In their attempt to mitigate America’s dependence on “foreign” oil (a problem which actually doesn’t exist as all oil is, in essence, foreign because it is traded on the world market), our elected quidnuncs have concocted a legislative agenda of meat-headed mischievousness calling for, among other things, 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel use by 2012, raised to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Nearly a fifth of the nation’s corn crop is now used to make ethanol. Spurred by subsidies, farmers who once grew wheat or soy beans are converting their fields to corn. The result—Agflation. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over the past year the price of orange juice has risen 25%, beef 6%, eggs 20% and milk 5 to 10%. Not surprisingly, the new ethanol capacity has done little to alleviate gas prices. In terms of price per unit of energy, corn grown in Illinois is now higher than crude pumped out of the Saudi desert—roughly $13 per BTU for corn versus $12 per BTU for oil.
Adding fuel to the fire (sorry) is the revelation that ethanol made from corn is not any better for the environment than gasoline refined from crude.
“The way we produce ethanol today is not benefiting the environment,” says Alex Farrell, professor of energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley. A paper co-authored by Farrell proposes a one- to five-star rating system for biofuels. Ethanol made from corn using conventional agricultural practices gets a one-star rating. If the biofuel feedstock is switch grass, a perennial grass native to the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., the rating improves to a three-star. And the best biofuel feedstock, according to Farrell? That would be municipal waste, a.k.a. garbage.
“Municipal solid waste is a step beyond perennial grass as an environmentally friendly biofuel feedstock,” says Farrell. “It would get a five-star rating.”
Farrell says there are several groups working on the process of converting garbage into fuel and that the technology is unproven and expensive. This is just my guess but I’d bet it is probably not any more expensive than the hundreds of millions of dollars the Department of Energy has invested in coal gasification. One estimate has it that garbage as a feedstock has the potential to meet the energy equivalent of the 36 billion gallons of biofuel required by law in 2022. So why aren’t we subsidizing research on ways to convert garbage to fuel and energy instead of paying farmers to grow corn as a feedstock to make ethanol? You’d have to ask the quidnuncs in Washington.