March 28, 2006

Ethanol: a Trick on Farmers

Coal Power makes Ethanol
The old feeder used to illustrate the relationship between red indians and white men in the USA with an anecdote. It was the bad old smog days in southern California, and the solution du jour was to 'go electric'. This clean energy would reduce the fossil fuel emissions that were blamed for the smog.

At the very same time, some huge coal-fired electrical plants were built in the Four Corners area. This is where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together, and is home to numerous large red indian reservations. These plants not only were touted as a job boon for the poor res cats, but were going to enable the increased 'clean' electrification of the smoggy cities on the coast. It amounted to a trick on the indians. The totality of the transaction was merely to shift the dirty air from white folks' neighborhoods to red folks' reservations.

Something of the same sort is happening right here in the Great Plains. Today, a dearth of clean energy is the problem, and ethanol is the solution du jour. Naturally, most farmers think that laws forcing drivers to use gasoline adulterated with low energy alcohol are a good idea. When a businessman gets the government to force the public to buy his product, he knows in his heart that what he is doing is wrong. It isn't nice to get the government to push your neighbors around for your own benefit. So the businessman must also have some salve for his conscience. In this case the salve is green: using ethanol means clean air.

But this green salve, like most rationalizations, is only as good as its main premise, here: the resulting clean air. We must ask just how much clean air do we get for our moral lapse? And just exactly who gets to breathe this clean air? The answers would suggest that the push to force ethanol into our gas tanks is just as insidious a trick on farmers as the Four Corners coal burners were on the indians.

The production of ethanol requires an input of energy. The corn or other biomass must be ground, fermented and distilled. Where does the energy to make the ethanol come from? Well, here in Nebraska it comes from burning coal. Coal that is burned right here in Nebraska, at coal plants that are built specifically to service the ethanol plants. Think I'm kidding?

Here are two separate press releases from Archer Daniels Midlands. The first one announces the expansion of ethanol production with a planned new ethanol plant in Columbus, Nebraska. The second one announces the planned construction of a coal fired power plant to be built in Columbus to power the ethanol plant. Nobody wants another coal fired plant in their neighborhood. Just ask the cats in California, where they haven't built a new one in decades. The new Columbus plant will also burn high-sulphur coal, old tires and other trash for fuel. I can smell it already!

Nebraskans choke on the smoke, so city folks can feel green and breathe free. Wise up, grain farmers. Don't sell 'the good life' so cheaply. Ethyl alcohol is for drinking; it is a lousy fuel that takes more 'green' than it gives.

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