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Saturday, February 24, 2007

King Corn

There's much to be gleaned from Bush's recent photo-op at an ethanol processing plant, replete with his usual sidesplitting makes-Larry-the-Cable-Guy-seem-funny attempts at hilarity.

In the Novozymes laboratory, Bush moved from room to room to hear the process of how enzymes can be found, selected and converted. A man showed Bush a bottle of liquid in a glass bottle.

"Senator, don't drink this!" Bush hollered over his shoulder to Burr.

"I quit drinking in `86," Bush added. He would mention the date twice more in his tour through what is, essentially, a giant fermentation operation with the faint aroma of a brewery.

In a room of two-gallon containers holding liquid the color of amber beer, Bush picked up a jar of straw to show off to the crush of journalists tagging along.

"Straw!" he proclaimed. Cameras clicked and whirred.

"Someday, you're going to be using this in your car," he said.

He picked up another jar. "Spruce chips!" He picked up yet another vessel, this one containing clear ethanol, and took another sniff.


Actually, it's difficult to get the true flavor and rhythm of the whole sorry mess without reading the entire transcript.

We're here at Novozymes, which is a company that makes enzymes. We're going to talk to Thomas, who is the President and Plant Manager, about what they do here, and why it's relevant. Before we get there, I do want to say something about Steen Riisgaard. He's the President and CEO, Steen. He flew over from Denmark. I can't thank you enough for coming. I appreciate you being here. It's interesting, isn't it, when you're able to sit in North Carolina and talk about a Danish company that is investing to not only help us become less dependent on oil, but equally importantly is investing capital, which enables citizens from the United States to find good work.

I toured around the facility, and I asked people at the facility how long they had been working here. And a lot of people have been here 20-plus years. So for those people who are worried about free trade, I want you to remember that if this country were to wall ourselves off from the world, we would miss opportunities to find markets for our products, and at the same time miss opportunities for citizens who work at a facility like this to find good work. It's in our interests that we have free and fair trade.


As Bush reiterates about, oh, fifteen thousand times throughout the speech, this is technology that requires very highly trained and specialized people. People with skills. People who read, and even understand the complexities of free international trade, without requiring the "see Dick run" set-up from Harvard there.

He doesn't need to explain the Globalization 101 bullet points to the people who are utilizing Danish capital to bugger compensatory loans from the taxpayers; he needs to explain it to the tens of thousands of auto and tech workers who are having their jobs outsourced to Mexico and India, what exactly it is they're supposed to do now. Can they all make ethanol, or is there enough demand (and subsidized loans) to go around?

So we're making pretty good progress. But if you really want to reduce the amount of oil that you consume, you got to reduce the amount of gasoline you use. In other words, if you say, we want to reduce our dependence on oil, what you really got to do is change gasoline usage in the United States. And there's a couple of exciting things that are taking place -- one is new battery technologies. We're spending money at the federal level -- and by the way, there's a lot of private sector money going into alternative sources of energy. And some day you're going to be able to get in your car, particularly if you're a big-city person, and drive 40 miles on a battery. It's coming. And by the way, the car doesn't have to look like a golf cart. (Laughter.) It could be a pickup truck. (Laughter.)

And that technology is around the corner. And if we're able to drive the first 40 miles, or, say, 20 miles, on gasoline [sic] there's a lot of big-city folks that will never have to use a drop of gasoline on a daily basis. They'll be driving via electricity. These are lithium-ion batteries, technology -- so when you hear that term, you just got to know there's a lot of folks and a lot of money aiming hard to get this to the market as quickly as possible. Why? Because we've set a goal for the United States to be less dependent on oil.

Secondly -- and this is what we're here to talk about today -- is ethanol. It says that the new developments in ethanol -- in other words, fuel derived from corn -- can be diversified. Here's the problem: Right now we're consuming about 7 billion gallons of ethanol a year made from corn. And it's a pretty standard process. People here at this facility have developed the enzymes necessary to break the corn down in an efficient way so that we can use ethanol derived from corn.

The problem is we got a lot of hog growers around the United States and a lot of them here in North Carolina who are beginning to feel the pinch as a result of high corn prices. A lot of the cattle people around the United States -- I have got a few of them in my home state of Texas -- they're worried about high corn prices affecting their making a livelihood. In other words, the demand for corn, because of agricultural use, and now energy use, is causing corn prices to go up. I bet you the Agriculture Commissioner is hearing from folks.

And so how do -- the question then is, how do you achieve your goal of less dependence on oil without breaking your farmers -- without breaking your hog raisers -- corn farmers happen to like it, but I'm talking about the -- (laughter) -- people dependent on corn.

And here's how: You develop new technologies that will enable you to make ethanol from wood chips, or stalk grass, or agricultural waste. And that's what we're here to talk about: Is it possible, and if it is possible, how close are we to achieving the technological breakthroughs that I believe are possible so that our -- so that we're changing our habits.


There's a choice here to be made, and I'm sure most of us have little doubt as to the direction it will take. As Fredo himself alludes, albeit almost approvingly, the ethanol push will open up secondary markets, allowing agri-giants -- already on the dole in one way or another -- to maximize their grift with price gouging.

The main thing to keep in mind is that, ethanol or no, gas prices are never coming back down. Any substitutes will merely be positioned into the same price-point niche. The market has already been tested, and the envelope is constantly being pushed to find out just how much we'll pay.

And the soothing mouth noises regarding "clean coal" are nice and all, but considering there was a big push to build more old-tech coal plants that would be grandfathered in before the regulations were changed, you have to wonder what the actual demand will be, and who will be willing to step up and meet it. One thing's for sure, nobody is going to do it without some financial incentive -- from you 'n' me, naturally. These people don't do anything on their own dime, which is really the ultimate form of risk management.

So, there's the choice that will probably happen -- allow the giants already in place in the energy industry to diversify and partner with commodities producers, on the taxpayers' backs, in the guise of innovation and entrepreneurship. If what we're looking for is merely a lateral shift from being pwned by the oil lobby to the ethanol lobby, then fine. But the bottom line is that, even at current consumption patterns, corn ethanol simply does not have a sustainable EROEI, though Brazil apparently has had better luck with sugarcane ethanol.

The alternative would be to rethink the way things are currently laid out, modes of distribution and transportation. It would require seriously rethinking how cities should expand. If we understand that simply re-arranging our energy sources to accommodate our current (and increasing) level of gluttony is not sustainable long-term (or even medium-term), then we should realize that it is axiomatic that consumption modes and patterns have to be re-thought in conjunction with source diversification. The first place to start is with food distribution; instead of enormous, centralized production facilities distributing thousands of miles in all directions (and in the process, becoming sources of toxic pollution, speaking of hog farmers), you move to decentralized regional hubs. Of course that also decentralizes the political power of such entities.

And yeah, some of us might have to give up our ridiculous suburban assault vehicles, driven either by unskilled milfs or their overcompensating husbands. It's disturbing to even speculate on the root of such destructive gimme-gimme trends, but they're clearly there, and they cannot go on indefinitely. And there's no upside for the people who conserve on basic principle (that is, they are conservative when it comes to energy usage and waste in general) to continue subsidizing the sheer waste, and the attendant externalities, of these fuck-you-mobiles, destroying the topsoil in the low-EROEI process of converting corn into ethanol. But you want your "20-10 plan", there ya go; chances are results would exceed estimates. The trick is whether we're more concerned with giving the Lee Raymonds of the world a soft cushion to park their jowly asses on, and granting insecure jerkoffs carte blanche to project their anxieties on the rest of us, than in truly dealing with the actual problems at hand.

Even the geopolitical realities need to be thought out, and they don't even seem to have been considered. Say ethanol works (well enough for the time being, at least), and we make enough of a dent in our energy dependence and even our consumption patterns to allow us to extricate ourselves from the Middle East. What then? Well, assuming globalization continues apace, you simply have ascendant powers China and India, economies burgeoning, with no real incentive to follow suit. You have Russia more openly aligning with Iran, to put the squeeze on Europe and obstruct China and India if nothing else. You have a market vacuum in the petrocracies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, both with large, young, radicalized fundamentalist populations. You allow for another regional hegemon, which would be fine if in the cause of self-determination, but is more likely to mean simply a different big dog in the area.

Beyond that is more Great Game speculation, but the main point is that those things have to be thought through as well, and there's absolutely zero reason to believe that the current gang has done so.

2 comments:

john lenin said...

But if you really want to reduce the amount of oil that you consume, you got to reduce the amount of gasoline you use. In other words, if you say, we want to reduce our dependence on oil, what you really got to do is change gasoline usage in the United States.

they're worried about high corn prices affecting their making a livelihood. In other words, the demand for corn, because of agricultural use, and now energy use, is causing corn prices to go up.

GAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH

I can't take hearing this moron make the most banal statements and repeat it after saying "In other words...," as if it were so difficult the first time we need him to explain it again!

I know you put a lot of effort into this post, but my head hurts now. I'll have to come back later and finish it while making sure to not read that part again.

Heywood J. said...

I can't take hearing this moron make the most banal statements and repeat it after saying "In other words...," as if it were so difficult the first time we need him to explain it again!

Yeah, that. It's so infuriating, and he shows no signs of letting up on it. I mean, we get that he does it because that's how it was explained to him, but you'd think they'd try to polish up the flash-card sessions a bit, maybe coach him on delivery as well as "factual information".