Ethanol is great politics in states like Iowa (a state that has political influence that is unreasonably and irrationally out of relation to its economic or demographic influence) and the rest of the agricultural interior of the country, but that's all ethanol really is these days - great politics.
Washington Post commentator and Newsweek contributing editor Robert J. Samuelson has a great column (Blindness on Biofuels) about how little ethanol will really do for the country. Here's the basic summary:
- If oil consumption remains on the same growth curve as today, we'll consume about 10 billion barrels of oil in 2030 (vs ~7.5 billion barrels today), when President Bush wants us to be producing 60 billion gallons of ethanol for transportation use.
- One barrel equals 42 gallons, and ethanol has only 2/3rds of the energy content as oil, so 60 billion gallons is roughly equal to 1 billion barrels.
- Ethanol is currently made from corn kernels, meaning that every bushel of corn that goes into the fuel sector doesn't go into the food sector, and that may actually increase the cost of food in this country.
- Cellulosic ethanol (made from corn stalks, grass, wood chips, and any other plant matter) is not presently economically viable due to the chemistry involved.
Mr. Samuelson's conclusion? Biofuels aren't enough to meaningfully impact our oil reliance, so all this talk of ethanol is currently a political ploy that blinds us to truly meaningful steps. And NPR, in their fact-checking of the State of the Union, found that the President conveniently chose the politically attractive option over options like increasing CAFE standards for vehicles and mandating that power plants and household appliances become more energy efficient. (for other sources that agree, directly or indirectly, with Mr. Samuelson, check out BusinessWeek and this paper by a UC-Berkley prof)
Which is where Charles Krauthammer's ommentary steps in. In Energy Independence?, Mr. Krauthammer proposes three things we can do to directly and immediately improve our energy independence and de-carbonize our energy infrastructure - heavily tax gasoline, drill in ANWR, and build LOTS of nuclear plants.
And he's right. Taxing gasoline up to $4/gallon will very quickly drive people to smaller vehicles and to reduce their overall gasoline consumption. Drilling an ANWR will increase the domestic supply of oil. And building nuclear plants will help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide our energy sector dumps into the air every year. And Mr. Krauthammer is also right about his ultimate conclusion - ethanol production isn't presently a serious suggestion for addressing global warming or energy independence. Ethanol is political bling, not good energy policy.
Which isn't to say that some version of Mr. Krauthammer's taxing, drilling, and building suggestion couldn't be the start of something real. His suggestions are themselves blunt instruments, but could be refined.
Imposing a massive tax on gasoline would work very well, but a flat tax on gasoline would disproportionately injure the poor, especially in areas where mass transit is limited or non-existent. Maybe applying a carbon tax to new vehicles at time of purchase might work better to drive people away from standard gasoline engines to hybrids (
UPDATED: A commentor over on The Daedalnexus pointed out that I had erroneously called plug-in hybrid vehicles "not much better" than standard hybrids with regard to carbon dioxide. I have struck out the inaccurate statement above.
Drilling in ANWR comes back to the normal tension between domestic energy production vs. conserving our wild spaces for future generation, but the fundamental idea of producing more of our energy domestically instead of buying it from our enemies abroad is just good economic and security sense. Ethanol will be a part of the equation, as will technologies like thermal depolymerization (TDP). Whether drilling in ANWR specifically should be part of the equation too is often a question of values - do you value the oil higher than the more-or-less pristine wilderness, or vice versa?
Additional nuclear power are an excellent idea, except a new generation of nuclear plants will take 5-15 years to come on-line if we started them today. There are designs, but the permitting process alone could take a decade, and if we really want to be serious about using nuclear power for the long-run (and we should be), then we'll need to build breeder reactors that can use plutonium and other waste byproducts as fuel. And breeder reactors raise concerns about nuclear proliferation.
The only single idea we can put forward that will reduce global heating is this - implement multiple simultaneous approaches across the entire economy that are all targeted at de-carbonizing energy and increasing energy independence. Ethanol and TDP, new nuclear, clean coal, alternative energy, energy efficiency, hybrid vehicles, etc. will ALL be necessary to make a meaningful dent in our carbon emissions and our oil reliance. And we'll need to make
significant simultaneous changes in our homes, our cars, our businesses, and our communities for it to really matter.
An entire issue of the magazine Scientific American was devoted to the problem of how we move beyond carbon. The Sept. 2006 issue, "Energy's Future - Beyond Carbon", introduced the idea of "wedges," with each wedge representing a single effort to reduce carbon emissions. Each wedge represents the amount of carbon that has to be cut out of our emissions just to stabilize atmospheric carbon at 500ppm (which is still twice pre-Industrial levels), and we'll at least 7 wedges. That means we'll need to make at least 7 different and simultaneous efforts to cut carbon emissions to even have a chance of succeeding, and we may need something like 14 or more wedges to succeed. For a discussion of the different wedges, check out this link from Princeton's Carbon Mitigation Initiative.
I recommend that anyone interested in this issue (and we ALL should be, given the widespread impacts of decarbonizing energy and increasing energy independence) and read it cover-to-cover.
What's still missing from this entire discussion up until now is the issue of international reductions. One huge problem with the Kyoto Protocol was that it let developing nations off the hook. It's entirely understandable that the Protocol's writers didn't want to punish third-world nations for emissions that they lacked the ability to control. But at the same time, the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, were both considered "developing" countries, something that is very rapidly becoming a major problem. Just as an example, China is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after the United States, and India is fifth (Russia and Japan, both signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, are third and fourth respectively). Not only will the United States and Europe (collectively emitting 16% of the world's carbon dioxide to China's 12% and the United States' 24%) have to decarbonize their economies, they'll need to push strongly for decarbonizing the rest of the world economy too. Such initiatives might include making international aid contingent on carbon dioxide emission reductions, or threatening an end to China's special economic status unless they slow their carbon dioxide emissions. For fans of nuclear non-proliferation, one of the unfortunate aspects of decarbonization must be the inevitable proliferation of nuclear power generation technologies internationally.
We need a saner energy policy in the United States, a policy that relies on real change, not political bling. And we cannot afford to wait another 10 years for it.
[Crossposted from The Daedalnexus]