Last week, researching a post I am planning to do on the economy, I was struggling to calculate what could be the highest possible fraction of our current petroleum usage that biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel, could replace. There is already a huge amount of investment, and a serious, farm-related lobby for subsidizing conversion of our nation's corn production to ethanol. I will spare you my math and modeling story and just say it is a hard calculation to make if you don't have all the industry numbers, a solid background in farm economics and chemistry. Some of the sources of industry numbers are readily available, others take digging. I found a table of all the country's current and under-construction ethanol production capacity and massaged it into a spread sheet.
I got lucky. The hard work has just been done.
Yesterday, in PNAS, researchers at U of Minnesota, St Paul and St Olaf college reported the results of a comprehensive all-costs/all-impacts study on the potential for biofuels to offset the country's petroleum demand. The bottom line of their study is this: if we quit eating corn-fed animals and switched all corn production to biofuels, we could meet about 6% of our current diesel demand or something close to 12% of our gasoline [via ethanol]. Its a drop in the oil barrel. Any politician that won't tell you to trade your gas guzzler for a bike, or take public transportation is an idiot or a political coward and certainly not a leader. The other consequences of our oil addiction: our inadvertent subsidy to Al-Qaida via the Saudis, our hemorrhaging economy or that toasty brown haze that has replaced our atmosphere, would all similarly only get a small dent from biofuels. We have to all start thinking of ways to use substantially less petroleum because our leaders are completely incapable of such thought despite all their poses and pep talks. Government initiatives and incentives and maybe a renewables and infrastructure redesign on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Three Gorges dam would be far more appropriate and economy-boosting response to oil need than spending our good will, our lives and 1/3 trillion [and counting] to secure an oil supply through imperialism. In the end, owning at gunpoint, say a quarter of the earth's remaining reserves is a false step anyway. That is the way to further degradation of the earth's climate and America's political climate. The sort of empire needed to take resources from the rest of an already armed, financed and oil-hungry world is not just hard on our opponents: it oppresses and corrupts us as well. The time is long past for drop-in-the-barrel solutions.