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Forget Corn, Conserve Forests Instead.

Ethanol and other "bio-fuels" require extensive amounts of land for the cultivation of crops or other source material. So much so, that the environmental costs of such fuels can be substantial. Even from a carbon-emission standpoint, bio-fuels appear to be a bad investment. New research documents that forest conservation is a more effectie way of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations than conversion to bio-fuels. Indeed, in some cases it is better to use gasoline and plant some trees than to convert land to ethanol. More from Ron Bailey and the New Scientist.

Hoosier:
I'm from Indiana. So naturally I hate to hear this: We need an economic boost, and are already producing ethanol. But the studies keep mounting on this. One also needs to add that biofuels are--at least thus far--not nearly as efficient on a per-gallon basis as is gasoline. As a result, the gain from emissions reductions will not be nearly as great as a one-for-one substitution of ethanol for petroleum would suggest.

We're back to where we started--that is, back to the solution from the 1970s: We have to use petroleum for the time being, but we have to use /less/.
8.21.2007 11:22am
Randy R. (mail):
One thing that really bugs me -- why are people so reluctant to plant trees? Everyone love them. But cities keep cutting their forestry budgets, so new trees are not planted, and existing ones are not maintained.

But what kills me are the people who live in those tacky subdivisions in suburbia. They rarely if ever plant a tree. What gives? They don't cost that much, if planted properly, they can shade the house during the hot summer, saving AC costs. Evergreens can save on winter fuel bills, too.

If every homeowner planted just one tree, that would go pretty far to helping us reduce green house effects.
8.21.2007 11:34am
Hoosier:
Randy--I hear you: I hate those types of developments. They are springing up laike mad on the farms outside the city here. So no trees are lost, but none are planted. Why people will accept big houses with treeless yards is beyond me.

And on another note of academic hypocricy: My university wants to "go green." So there are no longer styrofoam cups in the faculty lounge in this building. But the U *tore down a woods* to build an 18-hole golf course. You know, to keep the alumni happy.
8.21.2007 11:49am
bittern (mail):
Here's an idea. Get the price of fossil fuels to reflect the harm of non-renewable carbon emissions, and then let the free market sort out whether ethanol is advantageous. Enough of this central planning, dudes!
8.21.2007 11:55am
Steve:
Get the price of fossil fuels to reflect the harm of non-renewable carbon emissions, and then let the free market sort out whether ethanol is advantageous. Enough of this central planning, dudes!

Well yes, the free market could solve everything if the externalities were incorporated into the price, but that's why they're externalities. How do you propose to accomplish this repricing of fossil fuels without "central planning" of some sort?
8.21.2007 12:54pm
MacGuffin:
Now wait just a doggone minute! You can't "reforest" land that isn't capable of supporting forests. You can, however, use such semi-arid lands to produce bio-fuel from native grasses with far less demand for petrochemical fertilizers and irrigation than needed for growing corn. Well, not quite yet; but with the maturation of cellulosic ethanol production, native grass, low-intensity agriculture seems to be a natural fit to bio-fuel production. That corn-to-fuel doesn't make as much sense isn't a reason to write off bio-fuels entirely.
8.21.2007 1:37pm
markm (mail):
As for the big houses with treeless yards, I figure they don't expect to be there long enough for a tree to grow up - or even to become large enough to count as an asset bumping up the resale price a little. In the meantime, a sapling is a bother in many ways; it has to be watered, you have to steer your mower around it and get out the weedeater to trim the grass in close to it, and you've got to somehow protect it from rambunctious kids.
8.21.2007 1:39pm
Steve2:
I never thought the point of biofuels had anything to do with emissions at all, but was entirely about getting more gas per barrel of petroleum.

Anyway, what Macguffin says about non-corn biofuel makes sense and what Hoosier says about misplaced priorities at universities is absolutely right. I don't want to talk about how much money my university wasted on things that were unrelated to educating students, or even "educating" the surrounding community by letting the public have free admission to lectures and stuff.
8.21.2007 1:55pm
bittern (mail):

Well yes, the free market could solve everything if the externalities were incorporated into the price, but that's why they're externalities. How do you propose to accomplish this repricing of fossil fuels without "central planning" of some sort?

Steve, I'm wholly with you that we need to use our government to pick and enforce a price adder or a target level, in order to incorporate the cost of the externality. Aside from that, there's no need for the gov't to pick winners, which is what I meant by 'central planning.' And no need to pick winners by discussion. I'm always surprised that the libertarian types hereabouts so love to argue the details of winner-picking. Cheers!
8.21.2007 1:55pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Coming from a more arid part of the country, I take the opposite tact - that trees often are the problem, not the solution. So, the humidity is notably higher in Phoenix over the last couple of decades, in an area that has to import much of its water. Two big culprits - trees and golf courses.

Las Vegas is panicking right now because they expect to be out of water this year, and even with the plans underway, they will still be out of water (of course, part of its problem are the casino lakes, water fountains, etc., again in the middle of the desert, but it is also the home of Harry Reid...)

My point is that if you are talking reforesting somewhere that was recently naturally forested, then fine, do it. But one-size-fits-all doesn't work here, since, for example, planting trees in arid areas that weren't naturally forested causes many more ecological problems than it solves.
8.21.2007 2:13pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I never thought the point of biofuels had anything to do with emissions at all, but was entirely about getting more gas per barrel of petroleum.
I always saw it as rent seeking on the part of farmers.
8.21.2007 2:14pm
MacGuffin:
I always saw it as rent seeking on the part of farmers.

I'll agree with you, Bruce, if we are only talking past tense. I don't think the future of bio-fuels must be based on rent seeking.
8.21.2007 2:23pm
Hoosier:
MacGuffin: I agree that grasses--especially sawgrass--have potential. They also can be harvested perhaps three times per years, versus once for corn and soybeans.

The BIG reservation: No one has yet developped the enzyme to break down the cell wall in sawgrass. Until we have this, it will take so much energy to extract energy from grasses that it is pointless to do so.

But I don't want to sound like Cassandra. This would be HUGE, if it were to happen. In the meantime, why can't we import cheap ethanol from Brazil? (Oh, right. Forgot about Congress for a moment there.)
8.21.2007 2:37pm
MacGuffin:
I suspect you mean switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), which is a native prairie grass, not sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense), which is found in the Everglades and Southeast coastal regions.
8.21.2007 2:45pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
But I don't want to sound like Cassandra. This would be HUGE, if it were to happen. In the meantime, why can't we import cheap ethanol from Brazil? (Oh, right. Forgot about Congress for a moment there.)
But but but, doesn't that use sugar or the equivalent, and what about our sugar producers?

Sorry to be cynical, but it is a problem with our government, and its susceptability to rent seeking. We have corn based biofuels through rent seeking, and we can't import them from Brazil for essentially the same reasons.
8.21.2007 2:48pm
bittern (mail):
Exactly what's the point of importing ethanol from Brazil, anybody? To get Brazil to import gasoline to run their cars on instead of their ethanol? To get Brazil to cut down more of the Amazon, thus destroying the habitat before any global warming does? Thanks for your thoughts.
8.21.2007 3:23pm
amper:
or, as an even better option, we could plant cannabis, simultaneously raising a fast-growing crop that reduces our need to cut down trees, provides food, textiles, *and* biofuel precursors...and grows easily just about everywhere. It's absolutely ridiculous that thanks to DuPont, William Randolph Hearst, and frightened fools that we can't legally grow what is very possibly the most useful plant on the planet in this country.
8.21.2007 3:26pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Bruce Haden is on the money about corn-based ethanol. It's a horrible alternative, barely more fuel-efficient than gasoline, and actually more environmentally destructive to produce than oil-drilling (more monocropping and soil erosion, plus the fossil fuels burned to distill and transport the ethanol, plus it just enables us to drive more miles with our cars, and oh yes, it has driven corn prices through the roof and is helping to starve the developing world). Sugar ethanol from Brazil is much smarter. It's time to let the air out of the gasbags at ADM, Cargill and the "American farmer" [read: giant agribusiness]. It would not exist in anything resembling a free market (luckily for ADM, we have a Soviet-style farm policy in the land of capitalism).

Also, reforestation or new forestation is not necessarily a net good for reduction of warming. Replacing grasslands with forests creates more dark, light absorbent surface on the planet, which reduces the albedo (amount of light reflected back into space). There isn't a one to one relationship with these carbon sink solutions, so it's a little silly to put them up as a serious alternative to overall reduction in emissions without better science (as Ron Bailey should know).
8.21.2007 3:32pm
bittern (mail):

Bruce Haden is on the money about corn-based ethanol. It's a horrible alternative, barely more fuel-efficient than gasoline, and actually more environmentally destructive to produce than oil-drilling (more monocropping and soil erosion, plus the fossil fuels burned to distill and transport the ethanol, plus it just enables us to drive more miles with our cars, and oh yes, it has driven corn prices through the roof and is helping to starve the developing world).

If oil/gasoline prices doubled, would farming practices change enough that the energy value of the ethanol would significantly outstrip the energy used to grow and distill the corn? Anybody have good info on this? Just curious!
8.21.2007 3:46pm
Crunchy Frog:
Here's a thought: Remove the government subsidy on high fructose corn syrup, so that more corn production will go into ethanol, and soda makers will go back to using sugar.
8.21.2007 4:20pm
Houston Lawyer:
Forget global warming, if we encourage our farmers to plant all arable land, they will wipe out the habitat for many wild animals. We are also driving up the cost of corn, which is a primary staple South of the border. Turning food into fuel is a bad idea unless you have no other choices.

The effect of biofuels will most likely to be to wipe out rare animal species. That's a real threat instead of an imagined one like global warming.
8.21.2007 4:20pm
Hoosier:
MacGuffin--Thanks--Yes. Switchgrass. I was watching a documentary on the Everglades with my 9-y.o. son, and 'sawgrass' was stuck in my head. So, to clarify, I AM NOT recommending plowing the Everglades to plant grasses.

But the cell-wall problem remains with switchgrass.
8.21.2007 5:24pm
Hoosier:
BTW--and OT: I always thought my parents were lying to me about sawgrass when we would go to the Everglades. They were not.
8.21.2007 5:28pm
MacGuffin:
The effect of biofuels will most likely to be to wipe out rare animal species.

How do you figure? The native grasses/cellulosic ethanol approach actually brings much land closer to natural, uncultivated prairie habitat.
8.21.2007 5:29pm
Smokey:
bittern:
Exactly what's the point of importing ethanol from Brazil, anybody? To get Brazil to import gasoline to run their cars on instead of their ethanol? To get Brazil to cut down more of the Amazon, thus destroying the habitat before any global warming does?
Please stop asking those embarrassing questions.

'K? Thx.
8.21.2007 5:42pm
KeithK (mail):

So, the humidity is notably higher in Phoenix over the last couple of decades, in an area that has to import much of its water. Two big culprits - trees and golf courses.


How do trees increase the humidity? I'm not arguing - I;m just asking because I can't make the connection. Unless it's just that watering the trees introduces more water vapor into the air.
8.21.2007 7:49pm
Randy R. (mail):
It's true that we shouldn't plant trees everywhere -- deserts are bad places for trees! So I guess I'm showing my east coast bias.

But there really should be no doubt that trees can be planted far more than they currently are where trees normally would have grown.

" In the meantime, a sapling is a bother in many ways; it has to be watered, you have to steer your mower around it and get out the weedeater to trim the grass in close to it, and you've got to somehow protect it from rambunctious kids."

Then don't buy a sapling! Buy something that's about ten feet tall. You have to water flowers, too.
I assume your post is sarcastic, but in case it wasn't, then let me offer this nugget: Any person who is so lazy that he cannot move his mower around a tree and water it once in a while has no business owning a house on a plot of land. He is much better off living in a condo or a high rise apartment building so that he can keep his fat lazy ass on the sofa where it belongs.
8.21.2007 8:03pm
karl (mail):
Note to all tree planters: unless you start with a seed, when you plant a tree, you are really REPLANTING one. Net effect, zero.
8.21.2007 10:37pm
Hoosier:
karl--But if I help drive up the demand for trees by buying them, won't the arborists grow more of them?
8.21.2007 11:59pm
Mark_in_Texas (mail):
Hoosier:In the meantime, why can't we import cheap ethanol from Brazil?

We do import all the ethanol that Brazil has available to sell us. They have their internal demand and there is the ethanol that they sell to Europe and Japan, but we get pretty much everything else. In fact, the Brazilians are producing so much ethanol that the ethanol plants are bidding against each other for sugar cane, driving up the price. This obviously makes the farmers who raise sugar cane happy. So happy that they are planning to bring another 6 million hectares into sugar cane production by 2015.

Because of this expensive sugar cane, the cost to produce a gallon of ethanol in Brazil has gone up from $0.50 last year to $0.80 today. Nevertheless, after shipping the ethanol to the United States and paying the $0.50 per gallon import duty there is still a lot of profit to be made with the current US wholesale price of ethanol staying in the $1.70 to $1.80 range. Of course, you should keep in mind the scale of production. The United States produces more ethanol from corn right now than Brazil produces from sugar cane.

The question that you should be asking is, "How come Jamaica, Haiti, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and the other nations of the Caribbean Basin Initiative are not using Brazilian technology to produce ethanol from sugar and export it to the US since they are exempt from the $0.50 a gallon import tax on ethanol?" The other question to ask is how come the sugar producing nations of Africa are not building ethanol plants if only to produce fuel for local consumption? Petroleum products tend to be the thing that consumes most of their hard currency. Seems like they would be better off if they could run their trucks and buses on locally produced on biofuel.
8.22.2007 1:09am
Mark_in_Texas (mail):
Crunchy Frog: Here's a thought: Remove the government subsidy on high fructose corn syrup, so that more corn production will go into ethanol, and soda makers will go back to using sugar.

There is no government subsidy on high fructose corn syrup.

What ADM, Cargil and the sugar beet growing senators did for years was keep the price of sugar in the US high enough that high fructose corn syrup was cheaper. We'll see how this all works out. It is entirely possible that demand for corn in ethanol plants will be so great that cane sugar will be cheaper in soda again.
8.22.2007 1:18am
Mark_in_Texas (mail):
Bittern: If oil/gasoline prices doubled, would farming practices change enough that the energy value of the ethanol would significantly outstrip the energy used to grow and distill the corn? Anybody have good info on this? Just curious!

Farming practices have already changed a lot due to the increased price of energy. Low till and no till cultivation is used quite a bit. This reduced the number of times that tractors and farm machinery have to pass over a field raising corn. Another thing to keep in mind is that most of the corn that we are talking about is Genetically Modified Frankenfood which our moral superiors in the EU refuse to allow to be imported into their pristine countries. It is obviously unfit for human or even animal consumption. Modern productivity per acre is also pretty impressive.

If you are still relying on the study by David Pimentel, the Cornell entomology professor who claims that ethanol from corn requires 30% more fossil energy than what is produced, keep in mind that all of Pimentel's figures are from the late 1960s and early 1970s before the 1973 oil embargo when prices quadrupled. When energy was really cheap in the late 1960s, farmers did not even think about energy conservation because there was no reason to do so. In those days farmers used a lot of cheap diesel fuel and got less than 100 bushels of corn per acre. Today, farmers use a lot less fuel and get more than 100 bushels of corn per acre. In some cases they get more than 200 bushels of corn per acre. On irrigated land, it is not unusual to get 300 bushels of corn per acre.

I am not sure that answered your question but farmers are already using less energy per bushel of corn.
8.22.2007 1:38am
bittern (mail):
Mark in Texas -

Thanks. I was not following Pimental specifically, though I did recently see a presentation at an alt energy conference which had the opportunity, but wholly failed, to support the idea that corn ethanol is a significant energy positive.

The price of oil isn't all that high now, if you take inflation into account. And oil for the tractor isn't the only energy input. But the increased yields would sure make a difference.
8.22.2007 11:21am
Thales (mail) (www):
"There is no government subsidy on high fructose corn syrup."

Not directly. But corn is subsidized, and therefore the products derived thereof, including HFCS, are created in greater abundance than they would be in a competitive market, which adds to our financially and environmentally destructive agricultural practices and helps make us the nation of the obese that we are.


http://artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/articles/09harvest.html
8.22.2007 4:20pm
Mark_in_Texas (mail):
Thales

That article in the paper that Walter Duranty won his Pulitzer Prize writing for is interesting. Last time I looked at corn futures on the Chicago Merc board it was about $3.50 a bushel. I have talked with a number of people who raise livestock and all of them have been complaining about the price of corn. As you might remember, last year all the news stories were about corn hitting $4.00 a bushel and how the poor but honest folk of Mexico were having to pay much more for their humble tortillias because the heartless Yankees were making corn into ethanol to fuel our SUVs to Wal Mart where we buy more poisonous Chinese crap made by child slaves etc, etc.

So is this some kind of unique glut of corn or is it just harvest season and it pretty much looks like this every year?

Your article doesn't really go into detail, but the federal corn subsidy program is a price support program. The floor price is something like $1.85 a bushel. I am very curious as to why somebody would not be able to sell their corn for more than $1.85 a bushel when the market price is almost twice that.

One thing in the article that I absolutely agree with is that next year a lot of acres that were planted with corn this year will be planted with soy beans or other crops next year. Farmers who saw the high corn prices last year decided to plant corn this year. As in many markets, supply caught up to and exceeded demand. Next year there will be more ethanol plants to demand corn (cost to produce ethanol from corn is back to ~$1.00 and the wholesale price is in the $1.70 to $1.80 range so with that sort of profit margin the building of new ethanol plants is going to continue for the next few years) and not quite as many acres growing corn.
8.23.2007 12:13am
Mark_in_Texas (mail):
Bittern

The energy required to ferment and distill corn into ethanol is also a lot less than when Pimentel was gathering his data. The cost of natural gas pushes ethanol plant operators to become more efficient. Some new ethanol plants are using coal rather than natural gas because coal is so much cheaper. (That is another interesting tale, but I'll leave that alone for now.)

From what I have been reading, the energy balance for a modern ethanol plant is slightly positive, including the growing and transportation of the corn. Obviously, an ethanol plant that uses waste heat from a nearby electric power plant is going to be a lot more energy positive.

The thing that makes ethanol from corn significantly energy positive is that after ethanol is made from a bushel of corn, you have a third of a bushel of "brewer's grain" or "distiller's grain". This is high quality animal feed. If you can feed it to animals within 48 hours, there is no need to dry it out. If your ethanol plant is not convenient to a feed lot, you dry it out, which takes extra energy, to produce DDG or Distiller's Dry Grain.

I don't know what point we will reach some kind of market equilibrium, but it is actually possible that ethanol production might make animal feed so cheap that steak sells for less than $2.00 a pound. With sugar and corn made into motor fuel and cheap meat, the Atkins diet might be the cheapest way to eat. Type 2 diabetes disappears, everybody is thin with healthy, cavity free smiles and smog is one of those boring stories that the aging (but thin and healthy) baby boomers bore their grandchildren with.
8.23.2007 12:37am
Mark_in_Texas (mail):
One of the interesting things about adding ethanol to the fuel that we use in our cars is the effect that it has on the car's performance. As several people have pointed out, using ethanol in an engine that is not set up to take advantage of it generally results in decreased mileage due to the lower energy content in a volume of ethanol compared to an equal volume of gasoline.

The thing about ethanol is, though, that adding ethanol to gasoline raises the octane rating. Those of you who can remember the late 1960s and early 1970s when unleaded gasoline was first introduced remember how the performance of cars in that period suddenly got a lot worse and so did the cars' mileage. That is because when the lead was removed from gasoline, the gasoline producers did not have and good way to raise the octane back up to what it had been for the leaded gasoline. As a consequence, auto makers had to produce engines that could run on 84 octane gas.

One of the things that car makers did was reduce the compression ratios of their engines from 10:1 down to 8:1 so that they would run on low octane gasoline without knocking. The problem is that gasoline engines are a lot more efficient at higher compression ratios. That is why diesel engines, which use compression ratios of 14:1 or higher, get so much better mileage.

Mixing 10% ethanol with 90% gasoline gives you 95 octane which is one octane point higher than unleaded super.

One way that the auto makers could easily meet the new CAFE standards would be to increase the compression ration of their existing engines to 12:1. Those vehicles would only run on premium gasoline or on the much cheaper E10. If they sold those vehicles only in the northern midwest where gas stations selling 10% ethanol are common, the mileage improvements would probably be enough that they would not have to make any other changes to vehicles sold in other parts of the country.
8.23.2007 12:59am
karl (mail):
Hoosier:

In the 1800's Pennsylvania (my state) was practically bare of timberlands due to overharvesting; today, thaks to the timber industry, it is the nation's leader in the export of hardwood. The lumber and paper companies are mainly responsible for the fact that there is more forestland in the US than when the Pilgrims came. Somehow, this hasn't seem to have made a dent in the rise of CO2. I'm not against planting trees, but to think that a tree in the front yard of every house in a new subdivision is going to make a difference is, as Engels said about most social movements, "is a superficial altruistic anodyne ungrounded in the nature of the universe".
8.23.2007 11:04am