Men will behave reasonably when all other options have been exhausted.
Nowhere does this appear to be more true than in interest-group politics. Agricultural interests, trying to prop up their commodity prices, may finally create the condition of crop scarcity that they've always sought to secure their profits. Per the NYTimes, they may also have created a scarcity of the materials for ethanol plants. Ethanol production may actually turn Iowa into a net importer of corn! Profits are soaring, for the moment.
It's doubtful that many of these farmers are thinking beyond the next year. Suppose they succeed? Suppose that crop prices do rise steeply, and make every year a profitable year no matter what size the harvest? Would that be nirvana?
More likely, the consequences would lead to all the high-flyers being dragged right back to earth.
As others have noted, one can take a given amount of corn and either feed one person for a year or make one tank of E85 for an SUV. As fuel ethanol production cuts grain inventories and raises crop prices, food prices (particularly meat) will start to increase with them.
This is almost certainly not politically acceptable. The last time it happened, crop prices were supported by a system of production set-asides (derided as "paying farmers not to grow things"; without the set-asides, production overwhelmed demand and farmers went broke). This worked relatively well, until one lean year cut production enough to contract grain supplies to the point that supermarket prices surged. Consumer outcry led to the end of the set-aside program, farmers planted every acre they had, and the search for ways to solve the problem of surpluses was on once more.
Ethanol for cars was one of those solutions. But now it's come full circle, and the body politic is about to see it as a problem in its own right. Given a choice between fueling a 3-ton monster and food, a firm majority is bound to choose food. The ethanol plants will see their feedstock reserved for an energy chain which ends at tables instead of pumps; a great many may be either cancelled or stand idle unless something inedible can be found to go into their maws.
It's about time this happened. Ethanol from grain cannot displace petroleum to any great extent; its return on energy invested (EROEI) is perhaps 1.3 by the USDA's numbers, and a pathetic 1.09 by Robert Rapier's correction of their math. Maybe it can be improved, but nothing will make it good enough to really make a difference. Getting up to 2:1 would still require half the gross production recycled as feedstock; even if we could make do with 100 billion gallons of ethanol motor fuel, there's no way we'd be able to produce the 200 billion gallons to make the system self-sustaining.
It's time to call grain ethanol what it is. Failure. Distraction. Maybe now, the public will believe it. Let it die.
That will take one non-option off the table. The birth defects of cellulosic ethanol may or may not kill it also; let it sink or swim on its own. Hydrogen still has scarce infrastructure and no reasonable way of producing it from any fuel not already spoken for. Can the Freedom Car program be long for this world either?
This is starting to look like the blonde joke which ends "... the others don't exist."
The non-options have just been joined by a real one, and from a rather surprising source. Perhaps the most reactionary auto manufacturer in the industrialized nations has just announced a plug-in series hybrid. If it gets to production, the Chevy Volt will be the first-ever no-compromises petroleum-optional car. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive would require some tweaking to do the same job; Honda's Integrated Motor Assist probably could not do it at all. GM really deserves kudos for this one.
Those kudos are earned whether the Volt gets to showrooms or not. It represents an endorsement of the concept, a move that will put the idea into the public consciousness. No more is freedom from imported oil joined at the hip with agricultural subsidies or held hostage to some future non-fossil source of hydrogen. With the Volt, GM has promised a return to cheap, carefree motoring at 75¢/gallon equivalent, and to let anyone with a windmill or solar panel produce their own motive power. No matter who actually makes good on this promise first, it's now been made.
Reason is about to win this one. Time to move on.
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