Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Robert Rapier's Hard Questions About Ethanol

Energy expert, Robert Rapier, blogs about some hard questions he asked as part of an exchange with Ethanol supporters:

There are those who wrap U.S. ethanol policy in patriotism and the American flag, and who would rather not get into those questions. These questions are hand-waved away with clich├ęs like "I would rather support American farmers than Saudi sheiks." I try to look at it from the perspective of an engineer, a scientist, and an environmentalist. I want to stack the columns up and figure out what is really happening as a result of our ethanol policy and subsequent rapid expansion of corn production. I want to look at it from the perspective of "What is going to be the impact on the world my children will inherit?"

Just a few of the key questions for me are the following:
  • Are we depleting fossil aquifers as a result of the expansion of corn in areas requiring irrigation - putting future food supplies at risk? 
  • Are we at risk of contaminating water supplies with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer run-off? 
  • What has been the measurable impact on our oil imports - the generally stated reason for our ethanol policy? 
  • What is the long-term impact on soil as a result of erosion and pesticide usage? 
  • What is the risk of major weather events impacting the corn crop, and subsequently causing a shortage of corn for ethanol and driving food prices much higher? 
  • What are the other risks of closely linking together food supplies with fuel supplies?
In a nutshell, I want to know if we are compromising the future relative to other options, and/or relative to the status quo. These sorts of issues are generally ignored by most advocates. They believe our ethanol policy is the right thing to do, and then nothing else matters. I have debated people like this before, and they are simply not interested in the holistic picture. Often, it is because they are vested interests.

I might also add a question about whether prospective cellulosic biofuel species like switchgrass (or even some types of algae) pose a risk of escaping cultivated areas and becoming expensive invasive weeds and pests.

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:59 PM

    Can't you just grow native species? I know it wouldn't be great for diversity, but would planting switchgrass in areas already conducive to switchgrass cause it to jump into new areas as well?