The ironies behind ethanol's unintended consequences for wildlife
Corn is a poor feedstock choice for making ethanol. Have you ever seen the book Alcohol Can Be A Gas, by David Blume? He includes a long list of crops that would be better suited for ethanol production, some of which can be grown in arid regions. In his talks, he even discusses the possibility of raising ocean kelp for ethanol, with the still by-product being a high-quality fertilizer. Actually, what comes out of the still is a useful byproduct, no matter the feedstock. On a per acre basis, cattails can produce more ethanol than corn, and would be a great option for growing in sewage treatment ponds. They would clean the water, remove excess nitrogen, and produce ethanol. In my observation, having looked into this issue for decades, our unwillingness to think outside the box on ethanol production is rooted in money and in the fact that we already have the equipment to easily harvest corn mechanically. I highly recommend Alcohol Can Be a Gas for anyone wanting a broader, permaculture-based perspective on ethanol production.
Excellent overview of the "art" of unintended consequences. Our policy specialists, experts, and leaders (these terms make me gag) excel at this. None of them can think past the immediacy of their own brilliance and satiating their lobbyists, ever generous with rewards. The U.S. has become the richest third-world nation on the planet, and soon, the claim to richest will be challenged.
I have developed an almost intractable belief that none (NONE) of the people behind all the “impassioned voices” from various political camps care one BIT about any of the environmental issues they shriek about.
At best, they are Charlaticians™. At worst, they are rapacious sociopaths, willing to say or do anything for their own personal benefit.
Many other political realms suffer from similar malignancies, but I think the area of environmentalism is likely the worst of the worst. The long term consequences are probably greatest, the money potential for grift is staggering, and people’s innate passion for nature blinds them to hard truths. This Substack is one of the few sources left that are worthy of respect. Long (and loud) may you continue.
Wow, this is a beautiful piece. You don't get pulled into the myriad ethanol/net energy use/farm policy/rhetoric vs reality discussions within the ethanol umbrella which is very difficult to do. It is a subject rich with tradeoffs, mostly bad. That said, the oxygenate argument seems at best disingenuous given it was generally recognized that colder climates needed ethanol for more complete combustion and so the 10% rule applied only during winter months in most of the country. That fell by the wayside as captured Republicans pandered to their farm constituents during the 2010s. Of course, the vast majority of farm policy is aimed at commercial operations. In ethanol production that is particularly so as it takes scale to make the huge subsidies pay off nicely. That said, for marginal family farms across the country, any subsidy which helps keep debt reasonable and daily costs manageable keeps an otherwise vulnerable operation (most farms) viable.
All of that is to say that conservatives who seek a cowboy-boots-and-Stetson look to help them at the ballot box lie far more boldly than Dems in their pandering to a selected audience of gullible rah! rah! farm types. They protest vigorously at wind turbines, not so much at destroying land to make their agribusiness lobby lotso money. I'll take the liberals' pretend allegiance to ethanol since it is lukewarm at best. What make conservative adulation of net energy negative corn ethanol so damning is the knee jerk appeal to populism undergirding a practice which definitely harms the land and waterways, yields much less energy than what goes in, and worst of all, is just so much self righteous intentional cognitive dissonance in the same manner as the cheer leaders of wind and solar. They all mostly suck.
The idea of cellulosic feedstock is where the Palo Alto progressive folks falls into their usual ideological hole as they just can't avoid a narrative that they like even if it is facially idiotic. Many millions of dollars and countless hours of Silicon Valley pontification have been spent with Tedx self congratulatory talks explaining how kudzu or whatever will fuel future manufacturing with magically broken down cellulose. It hasn't worked yet and nothing on the horizon says it will, but coastal intellectuals like to hear themselves talk so...
Unless something has changed in 20 years, the only good cellulosic feedstock on Earth comes from sugar cane which limits its reach pretty significantly. Not coincidentally, the only viable ethanol comes from the same cane. Brazil under communism amazingly enough during the '70's developed hybrid sugar cane with the highest energy content extant. It has been producing ethanol efficiently for its transportation sector, and Europe's, for decades. The cast-off from the cane plant is used in the energy intensive ethanol distillation process which is also a win. Though it's a water intensive process, the net positive seems like a good tradeoff. Lots of single use farming year after year though, and it's only viable in select latitudes of the planet.
It remains true that currently the biggest danger to wildlife habitat is renewables; wind, solar and biofuels.
The energy density is so low the only way to utilize them is to take over large swaths of land to harvest them.