC).

However! there are many ways that we are dependent upon the use of the automobile and we shouldn't look upon it with disdain. getting to a house in flames, getting to the hospital, getting to the church on time (TARC doesn't go by my church), getting home from the grocery store with a trunk full of a month's worth of food stuff, and so and so on. Let's look for ways to conserve but let's not go crazy in the process!

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Dan I do care about conservation, but I also am a realist. Making automobiles out to be in themselves evil (BTW, isn't that what you accused Christians of doing to the public schools?) isn't realistic. Sure, we have done many bad things with cars, but that doesn't make them evil any more than pornographic movies make television evil. And I am concerned about oil. That's why I am so supportive of this and the hydrogen cars that Ford is starting to produce. It's great in my estimation and a worthwhile contribution to technology to pursue clean burning fuel sources (I am also in favor of more nuclear power plants). And when something like this comes along that can benefit working-class people like farmers, it's like the man interviewed on 60 Minutes said, "It's a win-win situation for the whole country." And of course affordable fuel will help the poor more and even make mass transit more viable for cities who worry gas prices will cause them to lose money, thus they make fewer and fewer investments in buses.

As for as repeating mistakes, if something is clean burning, not violently harmful for the environment, and boosts the economy bringing jobs to all who desire them, then I would think you would support that.

Bikes are great, but they won't work for the elderly or the disabled, they won't get you very far if your doctor is miles down the road and you have a heart condition, and they can't bring groceries home very easily. Cars have become a necessity, yes, but can't we find a solution that doesn't require an end to society as we know it? Can't we work for better, even if we can't have best? I think we can.

"Sure, we have done many bad things with cars, but that doesn't make them evil any more than pornographic movies make television evil."

You're putting words in my mouth and making generalizations that I haven't made.

My point is not that cars are "evil," but rather that the ideal of the personal auto for everyone has had evil results. Or, if you prefer not using the word "evil," - it has had horrible results that have cost our culture and especially those who can least afford it.

My point is that personal responsibility calls for a different plan, not defending a broken and corrupt status quo. We don't allow people to throw garbage in their neighbor's yard - especially garbage that will cost them a lot to clean and which will kill some of those neighbors. It's just not acceptable to do so.

And yet we do this with cars. And it is only their ubiquity and our addiction to them that makes it acceptable.

If we:
1. Encouraged and planned for more biking, walking and mass transit, in conjunction with living in smaller circles as the norm,
2. Enforced 25 mph speed limits in neighborhoods (seriously enforced it - you go 30 mph, you lose your license for 3 months,
3. Reduced our roadways and planned for decreasing usage rather than increasing usage...

IF by taking those 3 steps we were able to reduce the death rate from 40,000/year in the US to 4000 and decrease the costs due to injuries from trillions of dollars to billions of dollars, etc. AND YET we still had ambulances, fire engines, elder transportation, then would not that be the best of both worlds?

Are you saying that you would oppose such actions if they saved even half of the lives lost (and resulted in no more lives lost as a result)?

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Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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