Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ethanol -- Why???

The traffic volume on the highways throughout the Panhandle seems to be increasing. That's a good sign. It is a sign of a thriving economy.

I have been seeing a lot of trucks on the highways carrying what appears to be capital equipment and machinery. I have recently seen parts for the giant wind generators, many large storage tanks, motors, fan assemblies, valves, etc. Almost all of the pieces destined to either wind generator fields or to ethanol plants.

I really struggle with the ethanol plants -- especially in corn growing areas that rely on the Ogallala Aquifer for sufficient water to grow the corn. Think for a minute about what it takes to grow corn in the Texas Panhandle where our rainfall is approximately 20 inches per year, or less. The fields are prepared by tractors fueled by diesel, the primary nitrogen fertilizer (anhydrous ammonia) requires huge amounts of natural gas to manufacture, the water is pumped from an aquifer that lies several hundred feet below the surface and therefore requires energy to lift the water. Usually the irrigation pumps are powered by electricity, the bulk of which continues to be generated at plants fueled by natural gas. Once the corn is ready for harvest, the combines that shell it, and the trucks that take it to the ethanol plants are fueled by diesel. I have heard it said that we spend approximately $0.98 worth of fossil fuel to produce $1.00 worth of ethanol. It just doesn't make sense to me.

The one area of benefit that I see, is that the ethanol plants are a source of jobs in many smaller rural communities. I think that's great in the short run, but what will happen in the longer term? Will those jobs still be there in 10 years? Or, will they dry up with the demise of ethanol.

One argument says that this is a transitional time for ethanol. Eventually we will shift to a cellulosic basis for production rather than using corn. I think that's great, but will that reduce the amount of fossil fuel used to produce it? I doubt it.

Another problem with using corn, or any other crop for that matter, for making ethanol is that it is causing a shift in acreage from other crops to corn production. This does several things. 1) It increases the amount of fertilizer used which adds to potential runoff issues. 2) Corn demands a much larger amount of water for production than most other crops raised on the High Plains, further stressing the already significantly depleted water supply. 3) The acreage shift to corn from other crops drives up the price of all crop-based commodities. This may be good in the short-run for the farmers. But, it will eventually be reflected in one of two ways. Either our food and fiber costs will increase at the consumer level, or we will end up purchasing more from other countries.

If our strategy in developing ethanol as an alternative fuel is to decrease our reliance on other countries, it won't work. It will just shift the reliance from a minuscule percentage of our fuel demands to a significant percentage of our food and fiber demands.

Increasing crop prices may have the short-term positive effect of increasing farm income from the marketplace to offset government subsidies. This would be a positive benefit to the taxpayers of the nation if the Congress would just not spend that money on something else. We all know how that will turn out.

Currently there are significant government subsidies to incent the creation of ethanol capacity in our country. Some of the subsidies are direct and some are related to the investment of funds in alternative energy production in lieu of taxing those funds derived from other means. Either way, it is dollars out of the taxpayers pocket. I would much rather see that money spent on projects such as the windmill generators, or geothermal, or nuclear energy. The problem is, ethanol plants seem to generate more votes because of the "pork-barrel" nature of the projects.

It would be nice if Congress would vote for sensible legislation rather than their behavior being totally dictated by what will get them the most votes, or line their pockets the quickest. I think we need to fire them all and start over.

1 comment:

MotherPie said...

The Palo Duro canyon is so gorgeous. I always thought that Easterners are so myopic. Georgia O'Keefe first saw the extreme beauty of the landsscapes and found her place as a painter when she taught at Canyon.

I, too, am concerned about the acquifer and our policies. We need to have a mentality about sustainable living. When I flew from Albuquerque in February I noticed the salty, briny areas and was concerned. I noticed them this time in different areas driving. These are not good signs.

I read a great book on water and the issue. If the Ogallala is depleted, it will be ruined for thousands and thousands of years.
Short-term solutions for economic gain is not the way to go. I'm glad you have written on this.

My Dad grew up in Borger and I lived briefly in Amarillo but mostly grew up in OKC... I have cousins still there.