August 22, 2007
No Free Ride With Ethanol

by Donald G. Mashburn

Senators from farm states tout biofuels as one of the ways we can get a free ride to energy independence. They promote ethanol, in particular, to woo the farm vote, and because they love the ethanol subsidy programs in Congress that appeal to their pork-loving appetites.

Then there’s the added attraction that ethanol subsidies easily win the support of environmental and anti-oil activists on the East and West coasts.

The facts are that biofuels will not free us from dependence on oil, or even make a major dent in our estimated fuel needs. Unfortunately, some uniformed folks believe the overstated claims that U.S. agriculture can grow us out of our energy deficit. But that won’t happen.

The claim for ethanol is just one of the better examples of the hype accompanying the pork barrel spending that Congress has practiced in the name “energy independence.” But processing corn – no matter how much is planted – into ethanol will not erase our energy deficit.

Even if farmers, the weather, and the known ethanol processes all work at maximum efficiency, biofuels could probably supply no more than five to 10 percent of our fuel needs. And it could take as much as two decades to accomplish even that.

John Deutch, professor of chemistry at MIT, has estimated that for ethanol to replace as much as five to 10 percent of our present petroleum requirements, would require that we plant some 25 million acres of productive land to corn. That’s about 39,000 square miles of productive farm land. And we haven’t even started talking about the impact – including higher prices – on other crops and foodstuffs caused by planting the additional acreage to corn.

But, then, Washington politicians aren’t known for their deep thinking, or long views on the future impact of their actions.

A major consideration in the production of ethanol is the substantial amounts of more conventional fuel required. Under some conditions, the process produces less energy than the input energy required to produce the ethanol. In all known processes, where the prices of input energy, and associated costs, are high, the energy value of ethanol produced is often less than the value of the cost to obtain it.

The energy in a gallon of ethanol is approximately 20 percent less than that in petroleum gasoline. So, even in the best process we now have available, we can expect an energy gain of only some 20 percent over and above the energy input required to produce it.

It’s clear that despite the claims of “greenies” in Congress and elsewhere, biofuels from corn or other grain, switch grass, or anything the American farmer can grow will not appreciably lessen our need for oil.

Moreover, we can’t “save” our way to independence on petroleum no matter how “green” we get or how many carbon offsets we buy. The preaching of all the pork peddlers in Congress and celebrity “greenies” won’t generate a single barrel of oil or tank of gasoline.

Ethanol does have a place – one of modest size – in the energy picture. Research into biofuels should continue – without government subsidies. If farmers can grow crops that can provide us with a net fuel gain, economically, we should encourage them to do so.

But that encouragement should be a marketplace free of government control and financial aid from taxpayer dollars. If ethanol can’t compete, without subsidies, when petroleum gasoline is $3.00 a gallon, when will it be competitive?

DIKTAT vs Liberty

by Thomas E. Brewton

New greenhouse-gas regulations will impinge upon personal freedom and distort the economy. Rising hysteria about the alleged greenhouse-gas role in global warming will predictably bring about a new miasma of self-contradictory and harmful regulations.

Socialism, the secular religion of liberals and Progressives, preaches that only intellectual councils, led by Al Gore, are smart enough to see clearly how everyone else must behave and to impose the necessary regulations. Universal, bitter experience demonstrates, however, that regulatory agencies cannot possibly foresee all the effects of their actions.

The free-market adjustment of millions of people can and does uncover a wealth of alternatives beyond the ken of any state-planning group and makes gradual adjustments without the unsettling abruptness of one-size-fits-all Federal regulation.

Steve Forbes, in Forbes Magazine, has noted a few of the destructive effects of mid-70s Congressional mandates for automobile fuel efficiency (CAFE). Among them: automobile accident death rates increased (smaller, lighter cars are more easily crushed); counter-productively, higher fuel efficiency induced more driving miles and higher gasoline consumption; and handing the automobile market to smaller, lighter cars undercut the American automobile manufacturers, leaving the industrial Mid-West a rust bowl with massive unemployment in the 1970s and early 80s.

In contrast, Mr. Forbes observes, the only really effective regulator is the free market via higher gasoline prices. In real life people ought to be able to make their own decisions about how to spend their money. The sharp decline recently in SUV sales makes clear that people can adjust rationally to economic market forces without the help of the Federal government.

Liberals are calling for gasoline price caps and extra taxes on petroleum companies, together with tighter fuel efficiency standards that will destroy what remains of the American automobile industry.

Liberal-Progressive-socialists, both among Democrats and liberal Republicans, believe that no session of Congress is complete without bundles of new agencies and laws mandating specific "solutions" to problems. That paradigm implicitly assumes that individuals are incapable of arriving at satisfactory solutions themselves, that the actions of millions of individuals (known as the free marketplace) will bring about the wrong solution to problems.

The liberal paradigm inherently trends toward autocratic government. That’s the opposite of the political and economic liberties early colonists fought for in our War of Independence. Arbitrary government regulation is the essence of Hitler's National Socialism and Lenin's Soviet Communism.

Civilization is not the same thing as arbitrary government regulation. Civilization is the commonly accepted understandings of how people must conduct themselves in dealing with each other within organized political units. The word civilization derives from civitas, the Latin word meaning “city.” The one point of convergence among all political units – from tribes, to city states, to ancient empires and modern national states was commerce. Every people ever studied by archaeologists and historians of necessity engaged in trade with other political groups to obtain raw materials and finished products to supply what their geography and customs lacked.

No committee of intellectuals ever sat down at any one time and decided upon the rules of civilized conduct. Those rules evolved over thousands of years of trial-and-error experience, with gradual modifications to meet specific conditions.

That is what economists call the free marketplace.

Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. His weblog is THE VIEW FROM 1776,