In the late 20th century, petro-geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere (1998) made argued that the end of cheap oil was imminent. They made their prognostications based on an examination of oil reserves and compared them with the reports provided by the oil industry. Their observation was that the oil industry made use of highly selective sampling to provide a bias portrait of the state of oil. Furthermore, they emphasized that the costs of oil extraction were liable to go up as extraction fields passed their peak extraction rate. Over a decade later, the two have been proven right and with increasing concerns about the environmental consequences of oil use, the demand for an alternative fuel has become critical. Ethanol carries the potential to fulfill this role, and may prove to be ultimately beneficial not just to the environment but to economies as well.
First of all, the ethanol’s impacts upon the atmosphere and air quality are not as adverse as gasoline. Whereas the use of gasoline is practically defined by its warming effect on climatological conditions and detrimental effect to air quality, the use of ethanol – depending on its method of production, as well as feedstock – has significantly less impact. (Wang, Saricks & Santini, 1999)While it would be a mistake to say that ethanol can be used indiscriminately, it presents the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of automobile use quite significantly. The second point, and one which is the most critical to addressing present day fuel dilemmas outlined above is that because ethanol is distilled from organic feedstocks such as corn or sugar cane, it is ultimately a renewable resource that can be produced through sustainable means. Oil on the other hand, is a fossil fuel that is in finite supply so long as the million year process required to create it remains out of the reach of industries.
Still, this is not to suggest that ethanol is without criticism or controversy. The production of its feedstock is quite the subject of controversy. Grunwald (2008) notes that expanding ethanol production results in the diversion of existing lands devoted to grain-based agriculture from food supply and towards the production of fuel. Ultimately, this means that biofuels like ethanol are imposing dramatic impacts upon the costs of maintaining food supply for both the world’s hungry and the world’s well fed. Grunwald remarks that “the grain it takes to fill an SUV tank could feed a person for a year.” Furthermore, many pundits maintain similar contentions. Joseph Fargione and Timothy Searchinger have separately presented research showing that the mere conversion of lands towards the production of ethanol feedstock results in carbon costs that could take years to pay back. (Mazza, 2008) Environmental journalists Richard Manning (2004) and Mindy Lubber (2007) report that this is consistent with past booms in the expansion of industrial agriculture, where massive wheat and corn farming turned much of the American Midwest into a dust bowl for several decades.
However, neither of these problems completely annihilate ethanol’s potential. Instead they necessitate the careful consideration of how to develop appropriate industrial policy in order to expedite a better ethanol industry. At present, America’s ethanol industry is largely dependent on corn, which is currently the least energy-efficient feedstock for ethanol with a yield of 1.3. As such, the impacts of land use and the cannibalization of the food supply can be evaded largely through identifying new feedstocks for the ethanol industry. This is where cellulosic ethanol comes in. Because cellulose is found in practically all plant matter, the principle of cellulosic ethanol is to harness fuel from plant based detritus such as sugar cane bagasse, old newspapers and straw. Researchers are developing market-ready ways to convert cellulose into the simple molecules from which ethanol can be distilled. What this means is that it is possible to produce ethanol without using food-plants, but without taking over existing agricultural fields. (Ratliff, 2007)
But most importantly, ethanol promises to be beneficial to industrialized nations because it permits them the opportunity to wean themselves off of dependence on oil producing nations. As one security director notes, dependence on Middle East nations for oil supply poses a threat to national security, which has more to do with the strained relationship between the United States with the Muslim world than it does with the ostensible political instability of its nations. As such, oil dependency constitutes a political liability. (Parmley, 2007) Simply put, by turning industry to ethanol they can eliminate the foreign policy compromises that come from dependence, the health impacts and security risks of a degraded environment, and ultimately stake a claim in a brighter greener world.
Campbell, C. & Laherrere, J. (1998, March) “The End of Cheap Oil.” Scientific American
M. Wang, C. Saricks, D. Santini. (1999, January) “Effects of Fuel Ethanol Use on Fuel-Cycle Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissios.” Argonne National Laboratory, Center for Transportation Research. Retrieved online on August 3, 2009 from: http://www.transportation.anl.gov/pdfs/TA/58.pdf
Grunwald, M. (2008, April 7) “The Clean Energy Scam.” Time Magazine.
Mazza, P. (2008, March 8) “Growing Sustainable Biofuels: Common Sense on Biofuels,” Worldchanging. Retrieved online on August 3, 2009 from: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//007868.html
Mazza, P. (2008, March 12) “Growing Sustainable Biofuels: Common Sense on Biofuels, part 2” Worldchanging. Retrieved online on August 3, 2009 from: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//007885.html
Manning, R. (2004) Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. New York: North Point Press.
Lubber, M. (2007, November 8) “Corn Ethanol and The Great Dust Bowl.” Worldchanging. Retrieved August 3, 2009 from: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//007637.html
Ratliff, E. (2007, September 24) “One Molecule Could Cure Our Addiction to Oil.” Wired Magazine, 15.10
Parmley, Julia. “U.S. must end dependency on oil, expert says.” UDaily. University of Delaware. 6 April 2006.