Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ethanol fuels: look at both sides of the debate


Clifford May has a not-so-strident editorial on p 1 of the “Voices” Section B of the Sunday July 20, 2008 Washington Times, “Falsehoods in the Pipeline”. The piece does not yet come up online (the visitor should try later), but the points he makes are worth noting.

OPEC head Chakib Khlelil apparently claimed last month that the increase of biofuels on the market accounts for 40% of the runnup in crude oils futures prices (which dropped about 8% at the end of this past week, thank you, probably after May wrote his piece). May says, that’s like saying that the availability of Kool-Aid drives up the price of Coca Cola, even in Atlanta. Oh, I remember those boyhood summers in Ohio when us kids would mix Kool-Aid with well water (fetching it was a daily chore then) for our summer refreshment, while the Nats (call them the Senators) lost to the Indians in concurrent baseball games booming on the kitchen radio. We didn’t seem to relish the carbonation of Coke then (pun intended). Carbonic acid, dentists say, is bad for your teeth, as bad as sugar. Chakib has indeed given us an odd, illogical metaphor to chew on.

May goes on to talk about the way the government pays farmers not to plant land, including some of that farmland between Kipton and Oberlin that we (as kids) used to play in back in the 50s, making those adventures back to the pond. Today, that whole area is getting built up with all kinds of little businesses. Maybe we shouldn’t be growing King Corn for fuel, but all kinds of other things like sawgrass. We just need some more research in bacterial genetics to figure out how to convert it to alcohol (for cars, not booze) more economically. That’s why students major in chemical engineering, and biochemistry.

Brazil, May says, certainly has its sweet tooth, enough for all the Kool-Aid it wants, and all the ethanol car fuel it wants. The interior sections of the country, the “Midwest” beyond the “Appalachian” Brazilian highlands, are oceans of pure green, bright enough to cause retinal fatigue. Brazil’s dependence on foreign oil is 0 (it will soon be producing more off-shore) and ours is 70%. It’s a pretty telling story. Apparently, Brazil is booming. There are, of course, legitimate greenhouse gas questions about clearing forests and jungle, especially around the Amazon.

Libertarians are quick to point out that ethanol is not real good for cars, with mandatory gasohol causing oil pan gaskets to leak eventually. That’s already happened to me. But that’s just an engineering issue that could be solved with design.

Today, the Washington Post had a major story on hunger in Africa (see my International Issues blog). The Washington Times op-ed makes a good companion piece.

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