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Diffusing our Dependence

Americans can’t seem to give up oil for heating their homes and gasoline for powering their SUVs. Maybe science can help us use food instead of fuel to reduce our dependence on the Middle-East.

I know Chicago doesn’t have the subway persona New York does (granted, you can’t keep a car in New York, so you need the subway), but Chicago has an extensive subway system (the el goes everywhere in a star pattern away from the Loop), and we also have the Metra system for suburbanite to get a ride to work, and we have bus lines within the city as well. But what surprises me is that with rising gas prices, people still flock to their cars from the suburbs to drive to their downtown Chicago daily jobs. The traffic reports say that commutes are regularly over an hour and a half for what should be a 20 minute drive.
I see gas prices over $3.00/gallon for unleaded now, and I hear reports not only that it’s expected to get over $4.00/gallon I remember hearing news reports a year ago, where people were saying that people wouldn’t be able to tolerate it if the price of a barrel of oil got to $60. But gas purchasing studies over the years have shown that that people are using more gas now.
All while oil company CEOs are making record profits.
So apparently The government’s plan, and the car salesman’s plan, of having more people spend more money on gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans has worked. We’re dependent. And the most we hear from President Bush is that we should rely on energy from SwitchGrass. Hybrid electric and gasoline cars are hot items in the market for people who are ready to jump on that bandwagon when buying a new car (I was swearing up and down that a hybrid would be my next new car purchase). — but after I found out that the production of the electric cells for electric cars actually does so much more damage to the environment (see the October 2007 editorial, A Different Light on the Global Warming Debate), I wondered if many too many Americans are too short-sighted when trying to help the environment (that they actually end up hurting the environment). For that reason alone, I’ve decided that if I ever buy a hybrid car (you know, to save money on gas), I’d buy a used car (and not a new one, to contribute to the creation of the mined Nickel needed for the battery).
Okay, so I’ve decided to get fuel-efficient cars (even ones that aren’t hybrid cars). But that doesn’t account for the ka-ba-jillion people who have pick-up trucks, or minivans, or SUVs, or even gas-guzzling huge expensive sedans or race cars.
Wait... I remember seeing a television show (I think it was on the Discovery channel, I don’t think it was the Science channel, but I can’t remember) that talked about Brazil using ethanol ( made from corn) into a kind of alcohol to power their cars, which is cheaper and cleaner. “Fifteen years ago Brazil made a commitment to burning ethanol made from sugar cane as a primary vehicle crop. And lots of energy analysts have scoffed at the idea,” says professor Daniel Kammen, head of the Renewable Energy Lab at the University of California (Berkeley). Ethanol fuel is a biofuel alternative to gasoline. It can be combined with gasoline in any concentration. Anhydrous ethanol (ethanol with at most 1% water) can be blended with gasoline in varying quantities to reduce consumption of petroleum fuels and in attempts to reduce air pollution.
Hmm. Not a bad plan. But currently you’d need “flex cars” that can take ethanol. And furthermore, it’s harder to find ethanol fuel at every gas station. But people have been starting to use corn for fuel — as evidenced by the higher price farmers have to pay for corn for feed for their animals. For example, Greg Boerbook is a pig farmer in Minnesota, raising about 37,000 pigs. When each pig eats on average 10 bushels of corn over their lives, the cost of bushels for this farmer almost doubling in price forces farmers like this one to (A) get rid of their pigs early (to save money on purchasing food for them), and (B) try to keep their animals warmer in the winter, so they don’t eat more corn in an effort to keep warm. According to 2006 estimates, we used one fifth of our corn crop in the U.S. for ethanol. With projected increases sue to plant production, we could use half of our corn crop for ethanol by 2008.
No offense, but this use of corn to save our energy costs will also mean higher prices for corn, and (more importantly to the carnivores out there) higher costs for chicken, pigs and cattle — because that corn is their feed.
Another possible set-back environmentally may be that forests are being cut — I know that farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia cleared land via fires for oil palm plantation (for biodiesel for export), and that in some cases rainforest land is destroyed to plant orange groves (you know, to make orange juice from concentrate cheaper). Although we know that rainforest destruction sharply cuts back on one of nature’s absorbers of carbon dioxide, we may not be sure of the environmental consequences of the changing of what we cultivate to the planet. S. M. Idris, chairman of the environmental group Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth), even asked of forests in Malaysia and Brazil for oil pam or sugarcane, “Why are we burning our forests to plant something that we have been told will be clean, environmentally friendly fuel?”
Effects on the environment? What about the higher costs of grains for the poorest people in the world — Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, even said that the coming “epic competition between 800 million people with automobiles and the 2 million poorest people” will lead to starvation and rioting.
But you know, after I mentioned the possible ill effects of what we grow and destroy on the environment, I should bring up another plant — rapeseed, that’s grown a lot on Germany (every time I hear rapeseed mentioned, I want to sing that instead of “Rape Me” by Nirvana). Although the demand for rapeseed for biodiesel has increased the price for rapeseed’s other uses (like cooking oil and protein meal), the growing of this plant is helping Europe get closer to it’s 5.75% diesel fuel from plants goal.
BusinessWeek (04/06/07) noted that “corn is caught in a tug-of-war between ethanol plants and food,” which is a real indication of a global economic shifting this agricultural transformation.” Economics, national security, and greenhouse gases have created a perfect storm of interest,” says John Pierce, U.P. for bio-based technology at DuPont. And yes, both Democrat ad Republicans agree with this shift, because if Republicans refuse to believe human have anything to do with global warming, they at least see higher gas prices due to problem with the Middle East (which we’d all like to sever ties from in some respects). Although President Bush’s estimates seem mild, he has called for 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels per year within 10 years (replacing 15% of gas from cars and trucks).
High hopes, when replacing gasoline with biofuels originating from what we grow would take at least 50 million more acres of cropland (or more) — and that is with using foods other than corn (corn land would take a lot more than these numbers), There are about 430 million acres of cropland in America now, so to eliminate the need for gasoline in this country would require more than double the cropland that exist now in America. And right now, bioenergy is having startling effects on crops for food, livestock feed or other uses, even though farmers, having to revaluate what they are growing for, will have to seriously consider farming for biofuels as their real engine for growth.
Well, I can bad-mouth the idea of using food for fuel to my heart’s content (I seem to be good at complaining about things a lot), but food prices, although they will increase sharply due to reassessing what grown food is used for in this new world food is actually at all time low costs. Americans are spending less of their disposable income on food now than they did in the 1970s. And besides, if it raises the price of food (like raising the price of corn leads to raising the price of corn syrup, which will lead to a higher price of a can of soda), it might lead to making smarter choices in food, so that we eat better things for us, and eat less (you know, to help bit the current obesity of America). And if farmers have had a harder time in the past with making ends meet, this may be a way to help one of the oldest industries stay ahead (without needing large public subsidies).
And corn isn’t the only thing we can grow that could help (corn is actually only a small step to helping eliminate our dependence on gasoline). According to Georgia Tech’s Roger P. Webb, pine groves in the South could supply 4 billion gallons of ethanol year and revitalize declining rural communities. BusinessWeek (02/05/07) even noted that “Stanford University biologist Chris Sommerville calculated that, with the right plants, 3.5% of the earth’s surface could supply all of humanity’s energy needs, compared with 13% now used for agriculture.”
So you think President Bush sounded silly for sating we should look to SwitchGrass? Well, perennial prairie grasses are prima candidates for biofuels, because “their deep roots store carbon captured from the air, improve soils, and requite little water.” Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla even projected that “only 49 million areas could supply 139 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2030.” Although the scaling up of turning the cellulose from prairie grass to ethanol may be hard, and if these things start to become successful the price of oil may drop sharply, which would bring the future growth any processing of plants for biofuel to a grinding halt, well these may all be challenges that may stop us from trying to save our dependency of these types of fuels to further our lives. But we have dealt with dramatic changes on our lives over the years (from the industrial revolution to the technology revolution), and as we move forward, we can hopefully grow enough to learn how to counteract the mistakes that have bogged us down in the past.

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