Damned If You Do

JROBI, a chess blogger, on energy policy:

A large study in Europe concluded that it takes more gas and oil to produce a bottle of bio-fuel than it does to produce a bottle of gas. What does this mean? It means that Bio-Fuel is more damaging to the environment in the long run, and on top of that it is driving up the cost of basic food supplies. Millions and millions around the world in a number of countries are unable to afford the rising food costs for basic staples like Corn, and for what?

If Bio-Fuel is not better for the environment, why are politicians and environmentalists getting behind this growing industry? I think it’s because it seems to be the “trendy” thing to do, and we all know what happens when the media promotes a new trend. We get tons of media coverage telling us why it’s a good thing, and hardly any coverage of the negative impacts. Already people from the Bio-Fuel industry are getting on television shouting out that there are many factors contributing to rising food prices, trying to deflect the fact that their destruction of food to fuel vehicles is the main culprit.

Actually, I suspect the emphasis on biofuels in the USA and Europe has to do with the fact that it’s the only alternative to fossil-based motor fuels proven to be sustainable and scalable:

The success of FFFVs, together with the mandatory use of E25 blend of gasoline throughout the country, allowed Brazil to get more than 40% of its automobile fuels from sugar cane-based ethanol in 2007.

I see no link to the European study in question, but previous studies have suffered from various faults; for example, the assumption that trucks transporting fuel cannot themselves shift to biofuels. I’m sure better analysis of the study is on its way.

But that’s not the most interesting thing, to me. More interesting: my general impression that a lot of the climate-change hysteria is just that.

If we hear what science seems to be telling us about the environment, and we think that something needs to be done, then we should do things that will actually work. One thing that really works is conservation: use less of the bad stuff we’re using. But we’ve done quite a bit on that front, only to hear that much, much more is required to make a difference. I’m not sure there’s much, much more benefit for us to realize in conservation, at least in the short term.

So, to make a real difference, we have to make more radical changes. Can we change our motor fuel?  Sure; starting with something that pollutes less, and that even absorbs some of that same pollutant in its production, sounds like a winner.

JROBI, again:

It makes no sense whatsoever to create Bio-Fuel when there are much better options on the table – for instance Hydrogen vehicles. When was the last time you heard someone on the news talk about Hydrogen initiatives?

I hear it every so often. But most talk, today, focuses on the very real problems with hydrogen as a motor fuel. There are many; just look at the discussions of hydrogen fuel tank technology for a sample. But one of the biggest problems is that of developing an infrastructure for delivering fuel to the customer.

No one talks about the problems of setting up an ethanol infrastructure. We already have it. Brazil has demonstrated that the current gasoline infrastructure can easily be adapted to deliver ethanol instead, and that there is a viable migration plan for gradually moving people off fossil fuels.

Now, this isn’t to say that the world of ethanol is hunky-dory. It’s arguable that, while ethanol may be sustainable, the corn-based system the USA has adopted isn’t. Some people are talking about sensible tweaks that may solve the food problems while continuing to support biofuels–removing our silly tariff on Brazilian ethanol, for example, or developing alternative feedstocks for ethanol production.

The problem is that hysteria seems to be breeding hysteria. Global warming is so severe, we are told, that we need solutions, and we need them immediately. So we develop solutions we can use immediately. But no! These solutions cost; we need something else, and we need it immediately, and we need it cost-free.

Practically, this kind of insistence on perfection–that we deploy solutions with no drawbacks, only benefits–has the effect of dampening our enthusiasm for environmental solutions. We tried, our leaders will tell us, but nothing was good enough, so we gave up. And so, rather than do something that helps, or even something that lays the foundation for helping, we continue our use of fossil fuels.

Perhaps ethanol is the wrong solution. But if it is, we should resign ourselves to the inevitability of the future, as foretold by science, or fervently hope that the global warming deniers are right, because other solutions will arrive too late to do much good.