Friday, April 13, 2007

Bio-Fuels - Good or Bad?

A lot of publicity has been given to the increased production and use of bio-fuels such as corn-based ethanol. As the inhabitant of a state whose economy is based on agriculture, I have some contrary thoughts.

The good things about ethanol are that it is clean-burning, and that it helps to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil. However, these good things may be far outweighed by not-so-good things.

First, ethanol generated from corn is not a terribly efficient source of energy. I believe that the energy input-to-output ratio is somewhere around 1:1.2, taking into consideration the energy (usually in the form of petroleum products) needed to plant, cultivate, harvest, and transport corn, and convert it to ethanol.

Second, the non-renewable resource of topsoil is degraded by its continual exploitation for agricultural use, although this is remediated somewhat by the use of fertilizers, no- and low-till techniques and hardier, bio-engineered crop varieties.

Third, and most concerning in my opinion, is the use of water for irrigation. You won’t hear about this every night on the evening news, but water scarcity is a real and growing problem in many western states. The water levels of rivers and reservoirs in western Nebraska are at record lows due to eight years of drought. I spend a lot of time driving through “cornhusker country” and few things are more disturbing to me than the sight of a center-pivot irrigation rig (similar to a giant lawn sprinkler) running full-blast on a hot, windy day.

Fourth, increased demand for corn in ethanol production impacts other segments of the global economy. Corn is not just corn-on-the-cob and Green Giant Niblets. It is also widely used in cereal, snacks, and beverages (check the ingredient labels on cans and boxes in your pantry for “corn sweetener”), as feed for cattle, hogs, and poultry, and of course as a staple food in the form of cornmeal and tortillas. The price of corn used in manufacturing food will be driven up, as a result of its increased use in ethanol production.

Isn’t it immoral for the US government to encourage increased demand for corn-based ethanol, when this action will surely increase food prices around the world? Should the poor go hungry so that we can feel better about our fuel consumption, especially when our net energy gain is so insignificant?

Wouldn’t it be less harmful in the long run, to commit more resources to the development of new energy technologies, and to temporarily reduce our dependence on Middle East oil by expediting oil production in ANWAR?

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