If you listened to, or read, President Bush’s speech last night, you might be thinking that a 20% reduction in gasoline use over the next decade sounds pretty good. That is, until you go to the White House website to read the details of the plan, in which they use a word the President conveniently omitted last night: projected.
According to the White House, “In 2017, this [biofuels initiative] will displace 15 percent of projected annual gasoline use.” A Washington Post op-ed does a good job this morning of demonstrating why the President’s commitment may not even cover the expected increase in gasoline consumption over the next ten or even twenty years. Working off of the ultimate target of 60 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2030, Robert Samuelson says: In 2006, Americans used about 7.5 billion barrels of oil. By 2030, that could increase about 30 percent to 9.8 billion barrels, projects the Energy Information Administration. Much of that rise would reflect higher gasoline demand. In 2030, there will be more people (an estimated 365 million vs. 300 million in 2006) and more vehicles (316 million vs. 225 million). At most, biofuels would address part of the increase in oil demand; it wouldn’t reduce our oil use or import dependence from current levels.Suppose we reach the administration’s ultimate target of 60 billion gallons in 2030. That would offset less than half of the projected increase in annual oil use. Here’s why. First, it’s necessary to convert the 60 billion gallons into barrels. Because there are 42 gallons in a barrel, that means dividing by 42. Further: Ethanol has only about two-thirds of the energy value of an equal volume of gasoline. When you do all the arithmetic, 60 billion gallons of ethanol displace just under 1 billion barrels of gasoline.
Samuelson doesn’t address another potential devil in these details – the alternatives fuels definition put out by the White House includes coal to liquids technology (cue minor chords, Death Star theme…).
But what if it is all biofuels? Here’s a frightening take on how much land will be necessary for all the corn ethanol Bush is talking about: “Assuming 328 gallons per acre of corn: 15 billion gallons= 45.7 million acres or 57% of the 2006 corn planted acreage! By comparison, today we are producing ~10 kbpd of corn ethanol (i.e. 0.153 billion gallons per year= 0.47 million acres ~ 0.6% of the 2006 corn planted acreage).” Yikes.
For a great report on potential competition between food and fuel, download this pdf.
And of course, he still wants to drill in ANWR.
Same as it ever was.
Here’s an additional detail I don’t think gets enough attention. Corn ethanol is economical now only because of government corn subsidies. Switchgrass, among other crops, is much more efficient and more sustainable, but gets very little federal attention, since the infrastructure and advocacy for massive, subsidized corn production is already in place. If we want to take ethanol seriously as an alternative fuel, we need to move beyond corn and invest in crops and infrastructure that make thermodynamic sense.
Let’s not forget that oil companies are not the only special interest at work here.
(For an interesting, if alarmist, discussion of energy in American farming, check out “The Oil We Eat,” by Richard Manning, Harpers Feb. 2003. http://www.harpers.org/TheOilWeEat.html )
And by 2003 I mean 2004.
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