Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Feeding your car; starving your family

In the news this morning, three stories passed like the proverbial ships in the night.

They shouldn’t have.

Story #1, on the front of the Oregonian’s Metro section, was about how Oregon law now requires gasoline stations in this part of the state to pump fuel with 10 percent ethanol. The reason, according to the story, is that we are trying to wean ourselves from reliance on Middle Eastern oil and to cut down on carbon emissions.

So far so good.

The story is mostly about how the ethanol gets to the pump and what the change will mean to the performance of our vehicles. Not until the story's last two paragraphs do we learn about the environmental costs of this supposedly environmentally friendly fuel. “Recent academic, economic and environmental reports have criticized corn-based ethanol because energy-intensive methods are used to grow the crop and because increased demand for the fuel can push up prices for food with corn ingredients.”

That journalistic after-thought takes us to two stories on the business page of today’s New York Times, one above the other on the section’s front page.

The top story has the headline “Amid doubts, Europe may ban some biofuels.” So the buried information in The Oregonian makes the headlines in the New York Times story. The Europeans are ahead of our oh-so-green state when it comes to skepticism about biofuel. But then Europe doesn’t have a politically-powerful, well-greased, on-the-dole farm lobby like ours. The Times story reports that studies are showing that “growing the crops and turning them into fuel can result in considerable environmental harm.”

The fertilizer used to grow corn is made with petroleum-based produces. Those tractors used to till the increased corn acreage burn oil etc. The “Corn Rush” is also chewing up grasslands and forests.

And then there is the problem that feeding the population explosion of cars (here, and increasingly in China and India) is driving up the price of food. That’s the second story on the Times’ business page. Headline: “Commodities Relentless Surge — Chinese and U.S. demand push food and minerals steeply higher.”

And all this just in time for a recession. We are looking at a perfect economic storm.

Take meat prices, which are soaring. That’s because the price of the corn used to feed cattle is skyrocketing as it is being used as car fuel, not human fuel, In other words, corn is ending up in our cars’ tanks and not in our stomachs.

And the price jump doesn't stop with corn. As the Times story notes, “The prices of other grains are going up as their acreage is supplanted by corn.” Hops and barley, for instance. Check out the price of a pint of IPA at the corner pub.

As one commodities researcher put it, “You are trying too feed people, cattle and cars, so you have this global fight between food and energy.”

Meanwhile, back in Oregon our lawmakers, urban and rural alike and uncharacteristically in league, are steering us to fill up with ethanol-laced gas.

How long will it take them and us to figure out it’s a bad idea?

The hope is that a plug-in electric vehicle (Toyota and GM plan to start selling them in two years) will ride to the rescue, using power provided by sun, wind and, yes, Oregon coastal waves.

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Anonymous Mike Vine said...

I support your premise, as I just wrote an article for the Confederal Sun about the same issue. However, I would not look to Europe, for despite your claim, Europe does "have a politically-powerful, well-greased, on-the-dole farm lobby like ours." In fact, it may be even more powerful. Have you heard of the Common Agricultural Policy?

They may have picked up on the fact that ethanol should not be subsidized, but only because it's a blatantly stupid idea.

The real problem is subsidy in general. When governments impose their own values over those of producers and consumers, we end up with funny results like feeding our cars before ourselves.

9:22 AM  

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